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Trouble sleeping? You're not alone, but there are tools you can use to help yourself

Mental Health Occupational Therapist Michelle Murray highlights many of the causes of insomnia and offers some tips to help you avoid those sleepless nights.

Michelle Murray

ARE YOU ANXIOUS because you’re having trouble sleeping or having trouble sleeping because you’re anxious? It’s hard to tell at times.

I first started thinking about writing this article as I lay awake for another restless night during a period of change and stress in my life. 

If you’re someone who struggles with switching off at night or staying asleep then I hope this article will offer you a first a dose of genuine empathy – I feel your pain. I can also offer some food for thought to help you in your search for a restful night’s sleep.

I’m a Mental Health Occupational Therapist and I help people to build and implement healthy routines and develop habits and skills that support their mental health and well-being.

I try to implement most of the tools that I’ve learned and preach in my sessions into practice in my own life. I have found, however, that figuring out good sleep habits has been a real test of my resilience.

The reality is that sleep is a two-way street. Lack of sleep will likely heighten your anxiety and anxiety will likely make it more difficult for you to sleep well. In saying that, not everyone with anxiety will have issues with sleep.

I often tell my clients that the pillars to good mental health include nutrition, exercise and between seven-nine hours of sleep a night. This is often a good place to start if you’re trying to improve your overall mental well-being. Have a look at these pillars and pick one to focus on:

Why is good sleep so important?

Getting adequate sleep can greatly impact your mood. You’ll likely feel happier, less agitated and be more tolerant of the people in your life. Symptoms of anxiety and depression are shown to improve when a person sleeps well.

Your heightened energy levels will mean that you’re more likely to exercise and stick to healthy habits which will boost your overall health and motivation. During sleep your brain forms connections that support good memory and concentration. Your creativity and focus will likely improve also.

You’ll find you’re working better and more efficiently. Generally, with good sleep your blood pressure will decrease, which is important for your heart health. Your immune system works more effectively along with your reproductive and digestive system.

Interestingly, when your body receives less sleep, the hormone leptin (which tells the brain you’ve had enough to eat) is lowered. So, you’re more likely to eat more than usual. On the other hand, the hormone ghrelin (which stimulates appetite) is increased. The longer-term implications of this can lead to over-eating and weight gain.

What can I do to help myself sleep better?

1. Try to find the cause or the reason as to why you’re not sleeping well. Grab some paper and let the investigation begin: Are you anxious at night before bed? Do you struggle to get to sleep? Do you wake up often in the night? What’s your sleep history? Did things change for you and when?

Do you have pre-existing mental health issues, and do they impact on your sleep? What do you typically eat and drink before bed? Do you go to bed worrying about not sleeping? Females – do you have any hormonal issues/irregular menstrual periods?

If you don’t have the answers to these questions, spend the new few weeks observing your sleep patterns and jotting down a few reflective notes.

2. Routine. Try your best to go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every day. If you’re struggling to sleep, sticking to the same routine for each of the seven days in a week should put you in the best possible place to get back on track. Avoid exercise in the three hours before bed as well as large meals and snacks, as these tend to wake your body up.

Practice a night-time routine that slows the mind and the body down. Avoiding screens and TV is recommended. See if you can start to slowly replace these habits by reading a book or listening to a podcast.

Having a warm bath or shower is often recommended at night as the resulting drop in body temperature afterwards will slow down your heart rate and prepare your body for sleep.

Reduce caffeine intake after midday and remember it’s a myth that alcohol helps you sleep! It may prove useful to help you switch off and get some initial zzz but it will eventually wake you up and lead to a disrupted cycle.

Getting sunlight first thing in the morning has proven to reduce melatonin levels in the brain (sleep hormone) and activate cortisol (stress hormone). This helps to wake the brain up for the day and as evening approaches melatonin levels are more likely to rise again and prepare the body for sleep. 

3. Stress and Worrying. Allocate time during your day to “worry” so that you don’t need to worry at night. This may look like a set time each day that you talk your worries aloud or write them down. Acknowledge them.

Figure out if there are solutions to your worries. Start to action your solutions by setting goals to work on. Perhaps a solution is talking to a professional if you find that you can’t find any solutions that are workable.

4. Meditation and Yoga. There is a substantial amount of evidence to suggest that having a regular practice of yoga and/or meditation built into our routine can help to ignite the rest and digest system (Parasympathetic Nervous System).

This in turn will lead to a calmer mind and body and a more peaceful night’s sleep. “Headspace” and “Calm” are two of the more popular paid apps offering mindfulness and meditative practices.

I recently discovered “Insight Timer” which is a free app with a great range of sleep meditations that have been pivotal in aiding my sleep journey. If you’re interested in practising yoga, a slower style such a yin yoga is often recommended before bed (you can even practice in bed). Yoga with Adrienne has some great videos for this.

5. Don’t try too hard to get to sleep. If it’s not happening, try not to let your mind think about the next day and what you “won’t” be able to do. Instead, try reminding yourself that you’ve survived before and that you’re doing the best that you can. You will survive the day. Distract your mind by getting a cup of caffeine-free tea or reading something.

6. Show compassion and kindness to yourself. This is hard. Very hard. Things can and will change for you over time. Allow yourself moments to feel frustrated. Allow yourself moments to cry and moan. Give yourself a hug. Reach out and get support if you need it. You deserve to sleep well and feel rested each day.

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If you’re supporting someone who isn’t sleeping well, I urge you to practice patience with them. Show them that you care and invite them to have some space and time away from you and others if they need it. Try and avoid asking them each morning how they’re sleeping and instead let them know that you’re here if they want to talk more about it. 

To read more about sleeping well check out SleepFoundation.org. Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” is an excellent read and is backed with lots of science and easily digestible facts if you’re still hungry for more information.

Michelle Murray is a Mental Health Occupational Therapist and Trauma Sensitive Yoga Facilitator. If you’re interested in learning more about how Occupational Therapy support might be able to help you with your routine reach out to Michelle Murray at Anchor Therapy www.anchortherapy.ie. Michelle can also be found on Facebook and Instagram as the_wellness_anchor where she posts regular tips and tricks to support your mental health.

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Michelle Murray

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