Sleep Tight: Dealing with Insomnia

Harry* had come to see me for stress and sleeping issues. “I’ve had insomnia before, but this is getting out of hand”. He had recently taken on a new role at the same time as starting an online diploma. He was surviving with the workload (and thriving – his grades and work performance were excellent) but was sleepless and irritable. “The less I sleep, the more I stress, which leads to even less sleep” he said.

Everything is easier with a good night sleep. Recent research has found that most Australians just aren’t getting a good night sleep. Sixty percent of us aren’t getting enough sleep. Fifteen percent of us would qualify for diagnosis of a sleep disorder. What’s getting in the way of attaining and maintaining sleep?

Some of the blame has to come down to bad habits. Is using your phone the last thing you do of a night? Do you work right before bedtime? Do you drink alcohol to get to sleep? There are a host of sleep hygiene techniques which can help you to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep. Before anything else, get your sleep hygiene in order.

“I tried all these techniques and they helped me get to sleep, but I’ve still been waking up around 3am and tossing and turning for a few hours”. Harry tried sleep hygiene and it had helped him get to sleep, but not to stay asleep. “Once I’m awake it takes me ages to relax again”.

For many of us, the sleep problem is caused by a deeper problem, unprocessed emotions. Life nowadays is busier and more complex. The pace of change has accelerated, and we are relentlessly bombarded with new, taxing events. This places stress on our mammalian organism. At the same time these society-wide changes occurred, digital devices provided us with an ever-ready method of distracting us. Now, we can avoid dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings during the entire day.

But at night-time, each of your sense are tuned down. You can’t see. Very few sounds to hear, or objects to feel. The world is silent, dark, still. What’s left? The unprocessed emotions of the day – they come back to haunt us.

What to do about unprocessed emotions? The method I encourage is to transport our worries and rumination from sleeping hours to waking hours. Keep a notebook by your bed. Write down any troubling thoughts that occur. The next day, at a scheduled time, pick up the book and think about the topics that you wrote late at night. The worries will not have changed, but your waking mind’s ability to cope with these thoughts are much improved.

What if these unprocessed emotions won’t go away at night, even after writing them in the notebook? This is when distraction, so handy at helping us avoid emotions during the day, becomes useful. I advise using the least intrusive form of distraction that still manages to keep your mind off your worries.

Examples of weakly intrusiveness distractions include mental games (e.g. counting sheep, naming countries) and listening to rain tracks or white noise. Examples of intensely intrusive distractions are crossword puzzles or reading a book. Avoid checking the phone – this will likely stimulate you to wakefulness. Best distractions are those which are slightly mentally effortful, but slightly boring.

Harry started to record his worries. “I didn’t do so well at school, so I guess I’m always half expecting that I’ll end up failing, and I’m more anxious than I’d like to admit”. It took discipline, but he began to avoid night-time rumination. By processing these emotions and thoughts during the day his sleep really improved.

Everything is easier with a good night’s sleep. Fall into good sleep habits. Deal with your emotions during the day and distract at night-time, not the other way around. Good luck. Sweet dreams.

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