Are My Worries Giving Me Insomnia?
As kids, “time for bed” meant a routine of bath, jammies, maybe a snack and then prayers and sleep.
As adults, we can easily forget that we still need this routine for a night of healthy rest.
“We expect to do one more thing or read one more email or send one more text and then set down the phone and magically shut off our brains and fall asleep,” said Pat Schultz, LPC-MH, Avera outpatient therapist. “We forget the necessity of preparation, and the signals we can send to our body to get it to slow down – so we can sleep.”
More people are struggling with insomnia. Worries about the pandemic and its many impacts, along with other routine stressors, all add up.
“We, as a society, need to realize the reality of our post-COVID-19 quarantine anxiety,” Schultz said. “It’s exploding in the form of stress and anxiety, often leading to insomnia or poor rest. The cumulative effect hits us physically, spiritually and mentally.”
Signs of Needing More Rest
People facing insomnia or a lack of rest often show it in many ways. You might be more irritated or less patient. You may feel colder or hotter than the conditions would dictate. It also affects appetite.
“We tend to seek out comfort foods – carbs and junk food – when we’re fatigued, and it can add up,” Schultz said. “When we’re well-rested we naturally have more energy, but we also tend to lose weight more easily, face challenges more effectively and feel our metabolism rise.”
Insomnia is usually defined as having trouble sleeping three nights or more each week. “Everyone may have a night or two of fitful rest, but when it adds up over the course of several months, you’re facing insomnia,” she said.
Many times, the problem with lacking sleep can rise from a combination of factors – including physical problems like apnea or other conditions.
Building Better Sleep
Developing a routine before bed takes practice. But it pays off.
“Many people dismiss deep-breathing exercises or they try three or four breaths and give up. It takes more than a few tries to gain the benefits,” Schultz said. “Deep ‘belly breathing’ for 10 to 15 breaths can really help. The right number varies. Let your belly inflate on the inhale, as if you were filling a balloon, and then let it deflate on the exhale. Stay mindful and you will feel the shift in your body as it begins to relax.”
Our body’s nervous system might be stuck in a “fight or flight” mindset when we bring worries to the pillow. Those deep breaths, where the diaphragm is moving up and down, can reset the system and allow you to get to sleep.
Natural indicators – the sun rising and setting – trigger chemicals in the brain that wake us or help us to calm down. That’s why screen use before trying to crash out is a bad idea. “That blue light really throws us for a loop and can keep us from resting,” Schultz said. “Blue light, alcohol and caffeine as well as worries and stress – they can make us struggle with sleeping. When we cannot fall asleep, sometimes we end up getting more stressed because we know we should be falling asleep.”
On those nights when you can’t sleep, don’t just lie there in frustration – try these strategies:
- Get up and calmly walk around, water some plants, or engage in some other light activity – nothing strenuous. Go back to bed when you feel tired.
- Don’t keep looking at the clock. Even if it’s already midnight, it’s better to drop off and sleep a few hours rather than losing more sleep by worrying about how late it’s getting.
- Practice deep breathing for at least 10 to 15 breaths and concentrate on expanding your belly as you do so.
- Meditate, pray or listen to calming music.
- Do some light reading to take your mind off the troubles of the day.
When to Get Help
A lack of sleep can interfere with relationships, employment and the ability to a life you desire. Schultz said you may need additional help with sleep when you are:
- Constantly don’t feel rested, even when you think you’re sleeping OK
- Cannot “turn your head off” or avoid racing thoughts at night
- Frequently wake up, with your mind in full gear the moment you awake
“If there is one issue or specific worry you can’t seem to solve, counseling can help,” she said. “It can give you a place to receive unbiased feedback, talk through the issue and possible solutions. People often learn skills that may help them cope.”