Putting our bad bedtime habits to bed

We have a good idea about how much exercise we need and what food is good, but many of us know very little about sleep

Tue, Feb 11, 2014, 08:24

Sleep, exercise and nutritious food are the three basics to aim for to keep your mind, body and spirit in good shape. And, while we have a pretty good idea about how much exercise we need and what food is healthy for us, many of us don’t foster good sleep habits or ignore possible sleep problems – but we do this at our peril.

About one in five people in Ireland suffers from insomnia at some stage in their life and this figure doesn’t include transient bouts of insomnia linked to bereavement or other highly stressful life events.

Deirdre McSwiney is a sleep technician and cognitive behaviour therapist for Insomnia at the Mater Private Sleep Disorders Clinic in Dublin.

She explains how about a decade ago, insomnia was given its own international scientific definition – separate to being a symptom of depression or anxiety.

Insomnia is thus defined as a condition where the person has difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep that has become persistent. “We would see people at the clinic who suffer from sleeplessness four nights out of seven for four to six months,” explains McSwiney.

Distress in the dark
The key symptom that should encourage people to seek treatment is distress.

“Our thoughts are darker and more
distressing at night and people do a lot of
catastrophising at night. A true insomniac will have both psychological and physiological symptoms.

“They will have a high rate of muscle tension and be very tense going to bed. They will be going to bed with the extra burden in their head from layers of maladapted thinking and behaviours,” says McSwiney.

McSwiney believes many of us have developed very poor habits around sleep. “Sleep is one of the most natural biological signals that many of us have over-ridden with our busy lives. I’d like to ban televisions, laptops and mobile phones from bedrooms.”

Sleep expert Michael Perlis says that many people go to bed before they are sleepy to order online, watch TV or use their phone. He calls this “the nesting syndrome”.

Beds are best kept for sleep, for when you’re sick and for sex if you’re an adult,” says McSwiney.

When dealing with her patients, McSwiney says, “What I try to do is to lift the distress, worry and frustration out of the problem.

“I also ban clock watching and encourage people to re-learn their ability to recognise when it’s time for sleep rather than hooking themselves to a bedtime.”

Sometimes, she even puts people on a reduced amount of sleep to encourage their bodies to re-set their sleep patterns.

Dump the day
McSwiney also encourages her patients to “dump the day” so that they can let go of stressful meetings and to-do lists before they go to bed. Relaxation techniques are also part of the treatment.

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