How to overcome your sleeping problems
The harder you try to sleep, the worse it gets...
After successfully treating people with insomnia for nearly fifteen years I've decided it's about time I wrote an article on the subject, to share some of the discoveries I've made over the years. In fact the solution to insomnia is surprisingly simple - it's convincing people that it's the right solution, and getting them to put it into action that's the problem!
Quite a few people seek out hypnotherapy to help with sleeping problems, either because they don't want to rely on drugs, or have found that medication is becoming less effective over time. They usually want to be "hypnotised out of the problem." though they don't say as much. They want the hypnosis to be used to instruct the automatic mind to let them sleep - and that's exactly what is contained in most hypnosis Mp3s and CDs out there, and also in real life hypnotherapy sessions. However, there's a lot of additional hypnotic stuff that usually needs to be done besides in order to make it work properly, or get them to sleep well consistently.
Some people experience temporary sleep problems, whereas others are confirmed insomniacs. There are many books out there designed to help both these types, some of them containing hundreds of pages, crammed with advice and analysis. Many of my clients are read up on these books and appear to be as expert in the subject of insomnia as the authors themselves. They can quote various passages or sentences from these books, or articles, that they have attempted to memorise and recall, usually just when their head hits the pillow at night....yet still they don't sleep.
Imagine getting hold of one of these books (say, 379 pages long) only to find to your amazement that when flicking through the pages, every page turns out to be blank...no advice, no guidance, no tips, no statistics, no analysis, no case studies. Then you realise there is a little box in the introduction page at the beginning with writing in it that says:
Everything you will ever need to know about sleeping is contained in the following sentence:
As you read this you're probably thinking, "don't try?" - if only it were that simple! In any case, you knew that already, didn't you? Or maybe it is a simple statement of truth that has somehow eluded you. Actually the real experts when it comes to going to sleep easily are young children....and they never try!
Copy the real experts - young children
When you want to learn how to do anything in life well (from cooking the Sunday roast to making a nuclear bomb) the best people to learn from are those who do it well. So what can we learn about getting off to sleep from young children? Well, children tend to do the opposite from trying to go to sleep, yet they sleep the best, they often don't even want to go to bed, let alone sleep. They lie there, listening to the sounds made by the lucky people who are allowed to stay up: grown ups talking, car doors banging. Quite often you'll notice them tuning into these sounds, even hoping that they will keep them awake! The last thing they are trying to do is go to sleep. Despite their best efforts though, the sounds of the everyday world fail to keep them awake and eventually they fall asleep.
You could call this "reverse psychology", but there's no need to get that complicated because the answer is very simple. Learn from the experts if you want to sleep, remember the box above. The answer is don't try! Also, unlike young children, insomniacs tend to be analytical, perfectionist types who try very hard at most aspect of life. Unlike young children, they also tend to spend long periods of time in thought - more on this later.
Three Common Mistakes
You'd be surprised how many people make the most basic mistakes that can end up causing their sleeping difficulties, so before doing any hypnosis, I usually go through a checklist to rule out these common mistakes:
1. Don't necessarily have a warm bath before bedtime. Revert to the bath or showering habits you had during periods of your life when you slept relatively well.
2. Revert to using the kind of bed or sleeping arrangements that were in place during times that you slept relatively well. The same goes for room heating and ventilation.
3. Until your sleeping difficulties are over, do not take stimulants after midday, such as tea, coffee, Irn Bru (anything containing caffeine) ginseng or any other stimulants. Also, refrain from drinking alcohol as much as possible, as although it acts as a sedative in the short term (and helps many people manage their stresses and emotional upsets) at night it can disturb sleep and cause dehydration. Remember that caffeine and alcohol are drugs - so don't attempt to cut them out completely unless you are confident you can live without them. If you have been taking them everyday you may well experience withdrawal symptoms that increase stress and make sleeping even more difficult.
Avoid the habit of drinking water in the night because it can keep you awake after drinking it, especially if the water is cold. For four million years cavemen and women did not get up and drink water at night and our bodies have evolved to function perfectly well without water during the night. Once you let drinking water in the night become a habit, the body clock may come to require water, depend on it and even wake you up deliberately to get it.
On the other hand, if you feel tied when it is time to get up in the morning, drink cold water, it will wake you up!
