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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Ten Steps To Better Sleep

“Sleeplessness is a desert without vegetation or inhabitants.” Jessamyn West

Many of the clients who come to me with a variety of issues also suffer from poor sleep. I therefore nearly always ask new clients how their sleep is in the very first session that we have together. Even if they wish to outline a large range of worrying issues, should their sleep be poor, I ask them if we can spend the last 5 or 10 minutes looking at that. It is good to send them off with something practical that will allow them to go home on a positive note.

I think good sleep is a vital element in our well being. I think it’s right up there with good physical and mental health, supportive relationships and feeling that you have a purpose. How much sleep people need can vary, but poor sleep can undermine anything else we do. Yet, it is surprising how few people think about how much poor sleep affects their mood and ability to cope with life and also how little time they devote to thinking of ways to improve it. It is also amazing how quickly sleep can improve with a little planning. I have yet to have a client who suffered bad sleep who wasn’t helped by some of the following ideas, which is not to say that their sleep is perfect after they come to see me or that I wave some sort of magic wand, but simply that things start to improve as we pay proper attention to improving them. In this respect, sleep is no different from many other issues.

I outline below ten ways in which you could improve your sleep:

1. Consider your Sleep Schedule. Of course, there are special nights when we want and need to stay up and that’s a good, enjoyable thing for all of us. I don’t play party pooper to my clients, but it is important to try to make sleep consistent and to look at natural rhythms. It’s best to try to wake up at the same time and not to lie in bed for too long after you wake. Occasional treats are not a problem - for instance a brief-lie in as you wake up to the radio or cuddling up on a cold morning, but your routine is better if you normally get up within a short time of waking up – certainly less than twenty minutes – much less if you can. If you need to change your sleep pattern then try to do so in small steps of fifteen minutes at a time.

2. Try to Relax before Bed. Any one of these things might do. I suggest that my clients try them in rotation to see what works best - take a long hot bath, have a milky drink, do some slow stretching or breathing exercises, listen to something soothing on the radio (classical music and the shipping forecast are good), have sex (good for stress relief and all sorts of other things aside from sleep), use a few drops of lavender oil on your pillow, meditate. Reading before bed is good as long as it’s not a story that will scare you witless or over-stimulate you - but, it’s best not to read in bed if possible. Have soft lighting rather than glaring or hot lights (like halogens) in your bedroom and nearest bathroom.

3. Pre-Sleep Routines can Help with Problem Sleeping. If you are having trouble sleeping, try deep breathing exercises. Close your eyes and try taking deep, slow breaths, making each breath even deeper than the last. Progressive muscle relaxation is also good. You should start at your toes and tense all the muscles as tightly as you can, then relax them. Gradually, move up from your feet to the top of your head. You could also try visualizing a calm, restful place. Close your eyes and think of somewhere that has a happy or peaceful memory for you.

4. Deal with Worries Before you go to Bed. We all have them, but try to process them a few hours before bed. If you are rowing with your partner, try to sort it out before you get into bed. If you really can’t drop your worries before bed, then don’t go to bed without going through a few of the tips in 3 above.

5. Go to Bed Directly you are Tired. You may get second wind if you stay up, but at what cost for the next day?

6. Avoid Certain Things near Bedtime – strenuous exercise - this will mean you are pumped full of adrenaline, caffeine (best avoided at least four hours before bed), a large alcohol intake (a small amount may help sleep, lots does not), looking at a bright digital clock display (it puts the brain on alert). Don’t fall asleep after dinner – if you feel that’s going to happen then strive to stop it - proper sleep is beckoning in a few hours time, so do something stimulating for ten minutes before relaxing again on the run down to bed.

7. Associate your Bed only with Sleep and Making Love. Do not work in it and try not watch tv there in the evening.

8. Try to Boost your Body’s Production of Melatonin, and keep your brain on a healthy schedule. This is done by having lots of natural light during the day and avoiding too much artificial light in the evening – obviously, most of us do use computer screens and watch tv at night, but it can be overdone, which suppresses melatonin production, especially if you aren’t getting any natural light during the day – working in a harshly lit office, for instance.

9. Think about Comfort and Temperature – have you got a decent mattress or pillows? Does ventilation help you sleep or not? Negotiate with your partner if you have different needs. If you have found one or two comfortable sleeping positions, roll into them just when you are about to doze off.

10. Experiment with Naps during the day – never the evening. Power naps can be wonderful and necessary if they are done at the right time and siestas hurt nobody’s sleep. Edward Lucas said,“There is more refreshment and stimulation in a nap, even of the briefest, than in all the alcohol ever distilled.”

Finally, if you’ve tried everything and still can’t sleep, don’t stay in bed! You won’t sleep and you may annoy or disturb your partner. It is likely that you will also worry about not sleeping and about all of your other worries, too. Life is way too short to waste time! You may as well turn occasional insomnia to something positive. Do something useful or fun that you’d like to have the time to do – nothing dangerous, of course. When I can’t sleep, I surf the internet for ten minutes then read for twenty. It sometimes does the trick. If it doesn’t and I go back to bed and still can’t sleep, I get up again and start the process over. If I don’t get much sleep, at least I got something done. You can also try focussing on your body and its sensations or your breathing - not your mind. You can try thinking about relaxing rather than sleeping. Most people suffer a short period of insomnia at some point, so don’t worry. It will pass soon enough. If it doesn’t, it’s time to see a counsellor or a doctor.

David is a fully qualified and BACP registered Person Centred and Existential Counsellor. If you wish to talk about issues in your life or about sleep, you can book a face to face or skype session with him
by ringing 07578 100256 or emailing him at

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