How have you been sleeping these days?
In times of stress, I have a hard time sleeping. It doesn’t matter if it’s happy exciting or letting fear and doubt get the better of me. My body gets so tired, I toss and turn, have weird dreams, and wake up in the early hours, sound familiar?
So when my friend Alice started talking about the crazy dreams she was having, I completely understood. Her dreams took her all the way back to high school- unable to find the classroom, sure she had missed the exam, or forgotten to study! Mine involves my children falling into swimming pools mysteriously full of sharks (I rescue them, don’t worry) or trying to get my dinner back from tigers!
These are stress dreams, and they can be accompanied by stress daydreams. For instance, I find travel stressful, and I used to have upsetting daydreams about getting hijacked on the plane. When I realized that I tended to worry about leaving my home, sleeping in a strange place, and encountering unknowns, I began to turn it around.
You see, the unconscious mind creates upsetting dreams as a way to process and explain the underlying stress you are experiencing. Now, in May of 2020, it’s COVID 19. There are many factors outside our control, we are or are not working- both have their problems, and we are not able to interact with our friends and extended family.
At other times it could be work, family, money. Once you take a little time to identify and write or talk about these underground worries, they begin to lose their power! Explore the stories that have come up- like exams or hijackers- very calmly. Perhaps soothe yourself with yoga or meditation. You can then re-frame your experience, bringing new feelings to help you fight the stress and sleep better.
Not getting sleep is an upsetting situation. So on top of the stress that may be causing it, we now have something else to wind us up! Here’s how you can stop that cycle. In the course of my research, I learned this: most of us can function very well for at least three nights with intermittent sleep, and if we make a plan we can resolve the problem by then. Oliver Sacks tells a remarkable story about a man with a brain injury who could never sleep, they thought he would die! Well, he spent 8 hours every night resting and lived to old age. So relax, it’s not the end of the world.
So start by making a plan: there is plenty of advice about sleep out there, let me tell you some of the best points. First, sleep hygiene. Follow a bedtime routine like you were a baby. A nice bath, some light reading, calming music- whatever you like, just always follow the same pattern, do it every night, even when you are sleeping well. It’s like insurance. Also, many people are advised not to stay in bed or have naps, if they aren’t sleeping. This is to keep you in a routine- after all, if you spend the day napping, it will be harder to sleep, creating a vicious cycle.
However, if I got out of bed when I couldn’t sleep or woke up from a bad dream, I would never rest- that’s true for many highly sensitive people. I learned this from a very useful book- The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron. So I take naps in the day and I stay in bed at night- and if I spend the night just resting that’s OK. I practice breathing exercises and meditation (beats just lying there thinking) and it often puts me right to sleep!
I also do light yoga before bed- anything with forward bend helps. And I love to listen to hypnosis designed to help me sleep. Hypnosis can be much like a meditation, and helps your unconscious mind find calm.
It’s also important what you don’t do: stay away from blue light- that means your phone, television or computer screen. There are blue light blockers, and your phone may have one. Check and use it. Also alcohol- it may knock you out, but typically wakes you again at 2 am.
Magnesium supplements may help you sleep, but if sleeplessness persists more than 3 nights I don’t hesitate to use over-the-counter sleep aids or herbal ones with ingredients like HTP, valerian, and melatonin- check with your pharmacist to find out more, especially if you are on other medications. Do not use any of these if you are pregnant without consulting your doctor. One of these remedies always helps me get back on track. However, if sleeplessness persists more than a few nights, check-in with your doctor.
The bottom line is sleep is a natural process you can support in many ways! Stay calm and take a step by step approach. Hope this helps and you have sweet dreams!
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