Your Sleep Problems are a Gift (Really!)
What is sleep?
Sleep is one of our most natural behaviours. It is the third most critical factor for our survival, after oxygen and water- meaning that sleep is more important to our survival than food!
We spend about 35 years of our life sleeping. With this in mind, I find it worrying that so many people suffer from sleep disorders. Or perhaps what’s actually worrying is the way society tries to fix them. When I started working with sleep in 2005, pills were the only remedy. Pills to wind down, pills to fall asleep, pills to stay asleep. No one seemed remotely interested in discovering the root of the problem so we could find a real cure.
As a newly graduated psychologist, my first assignment was at a psychiatric facility in Sweden. I encountered patients with various different mental illnesses, but they all had sleeping problems in common. They slept too much, too little, or not at all.
We started a group trial where we treated patients with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) instead of pills. The transformation was remarkable. I wish I had before and after pictures. The CBT reduced rates of anxiety and depression in the patients, who subsequently started taking better care of themselves and being more socially active.
How many people have trouble sleeping?
In Sweden, about 10% of the population has chronic insomnia, severe problems with falling asleep. Another 25% experiences some sort of sleeping problem, although not as severe as insomnia. Over 900,000 individuals are issued prescriptions for sleeping pills every year. I find it a scary reality that we have to medicate for what should be one of our most normal behaviours.
But I like to look at things in a positive light, so I try to see a sleeping problem as a gift – because you can do something about it.
What causes sleep problems?
We experience problems when we move away from sleep as a natural behaviour. For example, manipulating our waking hours with artificial light as opposed to following the sun has major effects on our sleep cycle.
An enormous shift in sleep patterns occurred in 2007. The smartphone boom began, and many of us started to live in front of screens. From then on, we weren’t just using screens at work or school - we’re now glued to them around the clock. There’s even a documented change in children’s sleep patterns correlating to this timescale.
How can we cure our sleep problems?
Don’t be discouraged if you have trouble sleeping. Your sleep problems are actually a great gift – your body is alerting you to an imbalance. And you can fix imbalances!
If you open the gift, you will probably find one of the following inside: a bad relationship, work, stress, financial worries, health issues, physical inactivity, or bad habits. We start to think about our problems when we go to bed. We get stressed, bitter, angry and sad. This keeps us from sleeping because we go into fight-or-flight mode.
Make time to unwind
Don’t ignore these problems or try to solve them with pills or, worse, self-medicate with alcohol or other stimulants. Instead, deal with them. You have two choices: accept them or change. Of course, change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice, sometimes courage, sometimes both.
Establish positive sleep routines and habits. We have very good bedtime rituals with kids, and we often find ourselves falling asleep in bed with them. There’s a reason for this: those rituals work. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Regularity works. Being able to relax both mentally and physically has a lot to do with conditioning. If your environment doesn’t foster and enhance a positive experience, it can cause even more tension – which contributes to sleep problems. Turn your bedroom into is a positive and sleep-inducing environment. Clear it of screens and lower the lighting when bedtime is approaching. Decorate with tranquil colours and keep it simple.
Digging into your sleep problems and treating them as a gift will be hard work, but the reward of a proper good night’s sleep till make the effort worthwhile.