Change what you do in the daytime
1. Exercise is good if you suffer from insomnia - but only in the morning or early afternoon. This is because exercise temporarily raises your blood pressure but lowers it in the long term - the older you are, the more pronounced this difference becomes, because blood pressure takes longer to fall after exercise. Lower blood pressure (so long as you are healthy) makes it much easier for you to get off to sleep, whereas high blood pressure has the opposite effect.
Exercise is also a great way of reducing stress hormones. Not only that, it can make your body feel pleasantly heavy and tired as you lie in bed, which makes it much easier to get off to sleep. Imagine lying there in bed, feeling heavy, exhausted, warm, barely able to keep your eyes open.
2. Cut out salty foods and added salt until you are over your sleeping problem (again this is because in many people it temporarily raises blood pressure, especially with increasing age).
3. Short and long term tension and anxiety, worry, upset and stress raise blood pressure, so do whatever you can to take resolving action or come to terms with anything that is upsetting you. This is a particularly tall order if you're not sleeping well because lack of sleep makes it much harder to handle upsetting and difficult situations. This is a classic vicious circle. If there are difficult problems or emotionally upsetting situations in your life sort them out as best as you can during the daytime. If necessary, create a special "problems diary" that you attend to once or twice a day, preferably during the earlier part of the day, or long before bedtime. Write down the top five things in your life that upset or worry you the most, make "an appointment time" and at those times attempt to solve these problems as decisively as you can. Keep whatever appointments you make and do not think the problems over at any other times. Try and become a little more philosophical about life - remember the old saying;
CHANGE WHAT YOU CAN AND ACCEPT WHAT YOU CAN'T
For each problem, decide what action you are going to take to solve the problem, or if no action can be taken, accept this fully, totally and completely. If this is painful, fully, utterly and totally accept all of the pain without reservation. Let it go into you. In this way all your hurt and problems will reach resolution and your mind will stop being so restless and keeping you awake in order to solve your problems and situation.
Sometimes there will be uncertainty and you will neither be able to take action, nor accept things. Where there is uncertainty, you must either remove the uncertainty by taking action, or accept the uncertainty (if no action can be taken). Lastly all you can do is the best you can muster to handle your life.That's all you can ask of yourself...so let go of being hard on yourself, even when you make mistakes.
4. Never "try" to sleep. You are powerless here because the act of going to sleep cannot be performed as an act of will. It is performed by the unconscious, autonomic mind (the autonomic nervous system, if you prefer). In other words, just as you cannot switch off your heart through an act of will, so you cannot switch off your consciousness. You may be used to controlling things in your life. You may have found, from past experience that effort and determination bring rewards. Well not in this situation they don't...you are powerless.
The only power you have is to prepare yourself as well as you can for sleep, avoiding making any of the common mistakes mentioned above. Once in bed, and ready for sleep, all you can do is enjoy the warmth and comfort of the bedding (if you notice it) and let your mind drift wherever it wants to go, and gently and persistently coax it gently towards relaxing thoughts if it drifts onto something stressful, upsetting or exciting. That's it. You should not attempt to do anymore than this once in bed. Accept that you are powerless from here on. Once you accept that you are powerless from this point you can relax and just let your automatic, unconscious processes decide how much, if any, sleep you get.
5. Never use the bed as an "office" for thinking things through, for sorting out problems or being creative. It may be tempting to do this because at the end of the day, and during the night, the mind naturally relaxes much more than during the day - in preparation for sleep. This relaxation should never be abused, it should never be used for any activity other than rest and sleep. The trouble is, a relaxed brain is a far more effective tool for creativity, sorting out problems and remembering things than a tense brain can ever be, so there is the temptation to abuse this time and use it for sorting things out. This is especially tempting if during the daytime the mind has been tense, possibly compounded by poor sleep the previous night.
As the late evening approaches, more of the contents of the subconscious mind become available to us and we naturally gain more clarity and insight into our problems, our memories seem to work better, and we become more creative. This is why business people are tempted to use the bed as a kind of "office." This is also why artists and musicians sometimes work late into the night, or get out of bed full of inspiration that would not come during the day, abusing the relaxed brain which is supposed to be used for sleeping.
