Before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, the average American was sleeping 10 hours per night. Today, the national sleep foundation reports that the average time people spend in bed to sleep is 6 hours and 55 minutes -- with 6 hours and 40 minutes spent actually sleeping. They recommend getting at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Approximately 70 million Americans are sprouting up with sleep problems from insomnia, hypersomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, to restless leg syndrome and a majority of these are left undiagnosed and untreated.
Barring any medical issues, when it comes to difficulty falling asleep there is one main culprit and that is the mind. There are 2 steps to working with the mind in respect to sleep. Many of us learn best through a real life example, so here it is.
One of my patients, John, had a terrible case of insomnia, his nights were riddled with tossing and turning and an onslaught of intrusive thoughts reminding him how terrible the next day would be if he doesn't get sleep.
Step 1: The first thing we did was examined how overconnected John was. Our minds need to rest ad when we are overconnected to technology it keeps the mind buzzing. Now, I'm a big defender of technology, I actually think it can be enormously helpful, but if abused (and it usually is abused), it can take us away from a critical element of life that can be so supportive to our ability to get good sleep...simply being present.
So I asked John to take a log of the day to see how much time he spent on email, the web, Facebook, Twitter, texting, television or just talking on the cell phone.
As you can guess, John needed to unplug and so we created a rule, no technology after 9pm. He could read a book, spend time with his kids or wife, drink some tea, or be intimate with his wife. This would no double also improve other aspects of his life besides sleep.
Step 2: When I brought up the idea of integrating mindfulness into his sleep regime he told me, "my mind is already full enough, I need some more mindlessness." We both smiled and I responded, "Mindfulness is a simple and practical way to come down from your busy mind and be less judgmental toward yourself. It's about learning how to break the cycle that is arresting you in a frenzy."
We particularly focused on the body scan, which is a way of progressively moving our attention from our toes to our head simple with the intention of becoming aware of the sensations. These may be heat, coolness, itchiness, tingling, heaviness, lightness, etc... The purpose here is not to relax, but instead just to get curious about the feelings there, without judgment. In this way we come down from the busy minds and get back into our bodies.
While we also looked at John's diet, caffeine intake, and exercise, these 2 steps were instrumental in helping him get better sleep. In losing the electronic leash and bringing more mindfulness into his life, he also found himself with more time to do the things in life that were more important to him.
If you or someone you care about is having difficulty falling or staying asleep, have them give these 2 steps a try.
Also, feel free to share your thoughts, questions, and stories below. Your interactions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.