A Sleep Anxiety Wake Up Call

A tall elderly man, shrouded in a pale blue cotton blanket is being wheeled to a nearby ambulance. Squinting through the evening’s gloom, I stop to watch as he is gently manoeuvred in to the back of the ambulance and driven away.

Relieved and moist eyed I trudge up the hill to retrieve my car. I have just watched my Dad leaving hospital following five days of treatment for pneumonia. He is on his way home despite not being well enough to sit up in a wheelchair. I tried to persuade the doctor to keep him until morning – when he’d have more energy for the journey – they were sympathetic but resolute; they needed the bed.

Four nights before, Dad had arrived in Accident & Emergency with breathing difficulties, the lack of nursing staff and five-hour wait to see a doctor were clues that he wouldn’t be transferred to a ward any time soon.

I stayed up all night with Dad and caught three hours sleep in the middle of the next day before going straight back to the hospital. I’m not complaining, I was happy to do it and the staff did their best – they seemed overwhelmed by the number of patients, many of whom were elderly. It’s that time of year. But let’s not get distracted; this blog is about sleep anxiety.

I overheard one of the nurses telling a colleague she only gets one or two hours sleep at a time. It reminded me I would normally be worrying by now about how I would cope the next day; thinking I’d probably succumb to a cold and so forth.

Why then had my normal panic about missing a few hours sleep, never mind a whole night, not surfaced? I put this change down to the simple exercise I recently picked up in a self-help book Say Good Night Insomnia by Dr Gregg D. Jacobs.

A few weeks back, I followed the advice to make a note of the following

  1. the time I got in to bed
  2. went to sleep
  3. length of periods of wakefulness in the night
  4. time I woke up
  5. how many hours I allotted for sleep.

It only took me a few minutes each morning to complete the grid and tot up my total hours of sleep.

After a week I could see I was having at least six hours sleep – granted its not the longed for eight hours I’ve always believed I need. However, realising my overall average over the week, was seven hours plus a night, really surprised me. For the first time I felt less anxious about how much sleep I am actually getting. Perhaps you know that feeling … It bubbles up at you whenever you can’t get straight off, wake in the night or wake too early?

Noticing the thoughts occupying my mind, such as ruminating over lack of sleep; negative thinking how will I cope if I’m tired sometimes made me fearful before I even got in to bed. What hope was there of sleeping! The diary of sleep hours was a wake up call, excuse the pun, because feeling reassured I am getting enough sleep has stopped me waking up in the night! And staying up all night with my father really brought that home to me.

Yes, I have looked tired this week, not surprising given the worry over my dear dad. As far as the missed night is concerned though, I’m not panicking, I know I can go to bed a little earlier over the next few evenings and my body will take what it needs. After all, I’m not a teenager – I’m not growing!

Writing this also prompted me to re read a blog I wrote back in November 2103 Sleep Solutions and reminded me of some of my own advice. Oops, bad habits can creep up on us …

Here are those sleep tips with a few new ones added. I hope you find them useful. Please share any you may to have to add in the comments box:

  • Take advantage of your natural body clock – the circadian rhythm, and if possible reinforce it by keeping to a regular sleep pattern, even at weekends.
  • Thinking; are you leaving all your thinking time until you are lying in bed? Try giving yourself some space to back track over the day and process your thoughts before you need to go to sleep. A good way of letting go is to work through your day, what you remember and how you felt until bedtime.
  • Ruminating and worrying; if you’ve got something gnawing away at you, try talking it through with someone or keep a journal and write down how you feel. This should give you a sense of having shifted the problem and provide perspective. Night time waking can be linked to people having ‘a lot on their mind’, as the body’s subconscious uses the sleep phase, typically between 2:00 and 4:00 am, to process problems. Studies have shown that people who talk about their problems are less likely to wake up regularly in the night.
  • If issues are beyond your immediate control or influence, focus on why it matters to you to shift resentment and angry feelings.
  • Most people find they sleep better on days when they are physically active. We know that exercising releases feel good hormones that help relieve stress, so this in turn will help you sleep.
  • Depression; if you are suffering from emotional difficulties and they have lasted more than a few weeks, you may be depressed. This is something I have experienced and wrote about in my memoir An Inconvenient Posting. The book includes a Do’s and Don’ts of Depression section. It is recommended you consult your doctor if you suspect you are depressed.

