It's World Sleep Month.
Some nights I really struggle with getting to sleep and even staying asleep because my brain just won’t switch off. So I decided to reach out and ask two experts for their advice on how to reduce anxiety before going to sleep at night.
I spoke to Minette De Villiers, a clinical psychologist based in Bellville, Cape Town and Kerry Acheson, a counselling psychologist and life coach based in Claremont, Cape Town. Kerry thinks it’s helpful to have a wind-down routine before bed. “This routine then serves as cues that signal to the body that it’s time to slow down in preparation of sleep.
“Limiting screen time, and rather reading a book or doing an adult colouring in page may be helpful for some people. Relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or a guided visualisation exercise can help. Some people also find that listening to an app with nature sounds, or listening to an audiobook works well.”
Kerry also advises to keep your bed a “worry and work free zone”.
“Some people keep a note pad next to their bed. Be intentional that this is a wind down time. Any thoughts that come to mind about things that need addressing can simply be jotted down on the note pad, to be dealt with in the morning,” says Kerry.
I followed Kerry’s advice and tried a few of her tips. Here’s how they went:
Limiting screen time
I usually fall asleep chatting to my boyfriend or watching something on my PC, so it was quite difficult to change that habit. It seemed to work in conjunction with the other tips though. I avoided screens for about an hour before I intended to fall asleep and I felt a lot calmer when I was ready to go to bed.
Reading a book or colouring in
I love books so swapping reading with screen time was a great idea for me. I tried the colouring in exercise too but the activity just made me want to stay up later and finish instead of its intended purpose which was to relax me.
Listening to an audiobook
I have the Harry Potter audiobooks on my phone and PC and often listen to them when I can’t sleep as a means of relaxation. It’s calming to listen to someone telling a story and because I know the story so well already it’s also comforting.
Minette says that how well we sleep is a reflection of a combination of many things.
“This includes sleep styles we learnt in childhood, how well we are able to "switch off" at the end of the day, general sleep hygiene and is affected by many things including alcohol/caffeine/medication use, bad habits, current stressors, physical and/or mental health conditions etc.”
She does warn that one night of trying out a new tip will probably not help you sleep much better but consistently trying a few techniques or making certain changes will help eventually.
Minette suggests having a calming bedtime routine for about an hour before bedtime. “So having a warm bath/shower; putting clothing out for tomorrow; packing your bag/lunch bag/kids bags; reading a book; having a cup of tea or hot milk which avoids technology (phone/TV/laptop all emit blue light which "wakes up" our brain) and any other stressful activities (e.g. paying the bills) is a good start,” says Minette.
She also suggests not using the time immediately before bed or when in bed to reflect on the day or any current problems. “Our brains need to switch off to sleep. If you start worrying about something, redirect your thoughts elsewhere. Use one of the techniques below to do so:”
Clearing the mind and relaxing the body using any of the following.
A deep breathing technique
“This oxygenates your blood more richly, which lowers stress, anxiety and fatigue.
“There are tons of ways to do this. One example could be to clear your mind (an ongoing thing) and focus on a colour like blue or an imaginary sky. Every thought that comes up, is just a cloud drifting by. You don't hang on to the thought, merely accept it and let it pass (E.g. if you think "what should I make for dinner tomorrow?" you don't start thinking about ingredients and shopping trips, but merely let the thought pass while continuing to focus on watching that cloud (thought) drift across your blue sky until it is empty again. All the while you focus on breathing slowly, deeply and fully.
“Filling your lungs completely, pause for a moment before exhaling slowly. In through your nose, out through the mouth.
“As we are by nature multitaskers, our brain looks for things to do if we aren't fully engaged. Therefore, some people find it helpful to have a phrase or mantra to say while breathing. What it is is irrelevant. Something like ‘cool air in, hot air out’; ‘breathe in, breathe out’; or ‘one’ (for inhalation) ‘two’ (exhalation) are neutral phrases that could be used.
“So in effect, you focus on an (mostly) empty sky; breathe slowly and deeply while repeating a short phrase and continue to do so until you relax enough to sleep or fall asleep. You can google 'deep breathing' and also get an audio script where someone guides you in doing an exercise.”
Pleasant imagery exercise
“Sit or lie comfortably. Close your eyes. Concentrate on taking a few deep breaths. Slowly let go of all your current thoughts and worries. Then imagine you are walking on a beach. Engage all your senses in the exercise. What do you see/hear/taste/feel/smell? You look around and see the sea, sand, sky, seagulls, a boat etc. Hear the wind/wave/seagull etc.
Feel the wind against your skin/warm water lapping at your feet/sand between your toes. Smell the sea. You try and engage with the imagery as much as possible, customize it (do you like a cloudy sky or a sunny day? Deserted beach - just you and your dog or a busy holiday vibe?) and then just stay in the image. Walk around; pick up shells; eat an ice-cream. Any benign and relaxing activity.
“It could also be experiencing a garden or nature etc., depending on the person's preference. Again, there are many audio scripts freely available online. However, it is good to in time teach yourself to do it without it.”
Progressive muscle relaxation
“This is a technique to relax the muscles intentionally, one group at a time in an effort to relax the whole body. Our emotions and body are strongly linked and as your body relaxes, you will also become calmer. Here is one example of a script.”
So I also tried Minette’s suggestions and here’s how they worked for me:
Deep breathing exercises
I’ve been doing these for ages and while they usually really help I’ve never thought about using them before bed before. It helped me feel calmer as I thought of nice things instead of whatever was worrying me right then.
Imagining myself somewhere else
I chose a beautiful garden but struggled to get my brain to switch to this narrative. Perhaps I'll get better at it if I keep doing practising.
Relaxing my muscles
This I found was difficult for me. I’m always tense and it’s hard for me to let go of that. I had to make a conscious decision to actually relax my muscles and not tense them up again, but after a few rounds of this I found it became easier to do.
But along with all this advice, I would suggest if you do have an anxiety disorder or think that you could have mental health issues, make an appointment with a psychologist and see what’s up. Don’t just think that doing a few exercises will help you because while they take the edge off and can make sleep easier, these exercises are not meant as a cure for anything.
If you would like to get into contact with either of the professionals mentioned above, then here are there contact details:
Minette De Villiers
Mobile Number: 061 505 5423
Kerry is part of Claremont practice.
You can phone them on 021 671 1204 or 021 683 1951
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
She is also part of Foundations for Life in Plumstead
Tel: 021 761 8144