Does this sound familiar? Worries and negative thoughts enter your head at night and become magnified. You check the time. 2.59am. You tell yourself ‘just go back to sleep’. Your neck, back and shoulders ache and you can’t get comfortable. The stress builds. Pretty soon the mind starts racing and worries from your day merge with anxiety about not being able to sleep. ‘How will I cope tomorrow if I can’t sleep?’ You check the time again. 3.33am! The cycle continues.
You don’t need to have young children or a sleep disorder to have a restless night’s sleep. Most people have difficulty sleeping, particularly when stress is involved. According to the Sleep Health Foundation, one in three people have mild insomnia. A lack of sleep can alter your mood, motivation, alertness and ability to make decisions, which often leads to more stress and anxiety, then more broken sleep – and so on, in a seemingly endless cycle.
The reason stress keeps us awake is the same evolutionary reason we have survived for centuries. The stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol trigger a fight or flight response, protecting us from danger. The problem is that the human brain is now more emotionally-driven so we tend to over think our moments of panic both before and then long after the stressful event has passed.
Practical solutions to break the sleepless cycle
If you’ve experienced difficulty sleeping chances are you’ve tried many different remedies; avoiding coffee, drinking chamomile tea, meditation, lavender oil, listening to whale music or even sleeping pills. An explanation from the Sleep Health Foundation is that poor sleepers often have bad sleep habits – so breaking these habits and retraining your body to develop your sleep skills will be more effective.
Nick Littlehales, Sleep Coach (yes that’s a thing!) to many famous sports stars around the world, suggests the secret to better sleep is to tune into your natural sleeping process and reset your body clock. The body responds to light and temperature changes at sunset and sunrise. These circadian rhythms program different biological functions, like hormone release, to happen at the right times. Littlehales advocates keeping note of your sleeping/waking pattern, setting a regular night-time routine and sleeping in a cool, dark room.
In pre-industrial times, people would go to sleep and wake with the sun. Today, we can spend half the moonlit hours awake, enjoying some down time in front of TV, on computers or other devices. LCDs are like artificial sunlight that confuse our brains into thinking we should still be awake.
I recommend switching off and making bedrooms device-free zones. Easier said than done I know.
Train your brain to ignore stressful thoughts
So what can you do if you find yourself awake and worrying at 3am? Leading UK sleep physiologist Dr Guy Meadows suggests you should actually tune into the thoughts that are plaguing you. Attentional techniques such as Thought Defusion and desensitisation exercises help minimise the upset caused by unhelpful thoughts. The idea is that rather than allowing thoughts to race and tie you up in knots, you detach and simply observe the thoughts as products of a busy mind. Focus on them but don’t engage with them and become emotional. Give them a name (even a nickname). Over time these thoughts become boring, non-threatening and even humourous. With practice, you develop immunity so you can simply ignore them and go back to sleep.
A second thought-management technique suggested by Dr Meadows is distraction or Value Focus. Mentally shift your brain to things you value – happy memories, future holidays or special occasions. Another practical suggestion is to list at least three things you’ve achieved in the day, unrelated to work – helping a friend, spending time with your partner or children, getting to the gym. Think about these things in as much detail as you can. By switching your thoughts to things you value, different hormones are released and your brain relaxes.
Here is my checklist for creating better sleep habits:
- Forget Facebook and working late into the evening. Turn off devices and screens well before bedtime.
- Create a sleep-friendly environment – a dark, cool, decluttered room with a comfortable mattress.
- Exercise daily to burn off excess stress hormones – but not too close to bedtime.
- Go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every night/morning to establish a body clock.
- Avoid stimulants like coffee and alcohol.
- Chart your sleep pattern and try to determine if there was a common factor in your broken sleep, such as drinking too much alcohol or napping during the day.
- Eat breakfast within an hour of waking. Without fuel your body runs on adrenalin stores and adrenalin is the chemical that is responsible to early morning wakefulness.
- Don’t buy into thoughts that keep you awake; instead defuse them as ‘brain noise’ or distract yourself with better thoughts.
- Write down three things you achieved in the day to give yourself a sense of peace before bed.
Sleep is the world’s most powerful performance booster, so it’s interesting that people just don’t prioritise it, or give in to the mindset that poor sleep just goes with the territory of running your own business.
If you’re constantly finding yourself tossing and turning at 3am it’s worth shifting your thinking. Remember sleep is a skill you can develop with the right habits and techniques.
What’s your worst sleep habit?
For more resources on the subject of small business mental health and to learn how many leading bodies and organisations are rallying to add their weight to this important topic, visit our information page on small business mental health.