A lot of my women friends have trouble sleeping. For some, it started when they had their first child, and constant night feedings threw their sleep patterns out of whack. For others, menopause arrived with hot flashes that wake them up in the middle of the night. Still others have been troubled by worries about work, relationships, or societal issues that keep their minds spinning at night.
Although women are not the only people who have problems sleeping, they do experience some unique issues—most notably, hormonal changes that occur during their lifespans. More women are at risk for insomnia than men, and up to 11 percent of women have insomnia that becomes unremitting, requiring treatment.
Not surprisingly, these sleepless nights make us stressed and unhappy. Research shows that sleep loss hurts our work, mood, relationships, health, safety, and more. While an occasional sleepless night is just part of being human, if it continues to happen, we can find ourselves in a troublesome pattern that is difficult to change.
What can women do? They might try picking up sleep expert Shelby Harris’s new book, The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. It is chock full of information about how the human sleep cycle works and what we can do to “hack” our thoughts and behaviors for a better night’s sleep.
Though often people are prescribed pharmaceutical sleep aids to handle insomnia, research suggests that these may not work well in the long run. Harris says that it’s important to find ways to support our natural sleep drive if we want to sleep better. Here are some of the tips that she offers to help us change our thoughts and behaviors around sleep.
The first step is to figure out how much sleep you are getting and when. Why? First, people who have sleep problems often focus only on their most terrible nights and forget that some nights are better than others. It helps to get a more realistic picture of the problem. Second, if you want to see how much better you’re doing over time, you need a baseline. That way, once you try out various changes, you’ll know whether or not they’re helping. A sleep log sheet is included in the book.
Harris includes a long list of things that you can do to give yourself the best support for falling asleep more easily and staying asleep longer. Many of these are well-known tips, but for those who don’t already know about them, they are worth reiterating:
A key to getting better sleep is to reserve your bed for sleeping—not for resting or relaxing. It’s important to train your body to associate going to bed with sleeping, rather than other types of activities. That means going to bed at bedtime and getting right out of bed when your alarm goes off, too.
Sex is an exception to the rule, as many people like to make love in a bed. But, if you like to read in bed, don’t…or don’t read for more than 15 minutes, says Harris. And, if you can’t fall asleep within about 20 minutes, you should get out of bed, rather than lie around waiting to get sleepy.
“Consistency is key,” writes Harris. “If you occasionally break the stimulus control rules, you’re giving a confusing signal to your brain and body.”
This may sound totally counterintuitive, but if you have insomnia, it’s often better to restrict your sleep than to let yourself sleep whenever you’re tired. Rather than napping at the first sign of fatigue, focus on sticking to good sleep hygiene—like trying to sleep at the same time every day, getting regular exercise, not drinking caffeine late in the day, etc.
The reason this works is because it builds up your body’s sleep drive, which ultimately makes it easier for you to fall asleep and sleep well when bedtime arrives. Of course, you have to be careful about doing this, and Harris gives detailed instructions in the book.
Insomnia often builds up over time, and so correcting it means having patience and letting the changes in your hygiene have a chance to work. Ultimately, when you develop a healthier sleep pattern, you may end up getting better sleep with less time in bed.
Many women have a lot to juggle in their lives and may spend hours in bed ruminating about everything. So, in addition to changing your behaviors, it’s important to cultivate skills for handling your thoughts, too.
Harris recommends a few strategies for dealing with intrusive thoughts. One is practicing mindfulness—learning to focus on your present experience, including thoughts or feelings, without judgment. Naming your worries as “just thinking” can help create a little distance between you and your thoughts. Setting aside time during the day to focus on worries can also help; and using reframing techniques, where you consider alternative interpretations of your negative thoughts, may take away their potency.
The book offers much more detail and many more tips, including for special cases—like when you are pregnant and need to reconsider naps or use pillows to help support your sleep. And, best of all, Harris’s advice is based in science and has been proven effective for many people.
Of course, you still may have to experiment to see what works best for you, and Harris encourages that. But if you can create a plan and stick to it, the rewards are great—namely, the possibility of finally sleeping soundly and waking refreshed. You’ll not only feel better, you’ll likely improve your relationships, your work life, and your health, too. And everyone around you will appreciate that.
Originally published on Greater Good Magazine.
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