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A Mindful Response to Sleepless Nights

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

sleepless clockIf you have sleep problems, you’re not alone. Approximately 70 million Americans are sprouting up with sleep problems from insomnia, hypersomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, to restless leg syndrome and a majority of these are left undiagnosed and untreated. Today, the national sleep foundation reports that the average time people spend in bed to sleep is 6 hours and 55 minutes - with 6 hours and 40 minutes spent actually sleeping. They recommend getting at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. 

An interesting fact is that before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, the average American was sleeping 10 hours per night. Not anymore. When a person is sleep deprived they have more difficulty handling stress whether that comes in the form of handling personal responsibilities at home or difficult tasks at work. The National Sleep Foundation reports that American business loses $100 billion annually due to sleep-related issues.  As the snowball continues, we can begin experiencing greater mood-related issues like anxiety and depression causing us to feel helpless and miserable. So what can we do?

Sleep specialists have been coming up with all kinds of different interventions for sleep related issues and it often depends on what the issue is. However, a majority of Americans experience insomnia, which is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for an adequate period of time. The following are suggestions to try out. Treat them like an experiment to see what works for you.

Try these tips:

Body scan - While some recommend a progressive relaxation of the body, which is tensing and loosening your muscles progressively from toes to head, I prefer a mindfulness approach like the body scan. In doing this practice the purpose of it is just to notice sensations in the body. As if you were a navigator moving through a new land, sensing into these feelings as if for the very first time. Like a progressive muscle relaxation, you also do this from toe to head, but the purpose is just to be aware of sensations, without judgment. Many say that just doing this, even if you never feel asleep, is almost as restorative as sleep by itself. So know that just doing this is restful and let go of trying to fall asleep. 

Other helpful hints include:

Watching thoughts - Many of us have difficulty sleeping because of our busy minds. What's happening here is we're often cursing and fighting our busy minds, wishing them to go away so we can just fall asleep. Try something different. Try just bringing attention to the thoughts in the mind and watching them as if they were on a movie screen. In doing this, there is no need to get caught up or attached to any of the thoughts or images, but just watching, without judgment. Doing this often lessens the added tension of trying to get away from them. 

Caffeine intake - How much caffeine are you drinking? If you notice that you are drinking caffeine past 12pm, try cutting out. Or, if you're so bold, try cutting it out all together. Remember, cola, energy drinks, and non-herbal tea also contain caffeine.

Light exercise - Even taking a walk outside for 20 minutes counts as getting your heart rate up. Your body needs to be moved, so if you already don't have an exercise practice, see if you can squeeze in one of these during lunch or at the beginning or end of the day. Also, many recommend not exercising right before bed, however, some find this isn't an issue. 

Lose the electronic leash and have an at home Spa - Many people have found it helpful to relax their bodies and minds by cutting out TV and computer late at night and replacing it with a traditional, herbal tea, bath, and aromatherapy self-treatment. Lavendar in particular has been known to have a calming effect, as well as peppermint and chamomile tea. Try this out and see if it changes your evening. 

These are just a few options to help out with sleep.