Today is World Sleep Day and I want to talk about why your beliefs about sleep could be keeping you awake.
Here are some common beliefs that pop up when you’re trying to get some shut eye:
“I need to have exactly the same amount of sleep each night, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day and if I don’t, I’ll be unhealthy.”
“If I wake up in the night my sleep is ruined.”
“Getting ‘a good night’s sleep is easy for everyone else, what’s wrong with me?”
“No sleep at all is better than a few hours so I’m just going to stay up all night and drink coffee.
The facts –
While it’s true that sleep has many benefits and is not only a health inducing behaviour but is also an indicator of health. Many people suffer from chronic stress, burnout and health conditions that prevent the ability to sleep in a way that is deemed ‘normal’.
You don’t have to be diagnosed with a mental illness to experience disruptive sleep patterns or insomnia. In the modern world, sleep problems are common and are correlated with our physiological, psychological and social stress.
We know that our stress response relayed through our nervous system interacts with our hormones and prevents the release of melatonin, which is one of the chemicals responsible for sleep. See my blog on the fight, flight, freeze response for more information on the physiological mechanisms of stress.
But what about those pesky thoughts? “Why can’t I switch off my brain and finally get some sleep?”
When you’re not busy, i.e., when you’re lying in bed at night, there are parts of your brain that activate known as the posterior cingulate cortex and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex.
These areas of the brain are a default negativity bias that keeps us alive and away from danger. The thoughts that emerge are the familiar sound of:
“what’s wrong with me?”, “why can’t I get to sleep?”, “I am going to feel terrible in the morning”.
And next thing you know you’re down a rabbit hole of rumination.
Have you noticed how hard it is to think yourself to sleep? In fact, it often just leaves you feeling more frustrated and feeling awake. The more you try to sleep the harder it becomes, known as The Law of Reversed Effort.
So instead of wrestling with sleep, try this instead –
1. Start to let go of how your sleep should be and just let your sleep be what your body needs right now. For example, a few hours of sleep is much better than no sleep at all. In fact, 20-minutes is considered a healthy power nap and 90-minutes is considered one full cycle of sleep. If you’ve had 20 or 90-minutes, congratulations, you’ve slept. It may look different to what you deem as normal, but it’s something…. and that’s okay!
2. Know that sleeping in the modern-day world can be difficult and most people struggle with it in their lifetime.
3. Learn to accept that ruminating thoughts are normal brain functioning and try a thought labelling exercise, see my post on The Observer vs the Thinking Mind.
4. Try out my guided mindfulness practice video below – available without music.
5. Know that your sleep isn’t ruined if you wake during the night, bring your focus back to the idea of simply resting your body and curiously explore or welcome any discomfort.
6. Play with the sense of knowing that in very extreme cases, the subconscious will eventually put you into sleep mode by overriding all resistance.
One final note –
You can fully recover from the effects of sleep deprivation, even in most extreme cases. Your body is increadibly resilsient. Sleepless nights, although unpleasant, are normal from time to time and if your current methods aren’t working, try something new.
Please speak with your GP or healthcare provider for more information or if you are concerned about lack of sleep.
Dalrymple, K.L., Fiorentino, L., Politi, M.C., & Posner, D., (2010). Incorporating Principles from Aceptance and Commitment Therapy for Insomnia: A Case Example. J Contemp Psychother, 40: 209-217.
Hayes, S.C., Strosahl, K.D., & Wilson, K.G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment t: An experiential approach to behaviour change. New York: Guilford Press.
Lundh, L.G., (2005). The Role of Acceptance and Mindfulness in the Treatment of Insomnia. J of Cog Psychother, 19: 29-39.