You’re not doing it right!
One. Baaaaaa. Two. Baaaaaa. Three. Baaaaaa. Four. I said “FOUR!” Baaaaaa.
It’s not working yet. By the time I hit 355 sheep over 355 fences* I feel like I’ve been doing this for long enough. In truth, it’s probably been only a few minutes. At 691 (persistence in the name of research, no?) I’m feeling like I’ve got the hang of it now and that my performance is right up there. I’ve had the counting thing mastered for some years now, visualisation is pretty good and, I’d venture, the sheep are enjoying jumping over that fence. And what a fine looking fence it is, without mentioning the lush grass and blue sky. All in all, I’d say I’ve got the whole counting sheep thing pretty sorted.
1,000. Feels like a milestone I should celebrate. 1,222. I’m beginning to think local record and, at 1,657, face in the newspaper and spot on the radio. I realize I’m awesome at this. Except I’m not asleep.
So why is it that it still gets currency as a method for falling asleep? My parents told me to do it as a kid, but, full disclosure, they were probably getting me to practice my counting. It’s a distraction technique, or it’s so boring we drift off, which we probably would have sooner had we not been counting sheep, for all their boringness.
So here’s the incredibly long take home bit
For those of you who like lists, hold on to your toast, here we go.
- First, if you really, really have trouble sleeping, remember that there could be a simple, diagnosable reason. Sleep disorders are more common than you might think, and there are now a bunch of good sleep clinics around. You may need to allow time to spend a night with them so they can monitor your sleep.
- A must. Cool, dark room.
- Go to sleep when you’re tired. While this may differ slightly each night, that’s ok.
- Get up at the same time each day, weekends too.
- Next, deal with cortisol which, along with adrenaline, is a stress hormone. It’s also a sleep killer, but the real kicker is this. When we lose sleep, the brain produces more cortisol. Yep, more. More cortisol means we can’t sleep, which means the brain produces more cortisol. Nasty isn’t it. Deal with the cortisol. The usual things apply to managing stress: diet, exercise and good support. Additionally, probably the best thing to reduce cortisol is meditation; effortful and focused meditation. (If you’re funny about things like this and it sounds too Kumbaya for you, because you like facts and stuff, check the science below.)
- Fix up your habitat. You might need a better bed, but before you take this as an excuse to redecorate the room to fit with your new bed, try something else first. Invest in a really, really, really good pillow. It’s cheaper than a bed, portable and, because it’s your pillow, you can look how you like. It will also deal with some sleep problems, without having to redecorate.
- Get a routine before bed. What will happen if you run through the same steps each day is that you build a mental subroutine your brain recognizes. When you start the routine, it will start preparing for sleep. By the way, controlling for all of these factors (environment, behaviour etc) goes by the fantastic term sleep hygiene. So here’s a test. See if you could also apply controlling environmental and behavioral factors in other areas. Work for a corporate? Start a meeting hygiene training program. Imagine that conversation. “So, Dave, I’ve been keeping a check on your meeting hygiene recently…” Mmmm. Play sport? What’s your batting hygiene like? How much fun could you have with this? Love it.
- Avoid TV too close to bed. TV is a high stimulus activity which consistently demands that your brain re-orients your attention to it. Your brain waves need to shift from the high activity, TV watching beta waves, to slower getting ready to sleep brain waves.
- Also, TV and online games use bright lighting and flickering screens. The flickering lights drop your melatonin production. You need your pineal gland to be producing melatonin in response to darkness to help you sleep. And if you get up, keep them off!
- If you do wake up and think you can’t get back to sleep, relax. Most people wake up at the end of each sleep cycle, albeit briefly. We just don’t know we’ve woken. If you wake up, breathe easily, avoid panic, and try and go back to sleep. If you really can’t get back to sleep after 15 or 2o minutes, get up, and do something quiet. Keep lights low, TV off, and keep calm. Go back to bed when you feel more tired.
- One notable point is that, consistently, people get more sleep than they think. Let me write that again. People get more sleep than they think. Seeing the clock at 2.30am and 4.00am does not mean you were awake for 90 minutes. It means you woke up at the end of consecutive sleep cycles. Often, it’s our belief that we’re not sleeping that causes us some alarm or stress, so we produce adrenaline and cortisol, even in small amounts, and we start the nasty sleep-cortisol cycle. Relax. Understand that you sleep more than you know. This in itself will help you get back to sleep if you’ve woken.
- Avoid looking at the clock! Turn it away, or the display down so you’re not tempted to stress about how long you think you’ve been awake. You can also do without the light from a digital display.
- Avoid caffeine and other stimulants during the evening if you can.
- There’s evidence that foods containing tryptophan help with sleep. It’s an amino acid which means we have to get it in food as we don’t make it ourselves. Once we have some though, the body can convert it to serotonin, which converts to melatonin. There’s the link to sleep. The easiest way to get a good dose of tryptophan without too much fuss is a glass of milk. Just like your grandma used to say. Just be sure to avoid chocolate in it, like a hot chocolate. You’ll defeat the tryptophan with the sugar and caffeine in the chocolate drink.
- Other things? Sure. Let me know what else works.
If you’re serious about some research, try here: Tang Y-Y, Ma Y, Wang J, et al. Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. PNAS 2007;104(43):17155
* I didn’t actually hit them over the fence. I hit the number, not the sheep!
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
What’s it like for you?
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