You’re tossing and turning. It’s another sleepless night. Predictably… Fear kicks in.
- What if I don’t sleep again?
- What will happen tomorrow?
- What if this keeps happening to me?
Before long we’ve developed a fear of not sleeping which only makes matters worse.
Did you know? Some birds sleep with one eye open.
Why? Because half of their brain is alert whilst the other half is sleeping? This allows the bird to spring into action if there’s a threat.
Are you a bird? Of course not.
Unfortunately, as humans, we can’t sleep with one eye open whilst we scan the world for threats. We must choose between being asleep or staying awake.
Therefore, if we believe there’s some level of threat, humans can find it impossible to drop into a deep sleep.
I’m not just talking about physical threats. I’m also talking about stressful things that are playing on our minds. These can also be a threat.
Therefore, the best way to get a good night’s sleep is to find effective ways to settle your nervous system. So that we no longer feel the need to stay alert just in case.
Feeling safe enough to sleep starts from the minute we wake up and the actions we take throughout the day determine whether we will feel safe enough to sleep at night.
For this reason, I’ve broken down this article into 3 sections.
1 – Morning tips
2 – Daytime tips
3 – Evening tips
So here goes…
Wake up at the same time every single day (no matter what)
I get it… the alarm has gone off and you can’t quite believe it’s that time already because you’ve only just fallen to sleep. However, the biggest mistake we make at this point is hitting the snooze button. Doing so gives us a feeling of having ‘failed’. But more importantly, our body clock starts from the minute we get up. The longer we lay in bed, the later it will be in the evening before your body thinks it’s time to sleep. If the time we get up each day is different no wonder our bodies don’t know when it’s time to sleep.
So next time your alarm goes off, do whatever it takes to crawl out of bed. Yes… You may be tired in the afternoon, but I will show you how to handle that later in this article.
Get up before everyone else
I can already hear your resistance to this point. I know you’ve probably not slept and want to enjoy every second of sleep before you have to get up. And maybe your kids wake up early and you can’t possibly imagine beating them to it.
But still… I stand by this point because it was a game-changer for me in my struggle with chronic pain and terrible sleep.
Whilst we are lying in bed our nervous systems are somewhat calm, even if we’ve slept badly. Then suddenly from nowhere a loud alarm goes off, kids are jumping on you and the dog is barking to be fed. Before you know it, you’re running around the house like a headless chicken trying to get everyone organized for the day whilst at the same time panicking that you haven’t slept which means you will be tired all day. Our nervous system has no idea what’s happening but does its best to keep up with us.
Now imagine this…
Your alarm goes off with a soft vibration alert. You know everyone else is sleeping which gives you 45 minutes of calm time. You savour your perfect cup of tea, maybe sit, and read a chapter of the book you’ve been meaning to finish, and you may even sneak out for a walk around the neighbourhood.
The key here is that you have uninterrupted time to experience what it feels like to have a calm nervous system. Our bodies are extra receptive in the mornings so it’s likely that once we’ve experienced this state of calm, we are more likely to continue our day feeling this way.
The more pockets of time during the day that we can calm our nervous system the better our sleep will be at night.
And finally on this point… The earlier we get up the sooner our body clock resets so that we are ready to fall asleep at night.
Let daylight into your eyes ASAP
Getting daylight into your eyes as soon as possible after waking tells your body clearly that in 12 hours it’s time to sleep. Making your chances of falling asleep far better.
Sitting by a window for breakfast would work but the ultimate treat for yourself would be a quiet walk around the streets. Even if it’s raining and miserable, fresh air, daylight and movement will help your body clock kick start. I promise.
Resist the phone for as long as you can
It’s sad that for many of us, the first thing we do on waking is to check to see if we have any messages or notifications. And even worse we take a sneaky look at social media apps just in case we’ve missed anything. And whilst we are there we may as well check out the news headlines.
Each one of these actions will activate your nervous system without you even realizing it.
What could be on your phone that couldn’t wait an hour or two?
Give yourself the freedom of enjoying the first part of your day distraction-free. This will help keep your nervous system nice and calm for longer.
Which as you know will help your sleep at night.
Imagine your nervous system on a sliding scale which fluctuates throughout the day. To get a good night’s sleep the aim is to keep our nervous system as calm as we can throughout the day.
When are you most stressed?
At times throughout the day, you will notice that your nervous system is on high alert. This could feel like you’re holding your breath, clenching your teeth, or anxiously looking around. For some people, myself included, physical pain shows up at these times. Tension in the back, shoulders, jaw etc.
Once we start to notice these moments of stress, we can put measures in place to consciously regulate the nervous system.
My anxiety is at its worst between 3.30 pm – 4.30 pm. It doesn’t matter why. What matters is that I notice and aim to settle it. Here are some techniques you can use throughout the day to calm your nervous system which will in turn help you sleep at night.
Yoga Nidra / Non-Sleep Deep Rest
Yoga Nidra is a guided meditation we do whilst laying down in a quiet room. In just 10 minutes our entire body can fall into a state of calm. But the idea is that we don’t go to sleep. It feels like a massage for the mind. And it teaches us that we can be calm even without sleeping.
If you’re like many people with chronic pain and do not sleep at night this is a great way to quickly recharge your batteries in a really short time.
Having techniques as powerful as this also means we can get up early regardless of the lack of sleep because we can tap into this any time of the day to supercharge ourselves.
