I've been stressed lately and have trouble sleeping. I fall asleep easily but wake up multiple times during the night and struggle to go back to sleep. How can I improve my sleep and avoid waking up in the night?
The first thing I need to tell you is that you need to comfort yourself that this is a temporary problem that you will get through. One of the reasons we fall into poor patterns of sleep is by telling ourselves that we are poor sleepers.
Next, make a list of the things that are causing you stress and identify any that you could take action to address. Do what you can to deal with them, even if it feels uncomfortable. That will help your mind to calm down.
A couple of hours before you go to bed each night, write a list of the things that are on your mind. These might be tasks you have the next day, things you feel worried about, or even things that already happened that have had an impact on you. Spend a few minutes thinking about your list and let the emotions sit with you without pushing them away..
When you do go to bed those same thoughts might come swirling around in the small hours but you will have already taken some of the power from them by writing them down and thinking about them.
If you do wake in the night don’t panic. Tell yourself, “It’s OK, I’m going through a stressful time but I will be alright. I might be tired tomorrow but I can tolerate it.” Don’t say, “I must get back to sleep,” because that will ensure you can’t because the anxiety releases adreneline and with that coursing around your body sleep becomes impossible, creates more anxiety and so it goes on in a dispiriting loop.
If you find yourself lying awake staring at the ceiling get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy again. Read a book, listen to a podcast, or a relaxation audio such as the ones you find on apps like “Calm” and “Headspace”.
Do not watch anything on a screen because that will wake you up and stimulate you in a way not conducive to sleep.
Finally, if you have been finding that you are waking at 3am every morning recently remove all clocks and methods of telling the time from your view. Your unconscious mind will easily create habits but if it can’t see the time it can’t keep waking you at 3am.
There are a number of things that can support disturbed sleep.
Creating a sensory shift: things such as lavender sprays, soothing music, audiobooks, the right light and temperature can all help to increase sleep. You can also download a sleep meditation to guide you to a calmer space which can help increase sleep times .
Some cognitive exercises such as visualising a vault in your mind then putting all your work issues/worries in it leaving your mind clear. This can be very powerful; your emotions don't know the difference between real and imagined so visualisation can be helpful. Or keep a journal where you write down everything you have on your mind; you then tell yourself ‘it’s safe, it doesn’t need my attention’.
If you feel very awake, get up. Do something (get some water, walk about, go to the loo, read a book, colour in, drink some warm milk), then start again.
Calm your nervous system. Take 5 deep breaths. Notice how you feel. Take 5 more if you need. Breath is the one area of our nervous system that we have power over. We can calm the system by slowing it down (our heart rate increases when worried or anxious). Don’t underestimate the power of your breath.
Be kind to yourself. Our sleep falls in a pattern and we wake approximately every 4 hours. Sometimes we just wake more fully. Rather than demanding we fall asleep again immediately, just give yourself some time to resettle and trust that sleep will come along again soon. Maybe enjoy the time to yourself and immerse yourself in a fantasy.
The cornerstones of good health are sleep, fuel, hydration and movement. They are important to keep in place but often the first things to crumble when we’re feeling stressed. You’ve mentioned your sleep is poor but take a look at all areas. Are there any tiny tweaks you could make to create a more stable foundation?
Try the following to see if they help you improve your sleep:
Consider if there is anything stressing you out right now. It is normal to wake up in the night and struggle to sleep when we have periods of stress. Let’s say as an example you were stressed out because you had too many responsibilities at work and at home. The remedy in this situation would be to set boundaries and ask for help. Ask yourself if there are any changes you need to make in other areas of your life to decrease stress.
Create a relaxing bedtime routine. This may include things like yoga before bed, soft music, or a hot bath. Also avoid stimulants in the evening such as caffeine and using electronic devices such as mobile phones and laptops.
Make sure your sleep environment is as comfortable as it can be (not too hot or too cold for example).
Exercise regularly as this is known to improve sleep.
If you wake up and can’t sleep, get up and do something that isn’t too stimulating, for example reading something boring or doing a progressive muscle relaxation meditation.
Go to bed and get up at the same time each day and ensure you go to bed when you are genuinely tired.
If you need more help, try talking to therapist, if this an option available to you.