When I talk to clients who are struggling with health issues of any kind, I’ve learned to ask at some point in the conversation, “How is your sleep?”
Good sleep is such an important part of well-being, and the lack of good sleep gets in the way of so many physiological processes, from metabolism and weight control to immune system function to cognition. In particular, I notice that most of the people I see for weight control or anxiety-related issues tend to have problems with sleep.
And now it’s official—according to the Centers for Disease Control, we in the US are experiencing a sleep deficiency epidemic.
Currently, the National Institutes of Health recommends 10 hours sleep as a minimum for children, 9 to 10½ hours for teenagers, and 7 to 8 hours for adults. However, the latest information available from the National Health Interview Survey shows that only 31% of high school students report getting at least 8 hours of sleep on school nights. Nearly 30% of adults report an average of 6 hours of sleep or less.
As someone who occasionally struggles with sleeplessness, I noticed that as my addiction to a daily walk grew stronger, my sleep improved—but not necessarily in a straightforward cause and effect way. That is, as I made a habit of walking more, my sleep patterns gradually improved, but I’ve discovered that I cannot always use a brisk long walk as a prescription for a good night’s sleep. That requires a different kind of effort.
It turns out that mine is a fairly common experience, according to a New York Times article I ran across while looking up sleep and sleeplessness. The article discusses a 4-month long study with a small group of sedentary insomniacs. Half the people in the study (the control) continued to be sedentary, and the other half exercised with a treadmill or stationary bicycle 3-4 times per week. During the last 2 months of the study, the exercisers began sleeping better. By the end of the 4-month period, they were sleeping longer than the control group by at least 45 minutes a night, which is better than current conventional treatment options.
Clinical psychologist and sleep researcher Kelly Glazer Baron at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University directed the study. She pointed out that insomniacs are different from people who simply have trouble sleeping once in while; insomniacs typically suffer from what she calls “hyper-arousal of the stress system.” The implication is that exercise works for these folks by gradually reducing the exercisers’ stress response.
This theory fits my experience with occasional sleeplessness. I find that sometimes, when I’m experiencing a relatively low level of stress, exercise is a reliable prescription for good sleep. But when I am dealing with extra stressors, I need to take additional measures to control my stress reactions.
The conventional advice from sleep researchers is disappointing if only because their recommendations take the form of a long list of don’ts for the time period just before bedtime:
- Don’t exercise
- Don’t read or watch TV
- Don’t eat large meals
- Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine
- Don’t smoke
Personally, I find that kind of advice disheartening, as if someone is saying, don’t do anything fun. Oversimplifying, but there’s a grain of truth there, I think.
However, I do have two self-hypnosis techniques that work well for me. First I set aside some time before I go to bed to quiet my mind, and then I use any method for inducing self-hypnosis.
The first technique is a simple body scan—I find it amazingly effective, as if it releases the events of the day along with any tension in my body.
The second involves letting go of the events of the day, moment by moment. Sometimes I’ll work through the day backwards, from night to morning, and sometimes I find it easier to start in the morning and work up to night (sometimes I get mixed up about what happened when).
Sounds simple—and it is. But it is also a reliable way to uncover events that can sneak up on me and trigger an episode of sleeplessness: conflicts with other people, money worries, a friend’s problems—anything and everything that comes with a normal, busy life.
I give myself permission to replay the events in my mind, even revise them if I need to. It’s not about re-writing the events of the day so much as taking time to deal with them in a fully conscious way. I find taking this time and using self hypnosis to quiet my mind makes the difference between waking in the middle of the night with the nagging realization that something is wrong and blissfully waking in the morning, having enjoyed a good restorative sleep.
If you give either of these techniques a try, do please let me know how it goes for you.