The more often we use the late evening or night for this kind of activity, the more the brain eventually begins to oblige by keeping us awake in order to carry out these activities, until we condition the body clock to stay awake when it should be asleep. Once it has been conditioned in this way, the body clock becomes confused and instead of making us feel sleepy at bedtime, it keeps us wide awake, ready for another round of thinking or creativity!
In fact it is best to begin to wind down before bedtime, because the mind is like a "fly wheel" in a toy car. Even when you are no longer revving the car, the fly wheel carries on moving it across the carpet. The brain sometimes carries on whirring like that flywheel, so that even if you are doing an excellent job "switching off" and deliberately relaxing, your brain may keep revving all by itself, long afterwards!
6. Keeping a regular bedtime is so important if you are having sleeping difficulties, even if at first, you do not go straight off to sleep. The regular bedtime gradually conditions the brain to switching down automatically to a deeply relaxed mode, in preparation for sleep, at the same time each night. The more often you stick to the regular time, the deeper and more powerful, the feelings of relaxation and sleepiness will occur at whatever time you choose. This will only work if you do use bedtime to stimulate the relaxed mind by using it for thinking, worrying or creativity.
This is why some very young children, start falling asleep in your arms once it goes past their bedtime. We all posess the same body clock, regardless of age - so make the most of yours. The more regular your bedtime, the less you need worry about being over excited or stimulated before bed, because your body clock will automatically reduce your blood pressure and calm you down as soon as your normal time for sleeping approaches.
7. Give in, surrender to any sounds you hear whilst you are lying in bed as if you were a powerless, uncritical child. Remember children tend to be the sleep experts. On the whole they do not find noise prevents them from sleeping, unless they begin to copy the attitude that certain sounds are irritating or disturbing; or if they are using the concept of disturbing sounds as an excuse to get out of bed after bedtime. Children to not usually care about sound because they do not judge whether the creator of the sound is being inconsiderate.
So surrender to the sounds of aeroplanes, traffic, loud bassy music, laughter and so on. Allow the world to carry on without you, allow stupid, inconsiderate people to make noise. Give in to the lot...just as a small child would.
The hardest sounds are intermittent, unpredictable ones made by inconsiderate people. Obviously you have to draw the line somewhere...so draw it and stick to it. If you cannot complain and/are not going to complain, then surrender totally to the noise. Accept that you have absolutely no power. You may even like to turn your palms upwards as you lie in bed and relax them as a symbolic gesture that you concede that you have no power and that you give in to all sound, utterly and totally. Turn up the sound mentally in your head, until it becomes as loud as possible...then surrender to it.
Imagine an adult telling a small toddler that certain noises they might hear after bedtime are irritating, unpleasant or that they might keep the child awake. It won't be long before the child has become as unnecessarily paranoid as the adult! Your subconscious mind is like that toddler - if you keep on reacting badly to the way the world carries on after you are in bed, you will gradually train your mind to become just like that toddler - to be irritated and bothered by noise. Such self-talk is a form of affirmation or even self-hypnosis that many people indulge in without realising it. A clever trick hypnotherapists often use, is telling your mind that unwanted sounds will become triggers to make you feel relaxed!
To overcome this negative self-conditioning keep reminding yourself that from now on you are going to adopt the attitude of an critical child when lying in bed. You are going to allow the world to carry on without you, that you fully, utterly and totally accept and give in to those sounds. You acknowledge that you are powerless to do anything about them. Don't try too hard to do this, let the change come gradually. Simply do the best you can muster, and remember that you are learning from and modelling yourself on the world's undisputed sleep experts...tiny children.
8. If you toss and turn at night and your body ignores all your gentle efforts to lie still, it is best to let yourself toss and turn as much as you naturally need to. If this disturbs who you are sleeping with, try and sort out a temporary arrangement where you can sleep separately until you naturally return to gentler sleeping habits.
9. When lying in bed, ready to sleep, allow your mind to drift wherever it wants to go. If you notice your mind is attempting to solve a problem, or dwell on upsetting, exciting or stressful thoughts, gently move your mind on to something relaxing or soothing like a beautiful wilderness or deserted beach. Treat your mind in a similar way to how you would treat a child who keeps on getting up out of bed and coming into the living room. The first time you may speak briefly to the child, enquiring why it has got up, but subsequently you gently lead, or carry the child back to bed without saying a word. Each time it subsequently gets up that night, you gently and lovingly repeat this pattern again and again. In the same way, no matter how many times your mind may resume thinking about unwanted thoughts, you lovingly and gently nudge it back to relaxing thoughts.