This is my favourite and easiest technique to find pockets of peace when I’m stressed or tired.
Many of my clients swear by meditation. I find meditation easiest first thing in the morning when my mind is already calm. But later in the day when my monkey mind is on over-drive, I use you-tube meditations as an easy option.
Although this is obvious, exercise ensures our body is physically tired enough to sleep.
I would suggest you test out what works best for you. Are you a morning exercise person or an evening one? For me, I find morning exercise helps me sleep and evening exercise tends to keep me awake. But everyone is different.
Struggling to get motivated because you’re tired?
Go for something easy and make use of tools to help you.
The Nike Run app has excellent guided runs. Last week I did a run titled “A run for when you don’t want to run”.
And ‘Yoga with Kassandra” can be found for free on youtube. She has great 10 minute videos and is very motivating.
These days we’ve all become a little bit obsessed with checking our phones. On average Americans check their phones 344 times a day. That’s once every 4 minutes.
I doubt you can remember the feeling of freedom we used to have before mobile phones.
I don’t suggest we bin our phones but please know that every time we feel the need to check the phone, whether we check it or not, we are evoking a stress response in our bodies.
I’ve deleted all social media apps, news apps and even my e-mail from my phone. It’s been a game-changer for me. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, then at least consider turning off the notifications.
Looking at our phones when we are about to go to sleep does two things.
Firstly, the blue light that’s emitted from your phone stimulates your brain and fools it into thinking it’s daytime. This blue light is saying to our brains “Oh look! There’s bright light… It’s time to wake up”. Instead of falling to sleep your body clock may reset, think it’s morning and try to give you 12 more hours of awake time.
And lastly, do you really want to have some random person’s face from WhatsApp, Facebook or Instagram on your mind as you drift off into sleep? Probably not.
Most things we see on social media will in some way trigger our stress response. So best not to do this just before we try and sleep.
Alcohol & Caffeine
Too much caffeine during the day and we struggle to sleep at night. This is a fact.
But many people believe the opposite to be true of alcohol.
I’ve heard people say they need a glass of wine to help them relax so they can sleep. Whilst it may help you to fall to sleep it will prevent you from getting any deep sleep. And numbing our nervous systems does little to solve the sleep problem long term.
So it’s coming up to the time we ‘should’ be sleeping. The fear starts to creep in. What if I can’t sleep again?
Notice this very thought is keeping you locked in the pain-fear cycle. The more fear we have of sleeping, the more ramped up our nervous system will be. This gives a signal to our bodies that we need to keep one eye open just like the birds to look out for threats.
As we get better at calming our nervous system during the day our bodies will start to get used to feeling calm and this will extend through to bedtime.
But… having said that when we first start with the techniques mentioned here there may still be evenings that are a struggle.
So here are my top tips for when you find yourself staring at the ceiling while the rest of the world is snoring.
Tapping / EFT Emotional Freedom Technique
Tapping on different parts of the body helps balance energy and reduce the physical and emotional pain. You watch a YouTube video of someone tapping and talking and you just copy.
If you’ve never come across tapping before you may think I’ve lost my marbles.
But I swear by this technique. It works like acupuncture whereby we are releasing energy flow in the body.
So next time you find yourself wide awake, find a tapping video for sleep and give it a go. You might be surprised.
If we can’t sleep the worse thing, we could do is to continue to lie awake panicking, especially when we’ve spent all day trying to soothe our nervous system.
So put on a reading light and enjoy a few chapters of your book. And trust that your body will sleep when it’s ready to sleep. If you truly need more sleep tomorrow, there’s always Yoga Nidra to give you a boost!
One of the reasons we struggle to sleep is because of our busy minds. For many people, the first time we get a moment to ourselves is when we put our heads on that pillow.
So of course, this is when we start trying to make sense of everything from past events, the things we are dealing with day to day and even things about our future.
Although these things are just thoughts our bodies perceive them as very real threats. And it would be impossible to sleep if there were any threats. Even something as simple as needing to remember to pack the swimming kits for the kids in the morning can seem like a threat at nighttime.
Before you go to bed jot down everything you possibly can that could be on your mind. Let the pen flow including big and small things. Make sure you leave that notepad next to your bed. This way if you notice a thought swimming around when you’re trying to sleep you can roll over and write it down.
As a rule… Better out than in when it comes to thoughts at night.
Running away from the fear of lack of sleep is exhausting. But what if instead, we could focus on running towards joy.
Starting a simple gratitude practice at bedtime will help you to shine a light on all the positive aspects of the day. Just listing 3-5 things that have happened to you during the day that you’re grateful for can send very powerful calming signals to your brain.
Then as you lay down instead of counting sheep which is both boring and stupid, try thinking back to the start of your day. What was the first thing you were grateful for, imagine it fully. Then follow it with the thought of the next thing. Continue this enjoyable process until you reach the end of the day and then start again from the beginning either with new points or the same points.
What matters here is that the thoughts we have as we drift off to sleep bring us a feeling of joy and safety.
For someone that’s already frustrated about not sleeping, this may seem like information overload, but the underlying message is the same.
If we want to sleep better at night, we need to feel safe.
We need to feel safe throughout the day… not just at night.
And we do this by taking action to settle our busy nervous systems. Unfortunately, our nervous systems will not settle themselves. We must take action and make changes if we want to sleep better.
What is one action you can start taking today?