If you have trouble sleeping, chances are you’ve tried a long list of potential remedies - from ditching coffee or taking a hot bath before bed to using apps or drinking sleep inducing teas. But what if the best way to tackle insomnia was to pretend it just didn’t matter? It’s an approach that sleep scientists are increasingly adopting with their patients.
The idea of ignoring insomnia is based on a simple principle: worrying about not sleeping keeps us awake. It’s a stress response and when we’re stressed our body goes into an alertness mode that makes it harder, biologically, to drop off. “The fact is, there’s no such thing as someone who can’t sleep,” Dr W Chris Winter, author of The Sleep Solution, says.
“The average patient with insomnia sleeps at least a few hours a night - they might not sleep well, but they do sleep,” he explains. “Using phrases like ‘I can’t sleep’ creates feelings of anxiety and helplessness - and once that happens it can become very difficult to penetrate the panic people build up about sleep.”
Learning to accept it.
The concept of insomnia acceptance aims to penetrate that panic. Instead of worrying that you’re awake, you just accept it’s happening. Yes, you’re awake now, but you can sleep and therefore, soon enough, you will.
“When you pull fear out of the process and adopt the idea of skipping a few hours’ sleep as not a huge problem, it changes your perspective,” Winter says. “If you can also embrace the idea that simply resting, even if you’re not sleeping, also makes you feel good in the morning, the fear that insomnia is somehow going to hurt you also fades away.” As it recedes, so does your stress response and, chances are, you’ll find yourself dropping off anyway.
Admittedly, getting into this placid state can be easier said than done, especially at 3am when the mind has an uncanny ability to ruminate. This is why British sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows, who’s a fellow proponent of the acceptance idea, suggests using mindfulness exercises to distract it. One idea he offers is to tune in to your sense of touch and focus, in minute detail, on how your body feels in the moment - the softness of the sheet or weight of the doona on your body, the warmth you feel or the cool underside of the pillow. Don’t judge any of these things but focus on every element of feeling them. A lot of the time you’ll end up falling asleep while you do it.
If no manner of mental trickery seems to send you to sleep, however, sleep specialist Leon Lack from Adelaide’s Flinders University suggests another radical idea to ponder as you stare at the ceiling: perhaps we don’t all sleep the same way. Maybe for some of us, waking up for a few hours a night is normal. “Sleep historians have determined that 300-400 years ago we didn’t sleep in long bursts.
We’d go to bed when it got dark, sleep for three-to-four hours, wake up for a few hours, then go back to sleep for three-to-four hours,” Lack says. “I, therefore, spend a lot of time in my clinic telling patients that what they consider insomnia might actually be a sleep pattern that years ago would have been the norm.” Accept that and you won’t stress during your few hours awake and will be more likely to fall asleep.
If none of these insomnia-tackling methods work for you, there’s another unusual one to consider: sleep restriction. The idea is based on the same premise that stressing about sleeplessness keeps us awake. However, while insomnia acceptance tries to tackle the problem mentally, sleep restriction does it physically, by actively cutting your sleep time to about six hours a night for a few weeks.
This technique has been used by sleep researchers for a while but hit headlines last year after a study by the University of Pennsylvania in the US found that people who slept well spent less time in bed than those who slept badly.
“Sleep restriction aims to create a state where the pressure to sleep is so great you can’t not drop off,” Dr Christopher Miller, from the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, says. “This resets your body clock but also reinforces your confidence in your ability to sleep.” To do it, set yourself a fixed time to get up in the morning and stick to it - even on weekends. Then, don’t go to bed until six hours before that wake-up time. So, if you have to get up at 7am, don’t go to bed until 1am.
How to Avoid Early-Morning Insomnia.
“I recommend six hours as we know that getting fewer than five hours in bed a night is associated with impairments in performance the next day,” Miller says.
Eventually, as the body starts to feel more and more sleep deprived, you’ll start to drop off quickly. In time, you might even find yourself feeling tired earlier than 1am. When that happens, move your bedtime 15-30 minutes earlier. If you fall asleep easily, stick with that timing for a week and reassess.
If you feel the need to fall asleep earlier, move the time forward again. Keep bringing it forward to the point where you can get into bed and sleep naturally.
That’s the amount of sleep you actually need. “It might not be the suggested eight hours,” Miller says. “In a way we’ve created more of a problem by setting this [as the] ideal for sleep - but if you’re not tired the next day it’s the right amount for you.” Admittedly, getting to this point isn’t going to be without a bit of suffering. Miller says you might feel as if you have jet lag during the process, while Winter goes a bit further and calls it “the Ice Bucket Challenge of Sleep”, but it can show results in as little as a week. However, a word of warning: If your job involves driving or operating heavy machinery, restricting sleep night after night might not be safe and shouldn’t be carried out without the advice of a sleep specialist.
UpdatedOctober 2nd 2017
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