Apart from this you are powerless to do anything else. Accept that you have no further power and let be what will be. Give in to this situation, don't try to sleep. Once you realise and accept this, you will naturally relax much more deeply.
10. Eastern monks have claimed that they only need 2-3 hours sleep because they spend so long in very deep meditation, they simply do not need to lose consciousness in order to feel recharged and refreshed. A good meditator can relax the mind without falling asleep and slow down the brainwaves, going from the usual waking 'beta' state, down through the flatter brainwaves to 'alpha' and 'theta' towards delta. It is thought to be impossible to flatten the brain waves to the delta state whilst remaining conscious, but the more you are able to remain awake while in deeper states of mind, the less sleep you will need. Could remaining at a deep level of meditation, yet remaining conscious be as beneficial as sleep itself? The answer is almost certainly "yes."
This is good news if you spend a fair bit of the night in a kind of "trance" state, not asleep, but not in your normal waking consciousness. Without realising it you could be gaining as much benefit during these phases as if you were fast asleep! So from now on, if all you achieve is this kind of consciousness, relax, because it will be as beneficial as sleep. Of course, if you are simultaneously feeling stressed and disappointed that you have not actually lost consciousness, it will very soon bring you out of this trance state and you will stop gaining the benefit.
So in future, you can take all the pressure to sleep off yourself! All you need do is enjoy those lovely, trancey episodes when you are lying in bed, knowing, from now on that it doesn't matter if you stay in that state all night, or whether you actually fall asleep...either way you will be as refreshed and revitalised after a couple of hours of this, as a tibetan monk. Hopefully, you are by now beginning to realise that all along, it was mainly the worry about whether you got to sleep or not that kept you awake.
If you want to get into this trance- like state as you lie in bed, you should practice it during the day. Simply find a warm place where you can be undisturbed, either sitting or lying down, and begin to focus inwards on any part of your body, simply being as aware as possible of the physical feelings you notice, and nothing else. Do not analyse those feelings, simply be with them. If your mind drifts off (it will) just keep coaxing it gently back to its simple, enjoyable task. Never attempt to fall asleep at any time or use this exercise as a way of dropping off (never use any such tactic). The main point of the exercise is to give your mind a chance to relax, recharge and re-energise, just like those monks seem to be able to do.
It is a great privilege of modern times that most of us are able to find a slot during every 24 hour cycle when we can enjoy being temporarily free from the physical and mental pressures and demands of life. A time when we can simply lie somewhere warm and safe and do nothing.
Do you have to remember all this advice?
No, there's no need to attempt to memorise anything on this list of do's and don'ts! Don't lie there in bed trying to recollect what you should or shouldn't be doing. These words are designed to influence your general attitudes and behaviours, not to give you strategies that you need to take to bed with you! Remember, sleep experts (little toddlers) don't need to go to bed with sleeping strategies in their heads (apart possibly from trying to stay awake as long as possible!).
Still unsure what to do?
Apart from preparing yourself as best as you can during the daytime - by exercising, meditating (or listening to a hypnosis mp3 like Deep Sleep All Night Long) cutting down on caffeine and following the other bits of advice - there's nothing you can do. This article is much more about letting go of trying, rather than trying something new. However, I realise that some readers may still be finding this message a bit confusing and may be thinking like this to themselves:
"It's easy to say their's a simple answer like don't try to sleep - but that's easier said than done. I'd do anything for a good night's sleep. It is essential that I sleep properly again as soon as possible, and I'm determined to get there whatever it takes. Sleep is the one thing I want more than anything else in my life, it's why I'm reading this article!"
If you are still confused - it means that you haven't understood the message that you are powerless and must let go of the futility of trying to sleep... Re-reading the article may help you, or maybe you should try seeking help elsewhere. One thing, however, is certain - eventually, over time, when you finally manage to re-establish normal patterns of sleeping, you will only have achieved this because somehow, somewhere along the line......you stopped trying!