Thursday, November 1, 2012

Falling Sleep

This weekend we "fall back" one hour for Daylight Savings.  So, it's a great time to start some new sleep habits!

I have been talking about the ways that you can rewire your brain and create mental health and wellness in the past few blogs.  Last blog was all about exercise and physical activity.  As part of that topic, sleep is another definite way to improve mental health and wellness.  Sleep can be one of the most powerful mood enhancers.  But, it can also be a great challenge to many.

In general, we are told that we should sleep 8 hours a night and that sleep should be uninterrupted and free of chemicals (alcohol, sleep medications, etc.).  Everyone is different and the variety of needs and methods makes sleep, which is a daily, regular, very ordinary event, a sometimes extremely challenging activity.  However, it is one of the first concerns I have when it comes to clients who come in unmotivated, gaining weight, with low mood/depression symptoms, and with lack of focus. 

Insomnia is a quality of life issue.  Get a good night's sleep and feel a sense of hope and happiness in the day.  A lousy night's sleep?  Dread, cynicism, and general crabbiness are likely and sometimes depression and hopelessness are present.  It's no fun at all for something so mundane.  Not only does lack of sleep effect a mental sense of well-being, but it also effects heart health, risk of diabetes, immune weakness, and more.

As I said earlier, sleep is a very individualized thing and when it goes in a negative direction, it seems to spiral out of reach and out of control until we feel like we might never get it back on track!  However, there is some hope.  First off, make sure there isn't something medically present.  Sleep apnea is a serious health concern, talk to your doctor.  Also, menopause and other hormonal effects might be the cause, talk to your doctor.  Restless leg?  Talk to your doctor.  Taking a medication, check the side effects, many interfere with sleep.  In general, if you think there might be something serious going on, talk to your doctor.  However, if you think you are just a rotten sleeper, then it is time to introduce some better sleep habits.

It is easy to take the sleep thing for granted and just assume your body should do what it is supposed to do.  The problem is we are taking what the body does naturally and influencing it with so many new and strange external inputs, it is not sure when sleeptime is anymore!  Therefore, some strict habits need to be put in place until you are able to get back on track.

Start first with sleep hygiene.  Set a bedtime.  Look at your schedule and set an alarm of some type to go off one hour before you need to be in bed.  Then, turn down the lights, turn off the TV (this is a good time to learn to use your recording devices), put on some light music, and get ready for bed.  Prepare for the next day, so you are not lying in bed wondering if you are ready to get out the door on time.  Sometimes it helps to journal, make a list, or in some other way get out any thoughts you might have running around in your head.  Those folks who lie in bed thinking need some way to get the thoughts out.  This may not work at first, but if you create a nightly habit, it will.

I hear people say they can't sleep without the TV.  I understand this as a way to tune out.  The TV helps one to zone out, to let go of anxious thoughts and patterns of stressful thinking and worry.  However, there are much better ways.  The TV also inflicts stress, noise, and light which prevent the brain from turning on natural sleep readiness.  There are so many relaxation resources out there right now.  Start trying them!  CDs and other audio resources walk you through the process of releasing muscles and calming the mind.  It may take some training, but the results can be used then for more than just sleep.  As you learn to relax for sleep, you learn to relax in general.  It becomes a habit!

Next, make sure you are not ingesting something that interferes with your sleep cycles.  We cycle through about 4 (depends on the professional as to how many there are) different levels of sleep usually 5 times per night (depending on the number of hours you spend in bed), each with its own function for creating a morning in which you feel well rested.  Ingesting caffeine may not prevent you from falling asleep, but it does affect your ability to fall into these levels and cycle through for a good night's sleep.  Alcohol and other depressants are the same.  They may help you fall asleep and stay asleep, but you have completely changed your ability to go into the levels of sleep needed.  Go back to learning relaxation techniques and using the good hygiene suggestions above.

Exercise during the day can help!  Now, the weather is getting chilly and will keep getting chilly and this will help even more.  The body works harder to stay warm, using more energy and helping create the tiredness needed before bedtime.  However, any type of exercise will help, even if you do so indoors.  Find a yoga class with a relaxing tempo and a nice long savasana practice at the end to get you relaxed later in the evening.  The benefit there is it is also teaching about body awareness, breathing, and relaxation!

Don't take sleep for granted!  It might not happen without some serious changes that you need to put in place and stick with for 3-4 weeks.  Don't worry if you can't keep yourself to the plan 100% at first, just gradually keep working at it, learn what works and give it time.  The benefits are huge!  Sleep equals mental health.  It is well worth the effort.

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