Self-Help: Sleep Problems


Lack of restful sleep compounds most problems. People become more irritable, less able to do their jobs, more depressed, and sicker when sleep deprivation goes on long enough. In fact there is some thought that lack of sleep even makes fibromyalgia and arthritis worse because the body produces needed new cells best during sleep. If a person is not getting sleep these repairs can not happen. Anxiety may increase to the point that a person has panic attacks and even physical symptoms that make people think they are having a heart attack. Also see De-Stressing Daily Life.

Here are some things which may be helpful. If they do not work for you, talk with a counselor and or medical specialist such as your doctor, naturopath, or nurse practitioner.

Try to establish a regular sleep and awake schedule

  • Stop studying or working by a certain time each night.
  • Go to bed at a specified time.
  • Set an alarm clock and get up when it goes off. Follow the same schedule or one that is similar on the weekends. The body needs sleep to replenish biochemical resources and to renew itself. It is most efficient in doing this if the sleep happens during a natural and consistent pattern. Even if you are still sleepy, get up, expose yourself to some light for 20-30 minutes before going back to bed to sleep.

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If you are unable to sleep when you go to bed, allow yourself just to relax

  • Take a bath, read, write a letter, journal. This is not wasted time. Newer research suggests that watching TV or working on the computer the last hour before going to bed activates a part of the brain that interferes with sleep.  So turn off the technology and go back in time to when books had hard covers and you could find quiet music slower than your heart beat on the radio.  While relaxation is not as good as sleep time, it is better than continuing to work or to worry about not sleeping.
  • Practice breathing slowly and deeply so that your breath fills your lungs and makes your stomach rise and fall. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Do it loudly enough that you can hear the sound. Imagine it is like the ocean waves coming in and going out to sea. Also see Anxiety Thoughts.
  • Then begin to picture a time when you felt relaxed and peaceful. For some people this is a beach scene, or a mountain trip or a special time with their family. Remember it in as much detail as possible: who was there, what you were wearing, what were the sounds and smells. Perhaps you will relax and feel more rested or perhaps you will drift off to sleep. 

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Exercise each day

  • Gentle exercise like walking may be appropriate. Usually it is best to do this exercise at least several hours before bedtime. Exercise is very beneficial in stimulating neurotransmitters that help overcome depression and sleep disturbances.
  • In addition, there appears to be a lot of benefit to the brain to engage in exercise that causes you to alternate from one foot to the other—like running, walking, or dribbling a ball.
  • No amount of exercise is too little. If you are very out of shape, just walk around your house or your block. Slowly increase your distance.
  • Eventually, you want to get up to an aerobic level—one where your heart rate is higher and you are breathing harder. For depression and anxiety, every minute past the first 20 helps stimulate neurotransmitters that are influencing your moods.
  • Raising the internal body temperature by two degrees about two hours before you want to sleep helps the brain prepare for sleep. As you cool off, you begin to feel sleepier. While hot baths are not supposed to be able to increase core temperature, it may be that a long hot bath, with a cup of hot herbal tea, followed by standing by a fan, may help with sleep.
  • Furthermore, our best sleep happens when our body temperature is at its lowest point. As our body begins to warm, we move towards awakening.  This is yet another reason to have a regular sleep pattern. 

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Look at your diet

Judith Wurtman, an MIT researcher, suggests that certain foods help people sleep well by stimulating serotonin, a brain chemical related to sleep (and depression). She suggests low fat, no protein, carbohydrates (which leaves out milk, chocolate, candy bars). Here are some "sleep inducing bedtime snacks" which she suggests:

  • A blueberry toastee
  • 1 1/2 cups breakfast cereal
  • caramel coated popcorn
  • 3 fig bars or 6 ginger snaps
  • a cinnamon raisin English muffin
  • sweetened instant oatmeal, or,
  • a toaster waffle with 1 T. maple syrup.  

If you are a fan of hot milk at night, use non or low fat milk.  The ingredient in milk that may help with sleep can not cross the brain barrier if there is too much fat in the milk.

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Fear of going to sleep

  • If you are afraid of going to sleep, it may help to sleep in the same room as someone you trust. Take your sleeping bag or a mattress to their room or better still, ask them to come to your room.
  • Sometimes having a pet in the same room where you can hear it breathing as it sleeps helps.
  • Sometimes even a clock ticking helps.
  • Make arrangements with a friend that you can call anytime of the night if you become frightened.
  • Use the crisis lines in your town. There are trained people on these lines who will talk to you.
  • See a counselor.

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Bad dreams

If you are having bad dreams there are several things that you can do.

  • Develop some images of something you like a lot, a place you have been, a favorite food, a time filled with love and caring. Make this image as strong in your mind as you can. You may want to write it down, to read it aloud or to others, to put it on a tape recorder. Think and read about it several times during the day so that it gets stronger in your mind. Think about it before you go to sleep and instruct yourself that you are going to dream about pleasant things this night. If you awaken from a bad dream, substitute this positive image for your thoughts. The next day, talk about the bad dream with someone (like a counselor) and than talk about the positive substitute image.
  • If there is a person in the dream who frightens you, you can tell the person, while you are dreaming, to leave your dream and that you have the right to control your dream. Or you can engage the person in a conversation in the dream. You set the boundaries on the conversation, saying to the dream person something like this: "I want to talk to you. I want to know what you want. Then I want you to leave me alone. I will listen to you only if you are nonabusive and stay on the far side of my dream. I will wake up if you break these rules." Or you may want to say, "I need some answers from you." Or "I am really angry and hurt that you left me and I am going to speak my anger to you." If you decide to work with your dreams this way, practice what you want to say and how you are going to handle the dream person before you go to sleep. A counselor can help you perfect this technique if it is not working for you or if the dream image is too threatening.
  • You can also instruct yourself, before you go to sleep, to wake up immediately if your dreams are getting frightening. You can then either direct your thoughts to safe, positive images or you can use another type of imagery. You can imagine, as you lay partly awake, taking what is frightening you and drawing a boundary, a wall, an impermeable seal around it, putting it in a helium balloon, and letting it go so that it floats up and away from you.
  • Dreams often have multiple levels of meaning. What may seem like a scary image on the surface, may also hold reassuring, positive, growth inducing meanings if you explore them. For instance, some people believe the Tarot cards represent archetypal images found in dreams across many cultures and centuries of human life. One major card in the tarot is death. Its depiction is awesome and frightening however its interpretation is of the cycle of life, of change, rebirth, renewal, upheaval, revolution, transformation. Like the seasons, it represents birth to death to rebirth. Thus this frightening looking card has a profound non-frightening meaning.

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Alcohol and drugs

Alcohol and drugs interfere with the natural sleep patterns. While initially, they may help you go to sleep, they can interfere with the brain's sleep work. Sleeping pills similarly may help for a couple of days, but their action on the sleep centers of the brain begins to work in a paradoxical way that actually inhibits good sleep. (Talk to your doctor. Some suggest that benedryl appears to be the best mild over-the-counter sleep agent for short term usage.)  

If you are in recovery from an addiction, you may have disturbed sleep for upwards to six months. Read and journal, exercise daily and stay clean and sober.  It will be worth it.

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