Anyone who has ever been unable to sleep or who has woken up in the middle of the night and found themselves staring at the ceiling can relate to the quote that I used as the title of this blog. There are few things as frustrating as staring at the clock, knowing that you need to get sleep before your alarm goes off. There are many reasons that we may find ourselves awake at night. Knowing what is the reason and/or cause can be important in finding a solution. Some things to consider would be: is your bedtime and wake time the right ones for you, are you anxious or depressed, are your thoughts racing, is there a medical reason (like pain or sleep apnea), have you gotten into habits that make sleeping more difficult? In order to keep this blog entry at a reasonable length, I cannot go into all of those in details in one entry. Instead, i will focus on strategies that you can use to help you fall asleep. These techniques are based on CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia). My next few blogs will each focus on a specific strategy that can help you sleep.
So, let's start by looking at the clock (pun intended). It seems so innocent, so innocuous. The clock is often our friend: It helps wake us up, it helps us to get to places on time, it lets us know when our favorite TV show is on.... But when we are wide awake at night, the clock becomes an enemy....torturing and taunting us, reminding us that soon will we have to get up for the day. We watch the numbers tick by as we desperately hope that sleep will come. Every time we look back to the clock we wonder.....will a few hours have passed and I have actually slept or has only a few minutes ticked away? For those of you who have read my previous blogs, you know that I have the theory "is doing that helping you in any way, and if so, great......if not, then do something different.". Has staring at the clock helped anyone to fall asleep? There is probably someone out there that will say yes, but most people will sleepily say no. So.....turn the clock around. DO NOT LOOK AT THE CLOCK. That statement may create anxiety for some. If I can't see the clock, then how do I know what time it is or how much longer I have to try to sleep or how much more time until the dreaded alarm goes off? The anxiety caused by not looking at the clock is far less that the anxiety we create by looking at it. Every time we look at it, the pressure and anxiety we create wakes us up more. It draws our focus to the fact that we are not asleep and then our minds become more active because we know we should be asleep but we aren't. This creates a kind of loop: the increased focus on wanting to sleep creates brain activity (whether thoughts or emotions) that hinder sleep. If you cannot watch the clock, then this cue is turned off. Don't worry about your alarm.....you will hear it. You don't look at the clock to wake up....you hear the alarm sound. Turning the clock around also allows you to focus on how rested or not you feel rather than letting the minutes determine it for you. We have all heard someone say they slept 10 hours but feel exhausted still and then someone else says they only slept 6 but feel great. There is a subjective component to sleep that we often discount. This can actually be an important distinction when considering sleep problems and disorders. How rested you feel can be just as important as how much you truly slept..
Of course, just turning your clock around isn't going to be a miracle fix, but it is part of the solution. You need to decrease the anxiety/frustration/anger you are experiencing while wishing you were asleep. Now you need to redirect your thoughts. It doesn't matter if your thoughts are about what you need to do tomorrow or if they are about wanting to sleep. This concept will address both. Most of us have heard the idea of counting sheep to help you fall asleep. There is a reason that this suggestion persists.....the underlying idea works. Often we try to think of a happy thought or try to make ourselves relax. These are great strategies but they often do not work when you are anxious and needing sleep. You should engage in an activity that requires your brain to do an active task. This is a way to thought block and it redirects your brain from what you were focusing on. There are really simple things that you can do to accomplish this. Counting is a helpful technique but may not be actively engaging enough for some to distract. More complex math is often more effective. Some examples would be 100 -7, 93-7, etc. If that is too simple.....847-18, 829-18, etc. If math is one of your strengths, then try spelling or languages. Start with A and find a word that begins with Aa, then Ab, then Ac, etc. Conjugate verbs in your head . You can think through the steps of your favorite recipes.....anything that you actively need to think about will help thought block. At this point, many people fall asleep while doing the task; however, if you are not one of those people, then using mindfulness or mediation once you have stopped the anxious thoughts, should help you to fall asleep.
I know that these ideas may not help everyone, but it is a start. In my next blog entry, I will discuss what to do if you have tried the techniques i discussed above and you are still not sleeping....but at least you won't be staring at the clock. I hope you will go and get some sleep and please check in in a few weeks for my next entry in this series.