Written by Shala Hainer Tuesday, May 08 2012
Your mind and body are exhausted after a long day of work, kids, cleaning and trying to stay organized. You collapse gratefully into bed, only to lay awake with no sleep in sight. On the nights you fall asleep quickly, you wake up a few hours later with thoughts bouncing around in your head, making you struggle for just a few more minutes of sleep until the alarm goes off.
Sound familiar? It should. Every night, up to 20 percent of people in the United States suffer from insomnia, often caused by stress or a lack of a structured schedule. Lack of sleep often leads to increased stress and low productivity, creating a vicious cycle that's hard to break.
“When we are up and about we are so busy that we are not really conscious of all the thoughts that we are thinking,” said Nancy Nicolazzo of Mindful Coaching, who offers workshops and coaching to improve people's lives and balance at home and work. She explained, “At the end of a busy day, when we are in bed, all the hustle and bustle stops and we can tune in to what we are thinking and we realize how active our minds are. We may be thinking of what went on during the day, conversations we had, what we have on our list of things to do for tomorrow. We become aware of how busy our minds are as our physical activity stops.”
|Dr. Colleen E. Carney,
Trying to relax in your room might be part of the problem, according to Dr. Colleen E. Carney, assistant professor with Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, and author of several books and publications on sleep and mood disorders. “Are you exhausted at the end of the day and have trouble even keeping your eyes open, but as soon as you lay your head on the pillow, it is as if a switch goes off and you are wide awake?” she asked. “This is a fairly typical scenario for someone who has developed something called conditioned arousal. Conditioned arousal occurs when your bed is paired repeatedly with wakefulness.”
Carney suggests keeping your bed and bedroom reserved for sleeping. She explained, “Conditioned arousal occurs if you do wakeful things in bed such as being on the computer, watching television and eating. It also occurs if your response to being awake for long periods of time (because you can’t fall asleep or stay asleep) is to remain in the bed, rather than getting out of bed and leaving the room.”
There are some simple steps that can help you fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up rested and ready to attack a new day.
- Know your body's timing. Are you a morning person or a night owl? Sleep when your body's internal clock tells you to sleep. If you feel more alert in the morning, make going to bed early a priority so you can wake up early and rested. If you're more energetic at night, arrange your schedule as best you can to stay up late and use flex time if possible to go into work later.
- Stick to a schedule. Most people know children function better on a schedule, but they don't realize how important schedules are for adults. Create a routine that helps your body know it's time for sleep, and use the same routine every night. If you travel often with your job, create a simple routine that can travel with you. Your nighttime routine may include taking a hot bath or drinking a glass of warm milk. If it involves reading a book, make sure it's a relaxing book, not a murder mystery or high-action novel. Save that book to read only before bed, not at other times during the day.
- Keep a notepad by the bed. When you lay down to sleep, your brain often starts running through your task list for the following day. Instead of letting your mind flip the ideas over and over, write down the ideas as they pop into your head. Then, you can relax knowing you're not going to forget anything for the next day. Every time you wake up and think of a task, write it down to help you go back to sleep peacefully knowing you have a list of things ready to tackle tomorrow. Try not to sit up to write if possible; stay laying down, and keep the notepad within arm's reach.
- Breathe deeply to help your body and mind relax after you lay down. “My best advice to quiet the mind to help get to sleep quickly and stay asleep is to focus on the breath, breathing in and breathing out,” recommended Nicolazzo. “As thoughts come into awareness, tell yourself you can deal with them tomorrow. Keep bringing your awareness back to the breath and let it sooth you to deep restful sleep.” Although counting sheep seems cliché, such mental exercises can help you fall asleep by focusing your mind away from your busy day. Try naming as many vegetables or fruits as you can, or as many objects as you can think of that start with the same letter.
- Remove yourself from the bedroom if you are having trouble falling asleep. “If you are awake or cannot shut off your thoughts for more than 15 minutes, get out of bed and leave the room,” said Carney. “Do not return until this type of thinking has stopped and/or until you are sleepy again.” This helps train your body and your mind that the bedroom is for sleeping, not for running through your task list or planning your next project.
- Cut out caffeine and alcohol. Coffee may help you wake up in the morning, but don't drink caffeine later in the day. Remember that tea and chocolate often have a small amount of caffeine, as does decaffeinated coffee, so keep those to a minimum in the evening as well. Alcohol may help you feel sleepy initially, but it can interfere with your normal sleep pattern and make your sleep restless, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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Based near Atlanta, Shala Hainer has been writing and copyediting since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the Marietta Daily Journal and the Atlanta Business Chronicle, she most recently wrote and edited articles for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a bachelor’s in communications from Jacksonville State University.