Dear Dr. Norquist:
I have a simple probably very common problem – insomnia. I just can’t seem to fall asleep easily. My mind races for a long time after I’d like to be sleeping. It’s not unusual for it to take me an hour or more to fall asleep at night, then it’s so hard to wake up in time for work and I drag myself through the day. It’s very frustrating. I could get sleeping medication from my doctor, but I don’t want to go that route. I’ve been very busy lately, so I need the sleep more than ever. I have the kind of job where I have to be on and alert all the time – so being tired is very stressful. I wish I could depend on a good night’s sleep to sustain me through the day. What do you suggest?
Dr. Norquist responds:
With insomnia, I often use the analogy of a racing motor that doesn’t return to a slow idle when at a stoplight. Instead it idles too high or worse yet, stays racing. Our body/mind cannot go at will from 90 mph to a slow idle. For it to function optimally we need to respect our body’s need for a balance between on-time (when we are alert and active) and downtime (for rest and relaxation).With too much on-time, our bodies pump an excess of adrenaline into our systems, our minds race and we have difficulty dropping into a restful, restorative state of sleep. To make matters worse, with too little sleep, our bodies start to race even more. Perhaps you have noticed this when trying to function on two to three hours of sleep. One of the most potent triggers of mania for those diagnosed with Bipolar disorder is a major disruption of the body’s sleep cycle, through staying up all night, or traveling across four or five time zones.
My suggestion is that you make a conscious decision to pay attention to the pace of your day. Build in breaks so that your psychological system can re-experience a state of idling. Try taking a leisurely walk at lunchtime or taking 15-minute breaks to do something that doesn’t require that your mind to be active. Take time to breathe deeply, observe the world around you, and laugh as often as possible. Ease yourself into bedtime as you would a child. Slow down, take a bath, have a cup of Sleepytime or valerian root tea. Get the tension of the day out of your body through slow stretching exercises. Breathe deeply and slowly. Do not allow your mind to go to places that create tension or worries. Do not work, exercise or eat within several hours of bedtime. Make sure your bed is comfortable, your bedroom is dark and quiet and your sleeping hours are regular.
Doing these things may require that you get a little less done each day, but this is necessary for you to reclaim a healthy body and mind and to improve the quality of your life. Making these changes will not only help you to sleep more easily and deeply currently, but it will also help you to provide for a healthier future for yourself.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)
Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2009 Chaitanya Counseling Services