For Shelly, it started with a combination of a fast-paced job and the hormonal changes of pregnancy. While those things started her insomnia problem, it was worry that kept it going. In the wee hours of the morning she was solving problems, rehashing conversations, and making plans.
One of her biggest worries was about whether or not she was going to get enough sleep. The cycle was self-perpetuating.
A sleep-deprived nation
According to the Centers for Disease Control, some 60 million people in the U.S. have sleep problems-almost 20% of the population. Thirty-five percent of adults say they wake up, either in the middle of the night or too early in the morning, at least three times per week.
They pay the price, too. Lack of sleep means daytime drowsiness, trouble concentrating, and irritability. Sleep is as important as oxygen to health and well-being. It affects not only your physical stamina, but also your memory, organization, productivity, creativity, and mood.
Circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster estimates that 30-40% of medical problems are “directly or indirectly related to sleep problems.” When you can’t sleep, your work, relationships, and health all suffer.
How to approach a difficult puzzle
A few years back a friend of mine gave me one of those 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles. “It’s for your kids,” she said. “You can do it as a family. It will help you bond.”
Some people love jigsaw puzzles, I know. All I can see, though, is a spread of tiny, multicolored, identical-looking pieces that almost (but don’t quite) fit together. I guess my kids picked up on my lack of puzzle-enthusiasm, because they quickly wandered off to do something fun, like turn on all the hoses or climb onto the roof.
My friend called them back though, and showed us how to start with the corners, the edges, and the brightest patches of color. It should have been obvious: when you’re faced with an impossible problem, start with the parts you can solve. Once I had a method, I started to enjoy the puzzle.
You can approach behavioral puzzles, like when you can’t sleep, in a similar way. Start with the obvious parts, around the edges. Change them, and you’ll likely see progress.
Why we waken
There are many reasons people can’t sleep through the night. These include hormonal changes, physical discomfort, breathing problems, the side effects of medications, and “sleep saboteurs” such as alcohol and marijuana.
One of the biggest reasons for wakefulness, however, is worry. Even while your body is relaxed, your mind can spin stories about problems you need to solve, calls you need to make, things you need to do.
Middle-of-the-night awakening might not be all bad. There’s some evidence that interrupted sleep is normal. Historian Roger Ekirch presents evidence that our Western Europeans ancestors often slept in shifts. They drifted off for a “first sleep” just after dark, awoke around midnight to talk or pray, then fell back asleep until dawn.
This more natural pattern, Ekirch argues, was disrupted by the invention of the light bulb. We learned to stay up later, and as a result had to learn to get all our sleep in a single, longer block.
Keeping this in mind can help solve part of the midnight sleep problem – the worry about waking up. When you can’t sleep, remember that middle-of-the-night awakenings might not be convenient, but are probably part of our history.
Consider that under stress you might be falling into an earlier sleep patten. Understanding this might not get you to work on time, but it can be reassuring. You’re only doing what’s natural. Just knowing that your body is doing the right thing can help you relax a little, and perhaps sleep more easily.
When you can’t sleep: 5 strategies
If you still can’t sleep, there are other simple ways to help your body relax and your mind get calm. Each of the strategies below is a way of making a simple adjustment to your sleep pattern, and leading you gently toward getting enough shut-eye.
- Rest before you sleep. Stop solving problems at least an hour before you want to fall asleep, to give your mind a chance to settle. Spend the time doing something relaxing – talk, read, write, or listen to music.
- Contain your worries. Keep a small notepad and pen by your bedside. When you suddenly remember something you have to do the next day, jot it down so you can let it go.
- Hide the alarm clock. Put a towel over it, or turn it around so it faces the wall. Worrying about what time it is adds to mental chatter, and makes it harder to sleep. Sometimes not knowing brings a greater sense of peace.
- Listen to the rain. Find a soothing recording of rainfall or white noise, and listen whenever you’re in bed and awake. A quiet background noise is often enough to distract you from random thoughts, yet gentle enough to allow you to relax more deeply.
- Relax. In the tradition of our ancestors, when you can’t sleep, do something calming in the middle of the night. Play cards. Drink a cup of herbal tea. Take a bath. Meditate by focusing on a word or phrase that is meaningful to you.
Dream the Impossible
It was the first two months of our work together that made the biggest difference in Shelly’s sleep patterns. During that time, I helped Shelly develop determine how much sleep she really needed, then create bedtime and middle-of-the-night rituals that would help her get that sleep. She learned to address her busy thoughts and stay asleep, or get back to sleep if she did awaken.
When sleep improves, energy and focus improve along with it. “I’m amazed,” Shelly said. “For the first time in forever, I’m not worried about sleep. Mostly I sleep all night, but even when I don’t I just read for awhile and go back to sleep. It’s my new pattern.”
Some sleep problems are complex. For some sleep apnea, serious job stress, or any sleep problem that doesn’t respond to simple changes, you’ll need more help than this article can provide. You might want to seek out medical intervention, neurofeedback, or cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.
Still, when you can’t sleep, it often helps to start with something simple. Even when a problem seems insurmountable, you can sometimes work around the corners and the edges to find a solution.
For most of my clients, simple strategies help. If you use them consistently, like Shelly, odds are that eventually you’ll end up with sweet dreams.