Sleep is such a harmless soothing, comforting word to a lot of people, especially if you think back to when you were a child or a teenager. Yet for others it can bring a sense of impending dread, an expectation of what the night may entail and a possible resignation to sleeplessness. I know this myself from when I suffered from sleep difficulties.
There can be a number of physical, nutritional and emotional causes to not sleeping well however for this article I am going to touch on the most common link; anxiety.
Anxiety by its very nature is intrinsically linked to a lack of control, resulting in a desire to be in control. Unfortunately with sleep this only exasperates the situation simply because most of us can’t control our unconscious state! I remember that thought loop of not knowing how well I will sleep that night and thinking about it during the day, being aware of the effects a sleepless night will have on the following day, trying not to think about it and then trying to cope when being awakened at night!
To sleep better it is helpful to have a bit of background on the science of sleep. Our sleep is divided into stages of varying degrees of light to very deep sleep. We go though these cycles many times every night and we often partially break the surface of the unconscious and conscious state before our natural disposition is to go back into sleep. I like to think of it as being under water and partially breaking the surface before going back down to a deeper place. This is what happens to most people when they sleep even if they have no memory of it. Unfortunately for some, at this point in the sleep cycle, it is all too easy to quickly awaken fully coming out of the light stage of sleep and become focused on being awake whilst wanting to be asleep! Or of course for some the difficulty is not being able to sleep in the first place. Ironically in a lot of cases the anxiety of not being able to sleep overrides any initial stress or anxiety that caused the sleeplessness in the first place, such as work or lifestyle related. In effect we are then creating and reinforcing a pattern of sleeplessness all on its own.
One of the key approaches I take when using hypnotherapy for sleep difficulties with clients is understanding and breaking down any negative beliefs, thoughts and behaviours they have around sleep, that might be keeping the anxiety in place. Typically these will be bound with strong associations and pattern matching (an innate and integral method of human learning). Briefly, pattern matching is a process of learning which we do all the time, on a subconscious basis, as a way to manage the huge amounts of information continuously being interpreted by all our senses. In simple terms we are creating associations and thereby setting and reinforcing an expectation of what the experience will be like. So for example we sit down to watch TV and the act of sinking into our sofa might immediately link that with a state of expected relaxation. Or we start brushing our teeth at night and just that act might set up a state of anxiety and panic with worries about how badly we might sleep that night! To read more about pattern matching please see my article on it here.
With this understanding you can imagine how many anchors someone might be setting up for themselves over any sleep difficulty. So collapsing these anchors and setting new ones that are far more helpful is one of the ways I help clients improve their sleep.
I also allow clients to focus on evaluating the quality of their sleep rather than how many hours they might have got or for how long they might have been awake at night. Once the anxiety is vastly reduced or not there any more, waking up at night is far more managable and by slipping into a medatitive state you are then allowing the mind and body to rest. If however the mind is still active it is much better to get up and go into another room with the light low, and read or write down what is on your mind. And understanding the importance of light on our sleep patterns is also critical for those who want a good night’s sleep. Light, whether it be natural or artificial, is critical for regulating our sleep cycle and so especially if we wake up we need to keep light to a minimum to ensure our body doesn’t start thinking it’s not a time for sleeping, even if we are finding it hard to sleep. That means even when going to the toilet at night to keep a low light or ideally none at all (easier for us men I appreciate!) Equally ensuring you get as much daylight as possible during the day, especially in the morning if possible is important for regulating your awake and therefore sleep patterns. Using an artificial daylight bulb in your main place of work can also be helpful.
Everyone will typically have a different history and circumstance relating to their sleep difficulty, with age making a difference as typically patterns of sleep change as we get older. So apart from breaking down anxiety and worry patterns, I will also look at their overall lifestyle and the impact that emotional needs can have on sleep. Good sleep hygiene is also important; which includes sticking to regular sleep times even if we don’t initially feel tired or more likely in the morning getting up when the temptation is to lie in. This also includes creating a positive sleep inducing environment in the bedroom ideally with nothing that is work or entertainment related such as TVs, computers, a work desk and to treat the bedroom solely for sleep and sex. This again creates a positive anchor and expectation! There is also the importance of sleeping in a good temperature that is neither too hot or too cold and that any noise and early morning light issues are dealt with too.
Of course the other piece of information my clients often find reassuring is the acknowledgment that almost everyone at some point suffers from a sleep difficulty, with a high proportion of people suffering on a longer term basis. There will however nearly always have been a time before the sleep difficulties started when sleep came easily, and likewise a time after when the difficulties naturally calm down. Allowing them to shine some perspective on their problem and if neccesary start keeping a diary of their sleep helps them put some positive expectations in place.
For those that are interested there is a good book on sleep I recommend called “The Promise of Sleep” by William C. Dement
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By Lawrence Michaels