Tips & tricks

How to deal with sleep problems

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Ever since I got into TSW, my sleep has been horrible. I’ve never been a morning person and have always liked sleeping until about 11 a.m. But going through TSW, I took this to a whole new level and often slept until 1 to 3 p.m. ! And if I wanted to, I could probably have slept even longer because I was often soooo tired when I woke up… . I always blamed my disrupted sleep at night for this: before TSW, I had somewhat trouble falling asleep (usually not that problematic though), during TSW I also had issues staying asleep. I think I used to wake up every hour. Somehow, I had the feeling of being more tired and prone to sleeping in the morning and noon, than I was at night. I knew this lifestyle wasn’t healthy, and that by sleeping this long, I would disrupt my sleep pattern even more in the long haul. But I honestly just wasn’t ready for the cranky emotional AND physical wreck I would become if I didn’t compensate my sleep. I also wanted to “function” as much as possible and felt like I wouldn’t be able to if I was sleep deprived.

Something had to change though, because it was sad how short my days actually were. I could barely get things (schoolwork, the household, personal care, …) done and often had to choose between tasks because I just didn’t have enough time. And next year, I normally have a six month internship, which means I’ll have to go from the flexible student hours and privileges to early and fixed working hours. The thought made me shiver! I wouldn’t survive a week with that kind of sleeping pattern. So, for this and some other reasons, I started seeing a psychologist. I adressed my issues with sleeping and together we analysed the factors related to it:

  • Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts: I don’t know what it is, but my bed somehow stimulates me to start thinking about things. This includes worrying, planning, and those random and often weird associations you start to make in your head between sleeping and waking. And I just can’t STOP them.
  • Sleep circumstances: Not having enough space in bed, noise, smells, mosquitos flying around, …
  • Focus: When I can’t sleep, I try so hard I just can’t manage to fall asleep. I focus on the time and feel pressure because “If I don’t sleep now, I will be wrecked tomorrow”.
  • Internal sensations: Itching, stomach cramps, hunger, …all these things make it impossible for me to sleep.
  • Biological or hormonal imbalances: Big question mark here. It’s a hypothesis of mine to assume this might attribute to my sleeping problems, but I’m not sure. It’s also something a psychologist can’t help me with, so it’s not very relevant in this case anyway.

Tips:

The psychologist provided some scientific evidence-based tips to get my sleep right again, some based on my specific story, but also some general tips:

  • Wake up at the same hour: It doesn’t matter that much when you go to sleep, but it does matter when you get up! You should wake up on the same hour every day, preferably also in the weekend and even if you have barely slept. This hour should be between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. (based on your circadian rhythm or “biological clock”)
  • No naps: Why? Because during the day, our sleep drive or the need to sleep, builds up. If you take a nap, the sleep drive decreases, which can make it harder for you to sleep at night.
  • Use the bedroom only for sleeping and sex: Whenever you catch yourself thinking and worrying in bed, go to another room. In this room you can do the thinking, or do something else (as long as it doesn’t involve your television, phone or computer – I’ll explain later) until you feel like you can sleep again. The psychology behind this is that your bedroom is meant for sleeping (and sex, maybe) and needs to be associated with relaxation, rest and inactivity. If you associate your bedroom with other things, like worrying or studying or something, it doesn’t set the right atmosphere to sleep. So you need to separate the two by doing things that don’t involve sleeping and sex, outside of the bedroom.
  • Don’t worry about the amount of sleep: How many hours you sleep, is not as important as you might think. So it’s a myth that you necessarily need 7 to 8 hours of sleep. When you have a bad night, your body will try to compensate this by going faster into the stage of deep sleep. This is the most important stage of the sleep cycle when it comes to feeling well rested as it decreases our sleep drive. One night of good sleep, can actually make up for many bad nights. So whenever you’re looking at your clock, worrying you won’t have enough sleep, try to think of this fact.
  • Create the right circumstances to sleep: Make sure you’re comfortable and pay attention to things like your matress, pillow, blankets, temperature, noise, light, and other factors that might keep you from sleeping.
  • Exercise: Exercise daily and on a regular basis, but not too much and not up to 2 hours before going to bed.
  • Avoid the use of television, phone and computer a few hours before going to bed: These bright screens suppress the production of melatonin, which is important for sleeping. Better options are: reading, listening to music, … .
  • Avoid cafeine, alcohol, cigarettes and heavy meals in the evening. But also make sure you don’t go to bed feeling hungry.
  • Develop a sleep ritual: If you develop a daily ritual before going to sleep, like drinking a cup of warm milk, your body will eventually unconciously give you signals that it’s time to go sleep.

Note 1: If your insomnia is really heavy, these tips might not suffice because they’re quite general. But it’s a first step for anyone with sleep problems. If your sleep doesn’t get better over time (it might at least take a few weeks, maybe months), more specialised help is recommended. You can consult your doctor or a psychologist to find out possible causes and get an adjusted treatment.

Note 2: Make sure you start changing your sleep pattern at a time you’re not terribly stressed.  I speak out of personal experience (and my psychologist agreed): I once had insomnia due to stress and anxiety over my finals – the first time at university, which was new and frightening – and eventually also over anxiety on (not) sleeping. I was adviced by my parents to get up early every day, so that I would be tired and able to sleep the following night. This didn’t work at all: no matter how little I slept the night before, I couldn’t sleep the night after. The idea was good, but the timing wasn’t.

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