Why can't I sleep? - Tips to help get your overactive mind to sleep
Random thoughts… that huge to-do list you need to tackle…catastrophising over all the things that could go wrong in your meeting at work tomorrow … and those cringey moments, which turn into ‘what-if I had done this instead’ spirals.
We’ve all experienced a bad night’s sleep because our mind is swimming with thoughts and just won’t switch off. But if you struggle to fall asleep every night - just like 60% of the adults in the UK - then doubt you'll be feeling exhausted, moody and slightly irritable.
But did you know a lack of sleep has a detrimental effect on your mental and physical health too?
Why is sleep so important?
"Sleep is the Swiss army knife of health. When sleep is deficient, there is sickness and disease. And when sleep is abundant, there is vitality and health." - Matthew Walker
While we sleep important processes take place which are important for a number of our bodily functions, including helping us to heal and repair, process emotional events and lower our anxiety/stress levels.
After one restless night we can experience irritability, frustration and reduced focus, which can impact our performance and increase our levels of anxiety. It effects our eating habits because let’s be real here... no one who is exhausted ever craves a salad or a banana! Chances are you’ll find yourself opting for something high fat and sugary.
People who are sleep deprived also have problems with their balance, reflexes and motor skills. This means they are at greater risk of injuring themselves or others. According to a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers who miss just one to two hours of required sleep in a 24-hour period almost double their risk of having a car accident. In fact, the dangers of drowsy driving have even been compared to drunk driving (NSC).
But that's not all! The long term risks include heart disease, diabetes, strokes, obesity, a weakened immune system, lower fertility rates and psychiatric disorders.
And do you want to know the cherry on top of this iced cake?
Women seen to be affected worse.
In Sleepopolis’ 2023 survey, they found that 61% of women reported struggling with falling and staying asleep, compared to 39% of men.
According to Casper-Gallup State of Sleep Report (2022), women are more likely than men to say that sleep is a high priority but yet only 26% of women would report their sleep as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good.’
So we clealy know that sleep is important so then why aren't we sleeping?
Now there are a number of theories that have been put forward as to why women seem to struggle more with sleep and that's probably a whole blog post on it's own. But some of the reasons why people in general aren’t getting enough sleep are due to:
Lifestyle choices - caffeine, alcohol, smoking, foods you’ve consumed, use of devices etc...
Medications – antidepressants, beta-blockers, dirutetics etc can impact sleep… (I am not suggesting for one moment that you stop taking any prescribed medication but seek advice from your GP if you have any concerns that you’re medication is affecting you in any way).
Aging – as you age your sleep cycle and quality of your sleep changes. You spend less time in the deepest stages of sleep, which can lead to more night time awakenings. You are also more prone to being woken up by external factors like sound and light.
Hormonal changes - this can be a catch 22 as some of your body’s hormones can impact your sleep quality but then sleep is also instrumental to hormone production.
Health conditions – insomnia, menopause, digestive issues etcs…
Once again, consult with your GP if you experience insomnia or any changes around your sleep routine.
But one of the biggest factors that affect sleep is STRESS.
Stress is your body’s response to a perceived threat, (whether it's real or not doesn’t matter). When you feel stressed, your brain activates its fight-or-flight response, causing a surge of hormones, which prepare you to fight, flee, or freeze. This response triggers your sympathetic nervous system and causes an array of physical symptoms such as an increased heart rate, shortness of breath and even digestive issues. If your brain thinks that there is a danger (even if you consciously know there isn’t) it’s not going to allow you fall asleep easily!
Now we could spend forever going over all the reasons why you're not be able to fall asleep. However, as a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist, I’m all about the solutions and no doubt if you've got this far (and I haven't sent you to sleep!) you're looking for something to help you drift off.
Tips to help fall asleep
For some people, falling asleep can be the biggest issue. Although there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to sleep, there are things you can do to help quieten your mind to drift off easier...
Aim for a consistent bedtime, even at the weekend.
Make sure you are getting enough sunlight exposure during the day so that your circadian rhythm (the internal clock that sets off changes in your body when it's time to wake up and go to sleep) is working effectively.
Avoid electrical devices at least two hours before your bedtime– the blue light emitted from them tells your body that its not time to sleep yet and messes up your circadian rhythm.
Lower the amount caffeine you consume.
Try doing a relaxing activity before bed - a warm bath, breathing exercises; reading (avoid anything too exciting!), journalling, light stretches or listening to a guided meditation or progressive muscle relaxation audio (the Insight Timer app has great ones for free).
But I can fall asleep easily – I just can’t stay asleep!
So you may be that person who finds that they are so exhausted come the evening because your busy, overactive mind has been constanstly on GO GO GO all day. And when it comes to the evening, you crash out and fall asleep straight away.
FYI - That was exactly me! As a teacher, I would rush around all day from the moment I woke up, until the very moment that I stopped at the end of the day and then I would crash out on the sofa; wake up groggy after a prod from my husband and then I’d waddle off to bed in an almost-drunk-like-sleepy state.
Sounds great to be able to fall asleep so easily right?
WRONG! Much to my frustration I’d find myself awake wayyyy before my alarm was due to go off. Sometimes this would be 2, 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.
