Sleep is a topic that is either at the forefront of our mind or not an issue at all. Sound sleepers spend little to no time thinking about the amount or the quality of their sleep – it is sort of in the bag already. For the rest of us, however, sleep is a very big deal.
Fact! During lockdown over two thirds of the UK’s population have experienced sleep problems according to a recent Ipsos MORI/King’s College study. Due to the increased fear and anxiety that Covid-19 has triggered in many of us, this does not make for very surprising reading.
We all know that a new baby, alcohol consumption, caffeinated tea and coffee in the evening and the use of phones or tablets close to bedtime, to name a few the culprits, affect our sleep. But many of us DO take these things into consideration and yet sleep eludes us. Why?
We sleep when we feel safe
According to Dr Rafael Paleyo, the author of ‘How to sleep’ and a leading clinical professor in psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford University, going to sleep is not something us humans are naturally good at. In fact, similar to how we learn to relate to the outside world by how we are cared for as children, we must also learn how to sleep. Who knew?
From an evolutionary standpoint, sleep was always going to be a dangerous thing for humans to do. During hours of sleep, we were left vulnerable to attack by rival tribes and wild animals. Being social creatures, we had to group together and watch out for each other to ensure the tribe’s safety. Having that protection was necessary for us to relax and feel safe – the two prerequisites for sleep to ensue.
Today not much has changed. We still need to feel calm and safe in order to send the appropriate signals to our central nervous system that it is, in fact, ok to go to sleep. But this is easier said than done. Although we no longer have to worry about wild animals we still find things to make us anxious and stressed; like Covid-19, our kids, our relationships, jobs and our money.
A threat that keeps us awake
Our brain perceives anxiety as a threat and sends out stress hormones to our body to keep us alert and prepared to take action and to protect ourselves. This is primitive stuff. It may come as a surprise to you that the mind’s primary occupation is to keep you alive. Under threat, cortisol and adrenaline (our main stress hormones) give us that much needed sharpness to prepare the body for fight, flight or freeze. Our hearts may start racing as we toss and turn in bed, rehashing old arguments and fearing the next day with the knowledge that we’ll be irritable, disorganised and inattentive. Not nice.
Sleep is the biggest bang for our buck we can get.Rafael Pelayo
Hypnotherapy can help
Hypnotherapy can be very effective when it comes to improved sleep. For whatever reason, your sleep problems stem from an interpretation your mind has made that things are not safe and that you need to keep a watchful eye out for danger thus stopping you from sleeping.
In solution-focused hypnotherapy, we talk about having a metaphorical stress bucket within us. This is where we collect our worry thoughts and fears from the day. At night we rerun these events during REM sleep (which is when we dream) and if we have a lot of stress and anxiety already collected in our stress bucket it has a tendency to overflow. If any of you have woken up at 3AM and struggled to go back to sleep you know exactly what I am talking about.
How to sleep better
Just like a child, we have to set up a routine to create structure and safety for good sleep hygiene. Kids know that bath time and story time equals bedtime. They are expecting it even though they may challenge you along the way, I know mine certainly did. So what can we do to become better sleepers?
- Become aware of your own narrative. The first thing I make my clients aware of is their story. The words we speak and the thoughts we think directly affect how we feel and behave which means that if you focus on sleep being problematic, if you think of yourself as a bad sleeper and tell others about your sleep problems, guess what? You are solidifying the very pattern of behaviour you’d like to disappear.
- Identify your thoughts when you prepare for bed. What is it really that you worry about? It may be comforting to know that you are entirely physically capable of having a good night’s sleep (unless you suffer from a sleep disorder, see below*). I always suggest creating a few calming sentences that you can repeat to yourself out loud, silently in your head or write down when worried thoughts want to hijack your bedtime thinking. See it as a simple swap. ‘I am a great sleeper and I need not worry’, ‘Sleep comes easily to me and I wake up each morning feeling bright and alert’, ‘It is safe for me to fall into a deep, restful sleep every night‘. ‘I feel safe and protected and I allow myself to relax fully and completely’, ‘I am known for being a great sleeper’.
- Use your wonderful imagination – it is your own cinema. Take a few deep breaths and imagine yourself six months from now, being a wonderful sleeper. Try to really imagine what it would feel like to be someone who can sleep deeply and calmly each night. What would be the first thing you’d notice when you wake up? How would your day pan out? What would you be doing that you feel unable to do now? What would you notice about your appearance and posture? How would you interact with others? What else would be different? Be as detailed as you can be and really get a sense of what a good sleeper feels like. Your mind is simple and doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined so go ahead and imprint a new reality to your heart’s content.
- Chances are by now you’d be flooding your mind with lovely neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine just thinking about being a good sleeper. Great! Now take a deep breath in through your nose and hold your breath whilst simultaneously tensing your entire body, hold your breath for as long as possible and then breathe out through your mouth whilst relaxing your body. Repeat 3 times. Continue to breathe in deeply through your nose and out through your mouth while thinking about your safe sentences to calm your nervous system and inform it that it is ok to enter into sleep.
- Changing habits takes time so be very gentle and patient with yourself whilst you are reprogramming some of the outdated thinking you may have engaged with in the past. It is a cumulative effort so begin to reset your habits as listed above and rest assured that things will change. Your mind kept you awake because it thought it was keeping you safe and alive but it isn’t useful now. Reassure yourself that all is well and that you can give yourself permission to sleep deeply and wake up fresh and restored each morning.
Wishing you many nights of wonderful sleep…
*Some sleep disorders may need further medical attention such as restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea, narcolepsy and sleep behaviour disorder. If you think you may have any of the above conditions or feel something isn’t right please seek medical advice. You can read more about sleep disorders here.