Ah Sleep…Zzzzzzzzzzzz

It’s 10:30 PM. You climb into bed, pull the blankets up to your chin, and lay your head on your pillow. Before you know it, your body slips into a heavy, relaxed state. Your mind drifts into a place between consciousness and sleep. Pure bliss. By 11:00, you’re in a deep sleep. Seven to eight hours pass and you wake refreshed, ready to take on the day.

A good night’s rest restores body and mind. But for some of us, 10% of the U.S. population according to the UCLA Sleep Disorder web site, sleep is not that simple. Sleep apnea, insomnia, restless legs, and interrupted REM prevent the body and mind from getting this essential recharge.

Because many sleep problems are medical issues, it’s best to consult with your physician if you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep. After your doctor rules out medical conditions, consider that you might be too keyed up, stressed out, worried, anxious, depressed, or have too much on your mind to drift into sleep.

In those cases, you climb into bed hoping that tonight will be different. You pull the blankets up to your chin and lay your head on your pillow. Then nothing. No heavy relaxed state, no mind drifting. Instead, mind races back and forth from your to-do list to future plans, rehearsing, reliving, remembering, regretting, problem solving, imagining. You replay conversations from the past or rehearse conversations that haven’t happened. Instead of pure bliss, you toss and turn, left side, right side, back; left side, right side, back. You repeat this restlessness until the blankets and sheets are wrapped around you like a twisted tortilla.

Sleep deprivation

Enough nights of tossing and turning leads to sleep deprivation. According to this WebMD article, sleep deprivation can cause grumpiness, heightened reactivity, interruptions to “…attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving,” health problems, lowered sex drive, and accidents. In other words, not getting enough sleep can turn your life into an unpleasant experience.

Depression and sleep deprivation have a back and forth snowball cause and effect on each other. If you are depressed, you probably have trouble sleeping; not getting enough sleep leads to symptoms of depression, a lower quality of life, or just a dullness that makes life less enjoyable. That in turn leads to more trouble sleeping.

How much sleep do you need?

A common question people ask is, “How much sleep do I need?” Studies indicate that the healthiest sleep range is 7-8 hours a night. According to Jerry Siegel, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and Chief of Neurobiology research at VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, whether you sleep 6 hours or 8 hours doesn’t matter as much as the quality of your sleep. [Huffington Post, March 29, 2010]. Keep in mind that all the articles that you read, and the study results the articles are based on, report findings from a bell curve. That is, the conclusions apply to MOST people in the study. You could be an outlier who feels rested after 4 hours of sleep and a nap in the middle of the day. Or you are physically active, or work at a physically demanding job, and you need 9 hours of sleep a night. Like everything else in life, remember to try on the scientific data for yourself. Then ask, “Does this work FOR ME?”

Sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene is one of the first suggestions professionals make to people who have trouble falling asleep. The same WebMD article lists some obvious and not-so-obvious sleep hygiene habits. Keep in mind, that these are suggestions and may or may not work for you. Try one for a week and see what happens.

  • Avoid all activities but sleep and sex in bed. No heavy emotional topics, no television, laptop, video games.
  • Make your bedroom sleep friendly. Reduce light, noise, and other distractions as much as possible. Make sure the temperature is comfortable for you. Temperature can be challenging when more than one person sleep together. One wants it cool; the other wants it warm. You might have to sleep in separate rooms, especially if one of you snores or tosses and turns in bed.
  • Avoid napping during the day.
  • Avoid alcohol, recreational drugs, caffeine, and other stimulants.
  • Avoid drinking and eating anything at least an hour before bed.
  • Have the same bedtime routine each night. This lets your mind and body know it’s time for sleep.

That’s a lot to consider, isn’t it? So try making one change at a time and see what happens.

Waking from sleep

Now that you’ve mastered falling asleep, how do you get back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night?

What you do during the time you’re awake matters. Watching television, reading email, checking FaceBook, watching YouTube videos, surfing the net, reading your favorite book on an e-Reader, and playing Smartphone apps or video games have a few things in common. 1) they’re fun and stimulating, 2) they all have lighted screens, and 3) they fool your brain into thinking it’s daytime and daytime means time to be awake. So avoid all that, as tempting as it seems.

Try meditation. I know, I know. I sound like a broken record sometimes. But it might work for you if your mind jumps around like a monkey when you try to fall asleep. In the mindfulness groups I lead, people fall asleep all the time. Why there and not in bed? Probably multiple reasons, but my guess is, they feel safe, relaxed, calm, and my voice lulls them to sleep.

Although playing apps and games when you want to fall asleep is not recommended, listening to CALM music or even a sleep app might help you drift away. You can find everything from rain and ocean sounds to gentle-sound alarm clocks that wake you from a light sleep rather than jolting you from a deep sleep (Sleep Cycle). Sleep Cycle also analyzes your sleep quality!