Difficulty sleeping can be frustrating, especially for those who have busy schedules to adhere to the following day. According to a National Sleep Foundation poll in 2011, almost half of all Americans fail to get enough sleep.
While the amount of sleep necessary may vary between individuals based on factors such as age or lifestyle, it is generally accepted that adult require 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night on average.
Getting too little sleep may not seem an issue after one night, but eventually it will begin to build up and your body will demand the opportunity to recover.
A lack of sleep can affect judgement, reaction times and cognitive functions, which could damage your health, work life and relationships over time, so it’s important to correct bad sleep habits before they wreak further havoc on your lifestyle.
It may be tempting to combat the troubles of insomnia with medication, such as sleeping pills or other prescription drugs, however they often prove to be more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to your health.
What’s wrong with sleeping pills?
Sleeping pills are one of the most frequently prescribed medications in the United States, yet they can easily become addictive and should be considered a last resort, rather than an attainable helping hand. They also have potentially damaging or dangerous side effects, such as drowsiness throughout the day that could result in poor cognitive performance, putting your safety at risk.
What are the alternatives?
Medication doesn’t have to be the only step to a good night’s sleep. It’s worth taking notice of the psychological approaches that focus on mindfulness to ensure a good night’s rest, assuming you’ve already taken the usual precautions such as blocking out light, reducing noise, shutting down technological devices such as computers and avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bedtime.
The Mindful Muscle
The ability to be mindful is often compared to a muscle, as it takes time and strengthening to prove effective. It’s difficult to remain mindful constantly, so start working up your ‘muscle’ by assigning five minutes at a time to focus on quietness and relaxation. This time can later be increased, until you are able to enter a mindful state on demand.
Meditate in the Moment
It doesn’t matter what you’re doing – anything can be considered mindful when you adopt the right frame of mind. Focus on what you’re doing, with the goal of blocking out any distractions and not letting your mind wander. It doesn’t matter if you find yourself stumbling off track, simply refocus and feel good about the fact you were able to non-judgementally pick up on the fact your brain was wandering.
Once you develop this skill further, you’ll be able to use it while trying to fall asleep at night. Blocking out distractions or intrusive thoughts will create a clear mind, ensuring you drift off to sleep peacefully.
Be Mindful as you Eat
As humans, we eat regularly, however mealtimes are usually spent in conversation with others or watching the television. Try sitting at the table, away from distraction, as you eat your food. Take in the plate in front of you, taking note of the colors, textures and scents. Take a bite and focus on the texture and tastes. Is it good or bad? Sweet or sour? Again, try to stay focused on this task as it will help develop your muscle, ensure your mind remains in the present and put you in full control of your thoughts.
Remind yourself that perfection doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re taking longer than you thought to block out your thoughts. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect and eventually you’ll find yourself back in control when faced with stressful circumstances.
Think of how frequently we are required to multi task. As multitasking is a desired skill, it may seem counter-productive to do the opposite, however focusing on one thing at a time and exercising patience as you complete each task will help prevent your mind from wandering.
A Scientific Approach
Once you’re feeling calm and ready to sleep, this can be enhanced further by following a few key points relating to Stimulus Control Therapy, as researched by Professor Richard R. Bootzin of the University of Arizona Sleep Research Lab.
Bootzin suggests only going to bed when you’re sleepy, waking up at the same time each morning to form a reliable pattern and avoiding naps throughout the day.
Stimulus Control therapy is effective due to the mind’s tendency to create links or associations. By only using your bed for sleep and forming a strict pattern, your brain will switch to a ‘sleep mode’ of sorts upon getting into bed.
This is why it is considered beneficial to avoid watching TV, reading or worrying in bed. Your brain will associate the bed with mental stimulation and fail to let you sleep at your desired time. The only exception to this rule is sexual activity, as long as the rules are resumed afterwards.
Finally, there are therapies supported by research that may be beneficial to those suffering from insomnia, including progressive muscle relaxation which allows the body to relax, ready for sleep, along with paradoxical intention, which works on the basis that if you stop trying so hard to fall asleep, you’ll be more successful in your attempts.
You may also wish to try a few addition techniques such as exercising approximately 5 to 6 hours before bed, rising when the sun does and controlling the temperature of your room as extreme hot or cold may disrupt your sleep.
If you’re struggling to sleep, try this approach before committing to medication or further treatment. With a little practice, you may find yourself falling asleep faster and waking up refreshed.