Thursday, 15 December 2011

Sleep, Insomnia and Anxiety

            Insomnia is defined as: trouble falling asleep or staying asleep through the night1. Its time-frame may be episodic (comes and goes), short-term (3ish weeks) or chronic (long-lasting).   There are many potential reasons to experience insomnia, but many relate to anxiety. It can take someone the better part of a few years to get their night-time anxiety under control. For some, their anxiety peaks in the morning, when the body’s level of cortisol is highest. For others, while they may experience this cortisol-peak physiologically, their anxiety isn’t affected by it nearly as much as the thoughts regarding falling BACK to sleep later that evening...
        It’s a vicious circle.
             The problem with anxiety-caused insomnia is that it’s not only the thoughts about potential important events, or maybe even about the insomnia itself, it’s about environmental triggers that you have unwittingly conditioned your body to react to. Your bed, for one, is a very powerful physical trigger – ever notice that as soon as you lie in it you are likely to start feeling drowsy? That’s because your body knows this is where you sleep. The problem comes when your body and your brain knows that this is where you do most of your “freaking-out”...
            Another physical conditioning effect that many parents try to instill in their children is a nighttime routine, also known as “sleep-hygiene”. In order to ensure you have the best sleep possible, there are a few general rules to follow. At this very moment, I am violating one of the main rules of good sleep hygiene: I am working in my bedroom, lying on my bed. That’s a sleep no-no.
            Your bed should be for sleep and sex. That’s it. Take your homework to the table. There is so much power in physical conditioning that your sleep-quality is affected, even if you don’t have insomnia. Another thing is that around an hour before you are planning to lie down for the evening you should begin to wind down your mind. Turn off the TV, computer or any electronics (music is okay), and write in your journal, do some stretches (nothing vigorous, you are going to sleep soon), and maybe read a little bit of a book (nothing too exciting, you don’t want to get your brain fired up). The idea here is to get a routine established. Usually about an hour to wind-down before bed works for me, when I do practice good hygiene.
            The most important thing is to establish good sleep-hygiene as a routine - it will serve you well. You will definitely begin to notice your sleep-quality decreasing the less you maintain your nightly habits.

            There are a few ways to get yourself ready for bed in addition to drinking a glass of warm milk or having a nice, hot herbal-tea.
            Melatonin is a hormone in the brain that signals it’s time to sleep. Our bodies make it naturally (the pineal gland in the brain), and it is triggered by darkness. It can be obtained in pill-form, kind of like a “vitamin” from most grocery stores, and virtually all pharmacies. There are varying doses, but 3mg is fairly standard. If you are thinking about trying melatonin for your sleeplessness I would suggest reading the information available on the packet before-hand and definitely consulting your doctor. There are potential allergic reactions, and side-effects that you will need to be aware of.
            Deep, abdominal breathing is a great way to relax your body as you prepare to sleep. It begins with inhaling slowly and intentionally from your belly. Don’t let your chest rise while doing so, and exhale through your nostrils. Focus on making your belly rise and fall with each breath. You can count your breaths, from 1 to 10, and then start again back at 1 with each breath. The idea here is to focus the mind on something other than what you are thinking, and because this deep-breathing slows your heart rate (it’s a physiological reaction) it actually calms your nervous system down so that over time your anxiety should decrease, and with it, your thoughts should clear a bit. Of course, however, like all things, this takes practice to master. So while you may not feel relief the first time you try the deep-breathing, if you are consistent in your nightly routine, you will start noticing the calming effects. I will write more, detailed descriptions of deep-breathing and provide some exercises and visualizations in an upcoming article.

Thank you for reading.

                                         Conquer on!

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1 PubMed Health Encyclopedia

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