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  • Writer's pictureHilary McMeeking

Why can't I get to sleep?

There are a lot of reasons why we have trouble sleeping, here are a few things that may have crossed your mind:

  • I feel anxious about something I have to do

  • I feel stressed about what has happened

  • I'm too hot

  • I'm too cold

  • What if I never wake up

  • What if can't get to sleep at all

  • What if...the worst happens

  • I'm so tired and fed up

  • If only the noise would stop

Do any of these sound familiar? We all go through times when we find it hard to sleep but when it becomes a regular pattern or worrying about it makes sleeping even worse, you may need a little help.

Now is the time to sleep

When we are worried about sleeping we can try to avoid going to bed. This is understandable but can also make things worse. To get a good night's sleep we need a good bedtime routine. Our body needs to understand that now is the time to sleep and establishing a ritual or routine around sleep can really help. For instance, you could try the following:

  • Chose a bedtime and stick to it. If you don't have to work at night then try to make it to bed before midnight.

  • Before you go to bed, do something relaxing. Take a warm bath or long shower or some slow stretching like yoga.

  • Read an actual book - not your phone.

  • Listen to relaxing music

  • Try a breathing exercise.

  • Or a grounding technique.

  • Or try a meditation for sleep, there are loads here.

  • Use essential oils like Lavender, Chamomile or Vetiver (always check the instructions for use) in a burner. You can use lavender on your pillow or pick up some chamomile tea.

  • Make a warm caffeine free drink, take small sips, don't rush it.

  • Pillow sprays can be picked up in chemists and supermarkets and can be part of a routine. I'm not sure how much they work but the essential part of all these things is that in making a routine for yourself you are setting an intention to sleep.

  • Try Rescue Remedy

  • Audio books or podcasts with a soothing voice can help too.

  • Check your room is the right temperature for sleeping, not too hot, not too cold. about 18 degrees is supposed to be about right.

  • Invest in earplugs.

It's all about looking after yourself

How does all that sound? Doable or a bit of a faff?! Making a routine that has a selection of at least 5 of these things above could really help your sleep over time. Doing it just once isn't enough to change the pattern. Like a lot of things, it can take time and perseverance. however it needs to be enjoyable too. If you hate having a bath before bed then don't include it. If you hate the smell of lavender and it reminds you of someone you dislike then use a different fragrance. There are loads to choose from, as long as you choose one that aids relaxation. Do some research, treat yourself to something you like. It's all about looking after yourself. Imagine what it would be like if someone gentle and lovely put you to bed, ran your bath, put spray on your pillow, made you a hot drink and read you a story, would that feel nice and calming? How about doing it for yourself, you really do deserve it even if the voice in your head says otherwise.

And and then there are those voices or thoughts that pervade when we stop to rest. It could be your inner critic or it could be the anxious part of you that worries, when there is time to do so, and unfortunately, because you keep busy all day to keep anxiety at bay, here it is at bed time, ready and waiting!

Anxiety and Stress

Some people benefit from giving themselves a 'time' to worry. You could try to put 15 minutes aside each day to think about what worries you, but you have to stick to that time slot only! Let the worries in but tell your mind it's only for this time, then you can stop and do something else. Making a conscious effort to do this during the day can form more of a manageable habit. Make sure you do it well before bedtime and then when the thoughts flood in in the evening, tell them you will make space for them the next day instead - but make sure you do what you promise as it works better that way.

Get things out of your head and onto paper.

“One of the most useful things you can do to combat stress and anxiety is to keep a running record of your thoughts on paper. There's simply no better way to learn about your thought processes than to write them down.” Says Psychologist Barbara Markway.

You could try writing a regular journal everyday or just a list of things to remember so that you don't lay awake at night worrying about forgetting! You could also try a gratitude list. Writing down what we are grateful for before sleep can help direct our mind towards more positive thoughts and if we can dwell on those, after we have written them down, then sleep comes much easier. Gratefulness works best as a whole sentence to yourself about why you are grateful, for example my gratitude list might be:

  • I'm grateful for getting some time alone today to rest and not be constantly on demand for my family.

  • I'm grateful for getting time to walk with a good friend and talk about the little things that keep us going in lockdown. It reminded me I'm not alone.

  • I'm grateful for the warm tea in my hand and my favourite mug that keeps it warm as I write...

It may not feel that there are things to be grateful for right now in the middle of a pandemic, but if you can find 3 things each day then you can really make a difference to how you feel. If this feels too much why not try with just one thing that went well from the day before? It can take time to notice that more often or not, at least one thing a day does go ok but it gets missed with the worry, anxiety and stress.

Fight or Flight Mode?

Being anxious or stressed leads our body into 'fight or flight'. Fight or flight is an ancient response to danger, as animals we need to be part of a pack to feel protected and often, at the moment, we are all suffering isolation in one way or another. Adrenaline and other stress hormones keep us on high alert, no wonder we can't sleep! Listening to another human beings soothing voice can trick our brain into feeling we are with someone who can help or protect us. This is why listening to an audiobook, podcast or meditation can really aid our sleep.

If you can start to think about what's going on inside you then you have a chance of changing it. Can you feel your heart racing? Fight or flight is often responsible, it happens without us noticing. If your heart is racing, try to slow your breathing, again breathing techniques like this one or a relaxation app can help you accomplish this. You can read more about the biology of anxiety and stress here.

If you need more help...

Finally, if worry is keeping you awake, talking things over with a friend can be useful. Sometimes the things that are keeping us awake at night are things that need to be said out loud and witnessed by a soothing 'other'. Just getting it off your chest can make a difference. However sometimes the thing you are anxious or stressed about is too sensitive to share with a loved one or someone you know and this is when a counsellor or helpline can be really useful. As human beings we need others to share things with, both the good and the bad. You may feel you need to be strong and independent, so let me mention that letting go of your fears takes huge strength and courage. So often we worry about being judged as 'weak' or 'pathetic' if we open up, when actually the reverse is true. Asking for help, recognising you need help and talking things out are all acts of courage and can help your wellbeing immensely.

I hope some of these ideas have helped you realise that you can try to change things and get more sleep. Perseverance with a bedtime routine or ritual can make a real difference. Habits take a while to form, so be kind to yourself if you miss a night, or if it's not quite working yet. Give it time. In the end it's a bit like being your own parent and looking after yourself before bed rather than berating yourself for what isn't right at the moment.

If you have some great ideas for a bedtime routine then add them in the comments below.

If you need to speak about things that don't feel good right now and can't find anyone to listen get in touch with me here or find a helpline here. I'm here to help.

Make a bedtime routine
Lots of ideas for your bedtime routine

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