Why can't I sleep: Befriending the beasts that keep us awake at night | HerCanberra

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Why can’t I sleep: Befriending the beasts that keep us awake at night

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The shining moon sits high in the sky, casting a luminous silvery glow across the outdoor balcony of my hotel room.

The early morning hour marks the beginning of my fifth day in hotel quarantine. As I sit, feeling awake and alive in the cold night air, a good night of sleep eludes. Although, with the continuing COVID-19 chaos unfolding around the country, is it any surprise that we are finding it hard to relax and get some rest?

According to the 2021 Phillips Global Sleep Survey, completed by 13, 000 adults across 13 countries, 70% of adults are experiencing new sleep challenges since the beginning of the pandemic—with 43% of people struggling with waking during the night and 37% finding the pandemic has negatively impacted their ability to sleep. While sleep duration, patterns and quality varies among countries, one fact is clear—across the world, we are not getting enough.

This latest report builds upon the findings of the 2019 Global Survey and has influenced companies to begin mapping the cost of deteriorating sleep for global economies in 2021. Yet, what we feel most deeply in our day-to-day lives is the personal cost of fatigue, anxiety and stress that comes from sleep deprivation.

Scientific sleep studies suggest that sleep is essential for building our minds, conserving our energy, healing our bodies, and growing new neurological networks which help us learn and evolve. So how do we kick the unhealthy habits and patterns that prevent us from enjoying a sufficient amount of shut eye? Is it simply a matter of overcoming self-sabotage?

Psychoanalyst Darian Leader, author of Why Can’t We Sleep? argues that “once considered a natural state, sleep has now become a commodity, something that we must fight to acquire and which we are never quite sure of possessing… in today’s marketplace, and indeed, in our personal lives, there is no longer any real estate of rest, and pauses must be artificially generated, and paid for.”

Sleep satisfaction around the world in 2021. Source: raconteur.net/infographics/the-need-for-sleep

It is alarming to think that sleep has grown so complicated that it necessitates artificial engineering and fiscal sacrifice. If this is indeed the case, how do we befriend the beasts that keep our minds buzzing when it is time to sleep, but sleep evades? Better yet, how do we truly learn to switch off when our minds and bodies seemingly refuse to give us peace?

International sleep specialist W. Christopher Winter, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It, believes it comes down to our personal circadian rhythm which acts like an internal timekeeper for everything our bodies do in a 24-hour period. “This system uses light, dark, and our biological clock to regulate body temperature, metabolism, hormones (including melatonin), and sleep,” Winter explains. As the melatonin produced by our brains is what us helps to regulate sleep and our bodies, if we are tired but cannot sleep, Winter says it may be an indication that our circadian rhythm is off. His recommended solution? Designing a personalised, consistent sleep and wake schedule, combined with a shift in bedtime which sees us only going to bed when we truly feel tired.

Exercise physiologists, on the other hand, suggest that improving sleep quality is simply a matter of increasing the level of physical activity and movement in our lives. According to a 2017 study, 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week can help us fall asleep quicker, sleep longer and sleep more soundly. Exercise & Sports Science Australia reports that exercise can also help us manage other factors that lead to poor sleep like mental health and weight gain. This is a finding backed by Australia’s leading sleep expert, Olivia Arezzolo, who encourages the use of exercise trackers to monitor our ‘sleep score’ pre and post workout.

Conversely, psychologists present solutions which entail reprograming the brain, reporting the clinical success of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as a scientifically proven, non-drug treatment for sleep conditions such as insomnia. The Sleep Foundation supports the effectiveness of CBT as a treatment as well, commending its power to replace anxieties about sleep with healthier beliefs and attitudes.

Meanwhile, herbalists and naturopaths point to solutions such a reducing stress levels with calming teas, nutritional supplements, and essential oils. Energy healers recommend journaling, meditation and sleep stories using apps such as Calm. Mattress manufacturers insist on the importance of having the right type or memory foam or gel cooling pillow. Those sensitive to sound advocate for earplugs or white noise machines, and those sensitive to light swear by facial sleep masks for uninterrupted darkness or a reduction of blue light and mobile phone usage before bed.

Oversaturated by a sea of research studies and multidisciplinary experts with different solutions to manage the causes, symptoms and effects of sleep loss, is it any wonder that most of us feel overwhelmed about where to start? Moreover, what if these things don’t work for us?

Correcting circadian rhythms, exercising, or undergoing psychological treatment may not be the right fix for everyone. Finding the world’s most comfortable mattress or a silent sleeping companion will not guarantee lasting results, either.

When recently faced with insomnia during my quarantine period, I felt a growing sense of peace as I sat on the balcony gazing up at the radiant night sky, quietly observing the beauty of the universe. With this sense of calm came a delicate wave of sleepiness and it occurred to me that perhaps, for some of us, our ability to sleep is more about calming our emotions than anything else.

Maybe it has more to do with feeling safe and tapping into a sense that everything is okay deep within, rather than exhausting our bodies or reprogramming our brains.

Photography: Scott Mulligan.

Homo sapiens are a thinking species capable of teaching ourselves and learning to evolve. But at our core as humans, we are sentient beings. While our ability to think critically and learn lessons has seen us surmount evolutionary odds and achieve incredible things, we continue to rely on our instinctual ability to sense and avoid danger to survive—and this survival instinct requires an ability to feel fear to function.

Furthermore, the alertness that comes from having a healthy fear radar is at odds with the relaxation we need to achieve sleep. To drift off, we need to feel safe enough to lower the defences and protections we have been holding onto to survive our day—be it consciously or unconsciously. When we feel fear or any of its friends (namely anxiety, worry, stress or overwhelm), it becomes virtually impossible for us to let go and enter into a peaceful state of rest.

So, next time you are struggling to sleep and finding the recommended strategies ineffective, perhaps close your eyes, connect into the feeling in the pit of your belly and try asking yourself: “Do I feel safe right now?” If the answer is no, then take some time to pinpoint exactly what is compromising your feeling of safety and what you can do about it.

Recent neuroscientific studies tell us there is a ‘science of feeling safe’. At the core of these studies, is the suggestion that our ability to provide ourselves with social safety cues is what helps us to foster a healthy sense of safety and wellbeing.

Such cues can include taking a few deep breaths and pausing for reflection in moments of fear, engaging in self-calming practices and affirmations to bring peace and connection to our hearts, or purely looking at how we are feeling with self-compassion and understanding.

As we strive for sleep, how safe we feel is also inextricably linked to our innate sense of worthiness—and perhaps this is the beast we are best served to befriend when sleep evades. If we can overcome our barriers and feel that we are worthy of safety and peace, it can help us to eliminate the feelings of insecurity and doubt which compromise our wellness.

So how do we do that?

In simple terms, we can start by accepting that we all deserve to experience the sense of rejuvenation and repose that a good night of sleep can offer. We can also recognise that feeling safe is partly an inside job and partly an outside job and do the work to identify the root causes of our discomfort.

Acknowledging when we may need additional support from a professional is also important. Finally, we can empower ourselves to take action by understanding that we each have an ability to change things in our internal world and external environment to help us feel safer.

After all, feeling safe is the very foundation of healing and of all things to think about during a global health crisis, how we can heal ourselves may just be worthwhile. 

Feature image: Scott Mulligan

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