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Sleep tips

People assume sleeping should be so simple. Unfortunately, it can be anything but simple. Ask anyone with a new baby about sleep and they will echo this!

But don’t stop reading.

Becoming a good sleeper is like learning to drive a car. It can be done.

You just need to understand it, to take into account all of the variables, and to get a service regularly so that the ‘moving parts’ are working as best they can.

So what is there to understand first?

Well, for starters, there are multiple overlapping variables that work together to impact your sleep quality.

These include mood, food, health, worry, biology, temperature, meal timings, hormones, other people, thoughts, environment, and all of your habits, routines and past experience.

Although getting all your ‘sleep ducks’ in a row might feel impossible with this many factors, you can also look at it as good news.

Why? Because if you are struggling with sleep, this means that there will be some immediate, practical changes that you can make right away to improve things.

I won’t spend much time going over ‘sleep hygiene’. I am sure you have already done the basics that are known to help, such as avoiding blue light in the evening and getting out into sunlight in the morning.

In addition to the practical changes in lifestyle, did you know that your inner world can work against sleep?

You mind and biology are connected.

Your mind and biology are also affected by your environment, which includes other people and external pressures.

So, let’s assume that you’ve done all the self-help and are still not sleeping. You might be asking “what else can I do?”

Some useful concepts that often get overlooked in traditional for sleep problems, e.g. CBT, are the concepts of:

1. Feeling safe in the world

2. Your fantasy world

Let me start with feeling safe in the world.

1. Safety is literally that simple. The mind and body need to feel safe in order to fully ‘surrender’ to sleep.

This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view.

Imagine being alive 1000’s of years ago. It would have been dangerous to drift off into sleep unless someone was on ‘look out duty.’ Or unless you felt secure knowing that you had something in place to deal with the threat, e.g. a large fire in the cave to scare away predators and animals.

If the feared threat was not dealt with, then our ancestors would have had to remain awake and alert.

How does this relate to life now?

The issue here is that the old and new parts of the brains have evolved out of step.

Modern life creates lots of pseudo-dangers that interfere with the mind’s feeling of safety. These include deadlines, relationship problems, work worries and all kinds of imagined scenarios.

Let me explain.

The ‘old wiring’ in the brain still reacts like an on-off switch to real or imagined danger.

This means that your mind reacts to imagined danger as if it were happening right now.

The new wiring is far more nuanced. These more evolved parts of the human brain give us the ability to speculate, imagine, predict, forecast, consider, and plan.

This is why your mind turns things over and over, trying to cover every possible eventuality. This constant predicting unfortunately just creates a sense of constant anxiety related to all of the ways that things might go wrong (in vivid detail!).

Mark Twain famously wrote:

I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” … and … "I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."

Psychologists call this the negativity bias.

Thinking of all the things that could go wrong kept our ancestors alive. However, in modern life with fewer immediate risks to life this works against what we need for sleep. For sleep we need to feel safe, calm, content and settled.

For most people, they are, (for all intents and purposes), physically safe in their beds.

So why do so many people go to bed unable to switch off from problems?

This is because the mind does not know the difference between real or imagined danger.

If you imagine something bad happening, your nervous system reacts as if it were true.

  • If you imagine having head lice, your body will almost always start feeling an itchy scalp.

  • If you watch a scary film, your mind gets to work on the content, and you feel scared and unsettled.

  • If you hear a bang outside and imagine a burglar about to break in, you will feel a panic.

So, it’s important to differentiate worry from reality. Even if it feels very real.

What can you do about this?

1. Try and develop the attitude that whatever happens in the future, you will be able to handle it.

Humans are extremely resilient and good in a crisis. The ‘idea’ of something going wrong is often much harder for the mind to deal with than the actual event happening. This is because we can’t mobilise coping responses to something that is just looming as a threat.

Once it happens we mobilise our coping responses. Remember, we are wired to survive.

So, develop the attitude that you will be able to handle whatever comes up.

2. Don’t stress alone. A problem shared is a problem halved is a saying because it works. Talking things though with friends or supportive others is also an important step in solving issues that are taking up your bandwidth.

3. Equally, journaling can be a way to ‘brain dump’ your worries onto paper before you go to sleep. When people see things in black and white on paper, worries often feels less intense, more irrational and therefore more manageable.

Also work on procrastination. Try to resolve any issues you may have been putting off. This is important because clutter can start to invade sleep space.

4. Remind yourself you are safe and well when you are in bed. Focus your attention on the simple sensory inputs like being warm and secure.

5. Learning attention-training exercises or meditation can help if your mind keeps going places that are not helpful.

6. Getting a coach or therapist or your doctor involved is also recommended if you still cannot sleep.

Lets move onto the 2nd helpful sleep concept of childlike fantasy.

Harnessing your inner fantasy world

When you are awake, your mind is full of ‘real-life’ issues and concerns.

When you sleep your dreams are fantasy. They often have threads of real life in them, but we they are essentially symbolic and fictional.

When you are winding down to sleep it is important to transition between real-life and dream-life.

This transition phase needs you to mentally unhook from real-life worries, problems and issues.

This is because your mind is constructed of networks of association.

This is very important to know if you are struggling with sleep.

An example of networks of association is, for example, that you might be driving along, and see someone’s garden. As you notice the pleasing choice of plants you suddenly think of the card you need to send your mum. This happens because if your Mum likes flowers and gardening, they will be networked together.

Why is this relevant for sleep?

Real-life events are networked together on common themes.

If you imagine that sleep is a destination that you get to by plane, you need to imagine that sleep has a ‘security check’ point where worries and real world problems are not permitted to enter.

Imagine this process is like going on holiday.

You have to check in your worries and problems to be stowed until the morning and then you stand in line and wait to board.

As you are waiting to board, you might find yourself daydreaming about your destination.

That’s all good.

If a worry or problem come into your head you find yourself back out of the queue and you have to start over.

If you are struggling with sleep, reading books or watching TV shows with themes that trigger thoughts about your own issues will work against sleep.

Daydreaming and fantasising about things that have no connections to your real life problems is the recommendation for sleep.

If you think of how abstract and fantastical dreams are, this is the sort of content you might want to experiment with as you fall asleep, in a gentle, playful, innocent way.

I hope some of this was helpful, but I have just skimmed the surface of some sleep themes that my clients often find interesting.

There are as many sleep strategies as there are likely books on sleep.

Don’t give up.

There is an approach for everyone, and your body was designed to sleep so if you have lost the way, believe that you can find your way back to sleep.

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