Choo Choo...All aboard the midnight overthinking train!
Rather than drifting back off to sleep you find your mind racing and staring into space. Not only does the overthinking cause anxiety (because when you are imagining all those stressful scenarios in your head, your mind thinks that you’re actually living through them and therefore releasing all sorts of stress chemicals), but it’s also frustrating as you watch the time pass, knowing full well that you’re going to wake up feeling ABSOLUTELY EXHAUSTED!
You become stuck in a vicious cycle of stress and anxiety making it hard to get the rest you desperately need.
Did you know that waking up in the middle of the night is actually normal?
We naturally wake up several times in our sleep cycle, which consists of four stages: a transition from awake to sleep; light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep. And we don’t necessarily remember the times when we do wake up - it has little impact IF you are able to fall back to sleep.
However, it’s not OK if you’re not able to fall back asleep, especially if you haven’t been able to get enough sleep.
When we’re feeling stressed, cortisol (a stress hormone) is released. Now our cortisol levels also naturally increases between 2 and 3 am because it has a role in helping our circadian rhythm wake us up by giving us a bit of an ‘oomph’ in the morning.
If you’re already stressed and anxious for whatever reason, then you’ll have a double whammy of cortisol floating around your system, which activates the equivalent of a fire alarm being pulled. It triggers the sympathetic nervous system, signalling to your brain that there is danger and cue the anxiety symptoms... increase in heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. And no sleep for you!
So what do I do if I wake up in the middle of the night?
The tips I mentioned above will still be useful, as it's important to practise good sleep hygiene.But here are some extra tips you can try when you do wake up in the middle of the night:
Think of something boring
Counting backwards, repeating your times tables or if Maths isn't your thing, replay your day – action by action!
So from the very moment you woke up and going back over every movement you made, almost as though a Big Brother camera was watching you. There is no emotion involved here, you’re just watching a narrative of your day. This will help take your mind off those dramatic ‘what if’ scenarios you are picturing or going over what’s gone wrong in the past.
Do a brain dump
Keep a notebook by your bed and write down anything that is worrying you. It doesn't have to make sense, just write down anything that is on your mind - random thoughts, your to-do list - whatever it is! Get it onto paper and out of your mind.
Get out of bed!
You're probably thinking 'Erm, Nicole, your tips are suppose to help me fall asleep... how the heck is getting out of bed going to help?'
Sounds counterproductive but if you’ve been laying in bed for more than 30 minutes then it’s time to get out of bed. You do not want your brain associating your bed as a place that you worry and stay awake (if anything the only two actions that should ideally take place in bed is sleep and sex). We want your bed to create a feeling of calm and relaxation in your body not frustration, anxiety and worry.
So get out of bed and do something relaxing, like reading, listening to a guided relaxation or something extremely tedious and boring. Avoid picking up your phone or turning on the TV as you don’t want exposure to the blue light, which will signal to your brain even more that it’s not time to sleep. Don’t clock watch but just focus on whatever task you decide to do and when you feel yourself getting sleepy return to bed.
One of my clients told me that she actually got up one night and rearranged the food in her cupboards according to their expiry dates. The job was so boring that it didn’t take long for her to start feeling sleepy. The following night, her brain woke her again (our brains are a bit like puppies – they can take a bit of time to train so be patient!) and she got up and started to clean the kitchen floor. She hadn’t even got a quarter of the way through when she felt herself getting sleepy and off she went to bed.
Amazingly, the next night when she woke up, she told herself that if she didn’t fall asleep within 20 minutes she would have to clean the rest of the floor. Funny enough she found herself drifting off to sleep and she never got round to finishing the job…
So go ahead and write yourself a list of boring jobs that you never get round to doing and next time you find yourself staring at the ceiling tell yourself you’ll have to do one of them. This tip is a nice one because if you don’t sleep at least you have the bonus of having an extremely tidy house!
Belly grumbles - it could be your belly not your mind that wakes you.
Another thing to consider… are you waking up because you’ve eaten too much too late - we weren’t designed to digest food while lying down so our digestive system has to work extremely hard.
Or perhaps it could it be because you haven’t eaten enough. If this is the case, then consider having a snack about 30 minutes before bedtime (something like an apple with some nut butter, a non-sugary cereal like oatmeal with some almond milk or even a spoonful of honey).
"Falling asleep is like landing a plane. It takes time. You've got to sort of gradually descend." - Matthew Walker
The most important thing is to not put put too much pressure on yourself to stay asleep or get back to sleep – this will only add to the stress which means you’re unlikely to fall asleep again, cementing that vicious cycle.
When to seek further support
If you’ve tried the tips above and still struggling to sleep then seek further support, this is especially the case if insomnia is taking a heavy toll on your mood and health. Speaking to your GP will help rule out any underlying medical issues.
Hypnotherapy can also be effective in quietening down your busy mind so you can drift off to sleep. Many of my clients notice a HUGE improvement with their sleep after just a few sessions. It’s super relaxing and will also help you to better manage your anxieties so you can go to sleep (and stay asleep!) worry free. You’ll also get a free sleep audio that will send you off to sleep in no time!
If you're interested in how Solution Focused Hypnotherapy can help then get in touch to book a free clarity call.
You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, including a better night's sleep.