How to Get Better Sleep

Question - Getting Better Sleep:

Dear Candi,
I am, and always have been, a shy person. It's something that I can deal with in most day-to-day situations but I have recently been invited to a family wedding in 2 months, which I cannot get out of. The idea of having to interact with many relatives for 3 days is not such an inviting proposition to me, but that there will be an equal number of strangers there is something I am actively dreading. I am already starting to sort out ways of dealing with the interactions, but I would like some ways to help me relax at night so I can get a better sleep.
With thanks,
Sam.


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Answer:

Hi Sam. Thanks for writing to me with your question.

First off, I would just like to say that I can relate to the feelings of anxiety you describe. The idea of interacting with large groups of relatives can be daunting - and when the group is likely to be a mix of both relatives and strangers, it can be even more so.

Combining stressors with sleep problems can result in anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion.

I'm glad to hear that you're working on a plan for dealing with the interactions - being prepared can help to lessen your stress.

One of the ways you can get better sleep is to decrease your overall anxiety level. It's amazing what an impact our worries can have on getting a better sleep. Once the mind gets going, it can seem nearly impossible to fall asleep.

There are two ways to reduce your anxiety. One is to manage anxiety in the moment. This can be accomplished by doing the following:
- Making yourself as comfortable as possible, both physically and emotionally, while the anxiety passes.
- Use calming self-talk.
- Acknowledge and accept the anxiety, rather than trying to fight it.
- Distract yourself.
- And finally, use relaxation techniques.

See the Overcoming Anxiety page for more details.

The second way to decrease your overall anxiety level is to defeat the anxiety that is keeping your brain in a high-alert mode. A highly effective method for starting this process is to write down the thoughts you are having. Distorted, negative thoughts always accompany anxiety, and if you can defeat these thoughts, the anxiety goes away.

Check out any of the books by David Burns for more information on this. When anxiety goes down, it will be easier to fall asleep and get better sleep because your mind will be quieter. You're already working on this by sorting out ways of dealing with the upcoming family gathering. This will help reduce your anxiety during the interactions, and overall.

Decreasing your anxiety is only one aspect of getting better sleep. It is also important to use some methods that directly impact your ability to fall asleep. Let's talk about how to do this. Here is a recipe for getting better sleep. This is just an example - you can adjust the times and activities to suit your preferences, of course.

1) Use quick relaxation techniques throughout the day. Every day, do a 5 minute relaxation technique when you wake up (for example, yawn and stretch). Do another brief relaxation exercise mid-day (after work, at lunch time, or late afternoon, perhaps) such as deep breathing. You can use relaxation at other times, as needed, to help you relax.

2) Schedule one longer relaxation session each day. Every day, do a 10 minute (or longer) relaxation exercise. Before bed is probably the most effective for helping get better sleep. You may want to do yoga, progressive relaxation, guided imagery, or a relaxation script that is specifically for helping you sleep.

3) Eat regular meals. Try to eat a small amount a few hours before you plan on going to sleep. This will ensure that you do not go to bed hungry, but are also not in the middle of digesting a large meal when you are trying to sleep. Foods containing carbohydrates can help you feel more sleepy. Avoid eating sugar, protein, or caffeine right before bed as these have the opposite effect.

4) Exercise every day. It does not have to be intense physical activity - it may just be going for a quick walk, doing some housework or yardwork, or stretching. Even if you just exercise for 5 minutes, it will help your body to use up anxious energy. You can exercise for longer sessions if you prefer, and will probably find optimal benefit from 15 or more minutes of some sort of aerobic activity like walking. Exercise is a very effective way to get relief if you are feeling anxious.

5) Try to adjust the lighting of your environment so you are exposed to sunlight or other full spectrum light during waking hours, and darkness when you are trying to sleep. You might need to get creative if your environment or schedule do not easily accommodate this (for instance, using full spectrum lamps during the day and eye shades at night).

6) Find a calming routine that you can engage in for the last hour before bed. You may find that a calming activity followed by a regular self-care routine helps to prepare for sleep. Some people like to read, have a warm bath, write in a journal, or complete some other sort of restful activity and then do their bedtime self-care routines (like brushing teeth, changing into pyjamas, etc) in the last hour or so before bed.

7) Identify what interferes with getting a better sleep, and make small changes to improve this area. For example, if you do not feel tired at night, you might try getting up earlier in the morning or exercising in the afternoon to see if it helps. If your mind races and keeps you awake, you might journal before bed and then listen to music to clear your mind for sleep. Find activities that you find calming, and try to incorporate them into your day - hobbies, exercise, socialization, creativity, work.... there are a variety of activities you can try.

A quick summary of the steps for improving sleep:


- schedule quick relaxation techniques 2 or more times daily
- use simple relaxation methods such as stretching or deep breathing as needed when you are feeling stressed or anxious
- do a longer relaxation exercise right before you go to sleep
- eat regular meals with proteins earlier in the day and carbohydrates later in the day
- exercise every day (especially when you are feeling anxious)
- adjust your exposure to light and darkness
- find a sleep routine you complete every day in the last hour before going to bed
- make small changes that can help eliminate or improve the things that get in the way of getting a good sleep

Troubleshooting

Sometimes you can go through all the right steps and still have trouble falling asleep or getting good quality sleep. If you are having a great deal of trouble sleeping, it is natural to worry about trying to get to sleep and being tired the next morning. It is also natural to feel frustrated. Dealing with this challenge effectively and getting better sleep can be accomplished with a combination of distraction, mild physical or mental activity, and relaxation.

As you know, relaxation can help you to calm your mind and relax your body to achieve better sleep. If you listen to one relaxation script and are still awake, you can rest quietly for a set amount of time (10 minutes is a good start) to see if you drift off. If you are still awake at that point you can choose to:


1) Continue using relaxation. You may want to do a different kind of relaxation, perhaps a more physical technique such as progressive muscle relaxation or stretching if you are feeling quite anxious, or occupy the mind with music, guided imagery, or meditation to help you fall asleep.
2) Get up and move around, read, or listen to music for a few minutes and then go back to bed.

By doing relaxation and calm activities alternately until you sleep, you can avoid making the insomnia even worse by lying awake for hours feeling more and more anxious. Another benefit is that by doing relaxation exercises, you will feel more rested and refreshed even if you do not sleep.

I'm confident that by using relaxation and these other natural sleep aids, you will be able to relax at night and get better sleep.

Good luck, Sam - I hope you sleep well, and I wish you luck with the upcoming family gathering.

Example of a daily routine that will help with sleep

Note that not all hours have something scheduled (over scheduling causes stress!) and this is based on a 9-5 work day. All of the activities and times are flexible.

7am Wake up. Do Yawn and Stretch relaxation. Get exposure to light.
7:30am Breakfast with protein
9am Arrive at work. Use relaxation techniques as needed when feeling stressed. For example, 30-Second Quick Relaxation
10am Snack
12pm Lunch
12:45pm Stretch
3pm Snack
5pm Done work. Do Deep Breathing relaxation for 5 minutes.
7pm Go for a relaxing walk.
8pm Snack - piece of toast
8:30pm Enjoyable activity (hobby, movie, socialization, etc)
10pm Start sleep routine (bath, reading, journaling, self-care). Decrease light exposure (darken the room if possible).
11pm Go to bed. Complete a long relaxation session and go to sleep.




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