We all have occasional bouts of mild insomnia. It may be due to an excessively stimulating day, a particularly disturbing event, or perhaps an especially difficult assignment due the next day. Usually these periods are brief and we are able to resume our normal sleep pattern. There are times, though, when stress may be prolonged for several weeks altering our sleep pattern so that getting a good night's rest is quite hard. We may toss and turn, ruminate over too many things, or wake up frequently during the night. It seems the harder we try to sleep, the more impossible it is to fall asleep. We unwittingly condition ourselves to experience nighttime with wakefulness. We even take daytime naps to "catch up" which makes sleep at night more difficult.
Rest assured. Sleep research shows that even chronic insomniacs get sleep. They may report getting no sleep, but laboratory results indicate that sleep does occur, albeit uneven. What is sought is the return of the subjective feeling that one has rested well.
If you suffer from poor sleep, be sure to consult your physician to see if there are any physiological reasons for your situation. You may be asked about any personal problems or stresses you have been under lately since these psychological factors can interfere with restful sleep. Talking with the PCC counseling psychology staff may also help identify psychological complications to sleep.
Once you have "ruled out" any physical or serious psychological reasons for poor sleep, consider the following suggestions for better sleep habits (it would be wise to review these with your physician).
- MAINTAIN A REGULAR WAKE-UP TIME This will help synchronize your circadian rhythms (your biological sleep-wake clock). If you work a swing or night shift, stay with your regular sleep- wake schedule as close as possible even on your day off. Changing your pattern may result in "jet lag" symptoms.
- CREATE A SLEEP ENVIRONMENT Muffle loud noises, screen light from entering your room, use a good bed, maintain a room temperature between 64°F and 66°F, and turn your clock away from you so you can't see it in the middle of the night (seeing the time tick by creates more pressure to sleep making it harder to fall asleep).
- DEVELOP BEDTIME RITUALS These will serve as reminders that it is time for sleep. You may start with locking your doors and closing your windows. Then, take a warm bath or shower, brush your teeth, change into your sleepwear (if you use them), turn down you bed, set your alarm clock, recite your prayer or meditate, turn off the lights, and use any other behavior that can be ritualized in the preparation for sleep.
- CONDITION YOURSELF TO SLEEP Learn to associate lying in bed with sleep. If you go to bed and end up worrying about things, get out of bed. It is better to go to sleep when you're drowsy. Avoid sleeping in other places around your house or apartment. Your bed, too, is not for studying. Use you desk and save your bed mainly for sleep.
- OMIT DAYTIME NAPS This will throw off your sleep-wake cycle.
- LEARN TO RELAX If you are tense, deep muscle relaxation will help. Clench your fists, feel the tension for a few short seconds, then quickly relax your hand and allow the tension to escape. Do the same for your arms, then your neck, your abdominal area, and finally your legs. Take d-e-e-p, slow rhythmic breaths to help relax.
- ENGAGE IN DAILY EXERCISE This tends to deepen sleep. Try aerobics, jogging, calisthenics, swimming, walking, and the like. Refrain from workouts a few hours before sleep since exercise is stimulating.
- AVOID CAFFEINE, CIGARETTES, AND ALCOHOL BEFORE GOING TO BED Caffeinated coffee, tea, cola, and chocolate increase arousal, so eliminate them after midday. Decaffeinated beverages are usually fine. Since cigarettes can increase stimulation, butt them out. Alcohol, while facilitating some relaxation, typically leads to fragmented and poor sleep.
- OVER-THE-COUNTER SLEEP AIDS typically contain antihistamines. While inducing drowsiness in many, some may become over-stimulated. Caution: sleep aids are for occasional use only; regular use may lead to over-reliance.
- DON'T LABEL YOURSELF AN "INSOMNIAC" Should you have a difficult night, the experience will only reinforce the label and create a fear of insomnia which could become a "self-fulfilling prophecy." Remind yourself that you will probably get some sleep even though it feels like you've had none. Concentrate on the idea that "rest will come."
- REDUCE FLUIDS AFTER DINNER TIME This will lessen the likelihood of having to use the toilet in the middle-of-the-night and thereby permit uninterrupted sleep.
- IF YOU STAYED UP ALL NIGHT (or a good portion of it) to study for an exam or finish a paper, remember it will take a few days to readjust your sleep-wake cycle.
- IF WORRYING KEEPS YOU AWAKE, set up a 30 minute "worry" period to occur at the same time and in the same place every day. Be certain to confine all worrying to just the one time slot and to think intensively about your concerns. As you toss and turn in bed or wake up trying to solve your problems in the middle of the night, remind yourself that you'll have time during the worry period that next day. Remember, too, that you're not really alert enough to solve problems when you're half asleep.
If you still are not sleeping well after trying the above tips, consult your physician again, the nursing staff of the Student Health Center in Room U104, or the counseling psychology staff of the Personal Counseling in Room L108. Professional services at PCC are available to currently enrolled students.