Being awake at an ungodly hour, your mind a tangle of anxious thoughts, is a wretched experience.
Whether you’re thinking about work or family worries, the events of the day, or tasks you face tomorrow, it tends to kill off the chance of sleep.
It’s a common problem, with “thoughts” second only to “needing to go to the toilet” in the list of sleep disrupters identified by the 20,018 people who completed the ABC’s Sleep Snapshot survey a few weeks ago.
And when asked to describe in their own words what sabotaged their sleep, the words “work”, “anxiety,” “stress” and “worry” were frequently used.
All too often, there’s a snowball effect with the initial worries compounded by concern about the impact the poor sleep will have on productivity the next day.
Three-quarters of our snapshot respondents said they worried about sleep at least some of the time and 23 per cent of people often did.
Edie Eicas, a 66-year-old poet, artist and editor from Adelaide, often wakes in the middle of the night and finds intrusive thoughts stop her going back to sleep, sometimes for periods up to several hours.
She’s experienced this for around 20 years. Sometimes it’s nearby traffic noise that wakes her up.
She believes a traumatic marital separation may have been the initial trigger for her sleep issues.
“If my mind’s going a mile a minute, I try and distract myself by listening to podcasts … Sometimes they work, but sometimes I stay awake because they’re interesting,” she said.
“When sleep’s really bad, I do worry because I recognise that I’m not up to speed [the next day]. I hate not being productive to the level I expect of myself.”
Ms Eicas was one of the many people who got in touch when we asked you to share your sleep stories as part of Reboot Your Life this month.
We asked sleep physician Professor David Hillman from the Sleep Health Foundation for some tips to help Ms Eicas get better rest.
Sleep tips for Edie
Try something other than listening to podcasts to help get back to sleep: The fact podcasts sometimes stimulate suggests they are not the ideal activity. She needs to try something more relaxing. Perhaps books or audio books that are not too arousing in their story lines could be worth a try.
Don’t stay in bed to do activities to help get back to sleep: If Edie can’t readily drop off to sleep again within say 20 minutes, she should get up out of bed to do a relaxing activity, keeping the lights low, and return to bed only when she starts to feel sleepy again. The brain needs to learn to associate being in bed with being asleep. Lying in bed awake and frustrated, or doing a stimulating activity, gives your brain mixed messages that can weaken its ‘drive’ to send you to sleep.
Accept that sleep isn’t perfect for everyone, but especially if you’re over 65: Edie needs to understand that waking in the night is a normal part of sleep sometimes. If you’re over 65, this may be especially so because the sleep cycle is a bit less robust in older people (thought to be linked to weaker rises in the sleep hormone melatonin in the brain, compared to younger people.) Believing night waking is a sign of failure or a disastrous problem will only make you more anxious and so make it less likely you’ll return to sleep rapidly.