When going to bed:

  • Turn off blue light emitting devices such as TVs, tablets and Smartphones, which cause the brain to be alert. Kindles and some e-readers do not emit blue light.
  • Avoid reading or watching anything upsetting or unsettling on the run up to bedtime.
  • Over stimulation from caffeine is a reality. If you are particularly sensitive to its affects watch out for chocolate as well because of the caffeine in cocoa beans.
  • Exercising is good but not after 8:00 pm when it may rev up your system.
  • Eating heavy or sweet food near bedtime will also hamper your levels of comfort and over stimulate your body.
  • Distractions; got a noise you can’t block out? Invest in some good earplugs. I have friends who swear by them.
  • Be comfortable; cool, dark and quiet. Have anything you need close at hand; water, eye shades etc. If something is not right (itchy clothing for example) sort out the problem straight away.
  • Do not dwell on getting to sleep; focusing on the fear of not being able to sleep is the trademark of the insomniac. Negative thoughts and self-talk are guaranteed to keep you awake. Try techniques below.
  • Imagine you are a night watchman and you are not allowed to go to sleep! Use the power of the paradox…

You might like to try some relaxation techniques:

  • Just breathe… gently in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on your natural, deep breaths low down in your abdomen. This will help your mind step away from thinking and as you become the observer, switch off. If you find your mind keeps skipping on to other thoughts just notice this and gently come back to focusing on your breathing.
  • Relaxation CDs and downloads; there are many different ones to choose from; some include guided relaxations which will help relieve tension in your muscles.
  • Sleep aid CDs and downloads; many work on a similar principle to the relaxation aids, some include hypnotic, positive messages to help improve how you think and feel about sleep.  Most also aim to benefit those who wake in the night and would like something to help them get back to sleep if they do. I tried Paul McKenna’s I can Make You Sleep which comes with a book, DVD and CD and found it helpful.
  • Herbal Remedies and Bach’s Sleep Remedy; some people find Valerian is helpful for sleep disturbances and Bach’s remedies for balancing the body’s resources. You will need to mention any herbal remedy you are taking to your doctor if you are taking prescribed drugs.
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Perfect Day

Now that January is safely out of the way, taking with it those dark days and doomed resolutions, I’m in a safe space to talk about being happy.

My inspiration? I recently went on a Flourishing and Thriving course facilitated by leadership coach, Kim Gregory. It sounded refreshingly upbeat compared to some courses I attend as a therapist; Death and the Dying is booked for later in the year …

My Saturday was spent with a relaxed circle of delegates learning about positive psychology techniques, some of them were new to me, some not. I have selected a few to share here with you.

I have mentioned before, in my memoir and blog,, the benefits of expressing gratitude. Yes, even to yourself, being thankful it seems makes you a happier person. For example, scientific research has proved we can help control our emotional reactions in difficult situations with the power of positive thoughts. Next time you are going to the dentist or whatever makes you feel bad, make a conscious decision to think about something that makes you happy. See for yourself if the normally intolerable, really does becomes bearable.

Need ideas? No need to overthink it. On the course, my happy thoughts were scribbled down:

I imagined choosing a nutty chocolate from a large selection (I can smell the cocoa bean aroma), slipping between freshly laundered sheets (I can feel the cool cotton on my skin and notice the lavender scent), imagine the smiling face of someone I love, the suspense of opening a beautifully wrapped gift, or giving a gift, even hearing I’ve passed an exam came to mind.

You get the idea … So next time you are feeling challenged or anxious just tune into your own happy thoughts and see what happens.

The gratitude exercise involves choosing a journal you like, or a diary would work just as well (avoid writing in a tablet before bedtime as it stimulates the brain). Before going to sleep, each night cast your mind back and recall three things that went well that day.

I keep my journal in the bedside draw, even if I’ve had a horror of a day, I can usually think of a few things that went well, or at the very least did not go wrong! Again, the science proves if you do this for three weeks and jot your findings down, you will be a happier person. That is how long it takes to grow new neural pathways in your brain. Amazing isn’t it?

If you are prone to depression or low days, and frankly everyone has some of those, this is welcome news and could help transform your life, optimising your mood and vitality. What is more, you can do it without spending any money; it just takes a little self discipline to get started.

You can also use your own powerful imagination to create new positive thoughts and images, then by simply learning to say “stop” to negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones, you will retrain your thinking processes and experience positive feelings as a result of those happy thoughts.

Apparently the “mother of all gratitude experiences” is to write a gratitude letter to someone you really respect and explain all the things you love and appreciate about them. Ideally you should take it to them and ask to read it aloud while they listen. Being British, and naturally inclined to reserve, this sounded somewhat toe curling, so this is work in progress for me; I’ve written the letter so will let you know how it goes.

The exercise I found to be most useful is the Perfect Day exercise. Cue Lou Reed’s seductive piano intro to his Perfect Day. This song immediately puts me in a good mood. Skip the lyrics if its not your thing:

Just a perfect day

Feed animals in the zoo

Then later

A movie, too, and then home

Oh, it’s such a perfect day

I’m glad I spent it with you

Oh, such a perfect day

You just keep me hanging on

You just keep me hanging on

etc …

What would your Perfect Day involve? What you would be doing and would you chose someone to do it with? If you are an expat you might recall happy times in another country.

My list included; a scenic walk with a friend or loved one, laying on a sun lounger in the garden while reading or listening to music, writing, having a massage, shopping without the pressure to find anything in particular, playing tennis and so on.Poolside radio

Sharing my list here makes me realise how ordinary it is, perhaps I should have mentioned skydiving or something more unusual. And yet these are simply the everyday activities that nourish me. And when I’m refuelled I’m more relaxed and happy.

