Switching off at night to get back to sleep

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees wanting to improve their sleep.

Recently I've found that if I wake up early, my brain tends to switch on and run through all the things that I have to worry about at the moment, and I struggle to get back to sleep. None of these are big things. Are you able to offer any advice on how to set these thoughts aside in the early hours so I can get back to sleep?

Our first therapist suggests...

Practice an exercise called 'Closing the curtains'

I have two suggestions for you.

The first is that you create a strategy whereby you think about those things that come to you in the early hours on your terms rather that at the mercy of your own emotional brain.

One of the ways in which you can do this is to get yourself a notebook and do an exercise that I call, “Closing The Curtains.” Each evening, several hours before bed, spend some time reviewing the day and thinking about  the events that are coming up. This is not a to-do list but rather an opportunity for you to anticipate some of those thoughts that are coming to you at 5 or 6am. Write down the things that are on your mind and give yourself a few minutes to think about them.

You might just take the opportunity to reflect on how you feel about something you can’t influence, or you might cycle through the options you have for taking action on others. You don’t need to spend a lot of time doing this, just enough so that when those thoughts visit you again in the small hours you have already pre-empted some of them to the extent that they are not such a distraction.

The next thing you do, and this is why it needs to be a physical notebook if possible, is to deliberately put the book away in a drawer or somewhere in your bedroom. When you do so you can say to yourself that everything is taken care of in the book and it does not need to be revisited until the following day. Nothing can be dealt with or needs to be dealt with during the hours of restful sleep.

The other suggestion I have for you is that you get up and make use of the extra time you have through waking early. If your unconscious mind recognises there is no jeopardy in waking early it will probably stop you waking up and prefer to allow itself to sleep.

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Our second therapist suggests...

Things to try when you wake up

Our sleep patterns change throughout our lives. For some people, a 6am start would be a regular time to start the day. It sounds like this is not your chosen time to get up but what if you tried this for a while and see how it feels? It may be that your body’s rhythm has changed (in which case you may need to look at what time you go to bed as well).

If you feel it’s more like disturbed sleep, there are a few things you can try. Sensory aids such as lavender sprays, soothing music, audiobooks, the right light and temperature can all help to encourage better (longer) sleep.

On early waking, you could try some exercises such as visualising a vault in your mind and putting all your work issues/worries in it, leaving your mind clearer. 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 now’, and go back to bed.

If you feel very awake, get up. Do something (get some water, walk about, go to the loo), then start again. A busy brain is the sign of an active nervous system. Learn to 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. You can download sleep meditations to guide your nervous system to a calmer space which can help increase sleep times and lessen the early waking.

Be kind to yourself. 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 in your diet or movement? Are you going to bed hungry or full of liquid? Your body may be waking to go to the loo or because it needs fuel.

Finally, zoom out a little more into your world: where are the stressors coming from? What truly needs your attention right now (if anything)?

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Our third therapist suggests...

Tips for good sleep hygeine

It sounds frustrating to be waking up so early and worrying over things that feel unimportant! You could try the following to see if they help:

  • Every evening (a few hours before sleep) write down any worries you have and ask yourself if they are likely to occur. For worries that are real either do problem-solving work on them immediately or diarise when you will look at the problem. Problem-solving should include any ideas of how to tackle the issue and an exploration of the advantages and disadvantages of different options to help you decide what to do.
  • For worries that are unlikely to happen, acknowledge that this is the case and then do something to relax or distract you. This might be having a hot bath, meditation, talking to someone or doing an absorbing task.
  • Consider changing your sleep pattern. It might suit you to go to bed later and get up earlier. Different people benefit from different sleeping patterns.
  • Try eating your last meal earlier in the evening and avoid anything stimulating before bed (caffeine, TV, mobile phones…)
  • Try relaxation strategies when you wake up such as deep breathing or meditation.
  • Ensure there is nothing about your environment interrupting sleep like too much light for example.
  • Avoid alcohol before bed.
  • Do not nap during the day if you feel tired.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Do something soothing before bed to aid restful sleep like stretches, listening to soft music or lighting a scented candle.
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