My list inspired by my own awareness coming to the fore, I’ve managed to find time in the weeks since the course for these activities. If you, like me, are a big doer then you may find that writing your own wish list for a Perfect Day and giving yourself permission to go for it, will indeed help you to thrive and flourish. I’m sure you deserve it.

You can follow Kim Gregory on Twitter @StrengthsAtWork or visit her blog at:  

www.strengthsconsultancy.com/blog

Feeling Frazzled, Getting Focused

Blogging recently about Mindfulness has made me looking more carefully at my own process, the unsaid challenge I had set myself, how ‘in the moment’ am I? Well, the last few weeks have certainly given me ample opportunity to test myself. I have a busy life, mostly because I like it that way – I don’t feel like I do sometimes, and yet I am the architect in charge so must take responsibility for its design.woman with mixer

What is more tricky is those unexpected challenges; the spikes which overlay the normal run of things; being eight months into a building project involving our home being reconstructed while we are in it, my partner unexpectedly having to be away all week, for several weeks and then there was my parent’s elderly dog who was clearly struggling and at the end of her life. I felt I needed to step in and call time – it had become clear no one else could, or would, take her to be ‘put down’. My Mother is an Alzheimer’s sufferer; at the vet’s she hung on (literally) to her little canine companion, not wanting to release her to the inevitable. Eventually after fifteen very long minutes, she somehow dug deep and releasing the dog she was cuddling tightly to her chest said, “I know I have to be grown up and let her go”. It was heart breaking to witness.

I share this with you, not because I want to burden you with my life, but rather to pay homage to those of you feeling like an overstretched elastic band; possibly being pulled beyond your natural elasticity, out of shape and about to snap?

Behaving mindfully is certainly an effective way to still the mind and stop yourself feeling overwhelmed and being focused on one task at a time has other benefits too. In today’s technologically bamboozling world electronic messages of all kinds nestle in our palms, pockets and hand-bags waiting for response. This makes it tempting to multi task just that bit too much.indian lady

Having been asked by Faye Bran @rubyslippersdxb if I would like to do an interview about expat book promotion, it felt difficult to fit in, given what I had on and yet I wanted to get it done particularly as she is conducting interesting research. It so happens that you can’t really write and multi task (or at least I can’t) so I had to put aside 1 – 2 hours in which to do it. What I noticed, having completed the interview draft was a sense of satisfaction and achievement, a rare feeling of late.

Feeling buoyed by a sense of achievement, made me reflect on how exhausted I had become trying to do too much at the same time. Allowing myself to be constantly interrupted by incoming texts, phone calls, emails, Twitter or the men working on my house is energy sapping. I’ve been struggling to maintain good boundaries, concentrate and finish what I set out to do.

The analogy of the headless chicken, although not very pretty, is apt. Doing, doing, doing and lacking either focus or direction is neither satisfying nor productive. Allowing yourself a sufficient space to finish tasks is far more effective, I guess we’ve known this for a long while, but given the march of technology the challenge facing us is greater than ever.

Many of us enjoy our enhanced technology and would not want to be without it, some teenagers I know believe they couldn’t live without it … To be aware of the temptation to check-in too often is important, the habit becomes addictive and an excuse to avoid what needs doing. Unfortunately, avoiding just leaves us more stressed – something that will not be lost on the many young people studying at this time of year, as they prepare for important exams.

When I ask my children to put away their phones whilst eating dinner, it leaves their brains free to enjoy their food and the company of their siblings (the latter not guaranteed). Making sure that we grownups are not checking our pc’s, tablets and phones or trying to read a report whilst watching TV is also a good habit that I am still working on. It’s not wrong to do those things individually, just less effective and more stressful if you do them at the same time, not to mention inconsiderate of those trying to share the TV program with you.

CONSIDER THESE BEHAVIOURS:

  • First things first; get on with the most important job of the day when the urge to do so is high – usually first thing in the morning.
  • Do so without interruption.
  • Think short, medium and long term; set aside time to think about strategic activities rather than always doing what is most urgent.
  • Schedule time off for breaks during the day, have lunchtime and enjoy your food.
  • Avoid checking emails before turning off your device at night; it can lead to burnout before bedtime and disturbed sleep.
  • Research shows that taking regular holidays, even adding a couple of days to your weekend every few months, will make you more productive in the long run.

Lastly, I had thought it was the end of an era for my parents with the demise of their little pooch, but God and the universe move in mysterious ways; four days later, I bumped into an old friend and neighbour, he was looking worried and explained his mother-in-law was suddenly having to go into nursing care and adding to their concerns she had an elderly cat who needed re homing. Molly the cat was installed with my parents the next day and for the time being at least, they have a little pet to enjoy, an experience they have shared for over sixty years.

RESOURCES

Video: 10 Powerful Ways To Stay Focused On Your Wok Without Getting Sidetracked (Performance Management) by Chris Diamond

Book: Be Excellent at Anything: Four Changes to Get More Out of Work and Life by Tony Schwartz, Catherine McCarthy and Jean Gomes (4 Aug 2011)