By Laura Smith
Last night the phone rang at 2:18 am. I was sound asleep —it was great sleeping weather, the cool air streamed through open windows. By the time I woke up enough to understand that the ringing was real and not part of a dream, the noise had stopped. Unlike the phones in other rooms of the house, the landline bedroom phone doesn’t have caller ID and the volume of the ring is turned down. So, I didn’t know who was calling. But I did look at the time. Then I turned over. Sleep did not come. I was wide awake wondering who called. Darn.
So, I got out of bed and padded into the kitchen to look at the caller ID. The call had come from my daughter, Sara, who was working the night shift at the hospital.
Should I call her back? Did something happen to one of the grandkids? Is she all right? Now my mind generated non-stop worries. Forget sleep. I sent her a text.
The story ended. She had accidently hit her speed dial and hung up after two rings. But my middle of the night awakening persisted.
My first inclination, like many people, is to fluff up the pillows, reposition myself, and hope sleep overtakes me. Sometimes that works, but usually sleep remains evasive. So, instead of counting sheep for hours, here are a few tips to manage sleepless nights:
- Get up. Yup, put on your robe and slippers and get out of bed. If you can’t sleep, you don’t want to stay in bed. That’s because you want your brain to associate your bed with sleep, not with insomnia. Do something that does not involve screens (the light from screens messes with your circadian rhythm), read a book, clean up, write in a journal. When you start to really get tired, go back to bed.
- Don’t catastrophize. Realize that you will likely sleep better tomorrow and that you can get through the day without your regular sleep. Sleep is important but you can function with an occasional bad night of sleep. The more you get upset about not falling asleep, the more your brain will keep you awake. Worrying just doesn’t work.
- Have a very small snack. It doesn’t have to be raw broccoli. A glass of milk or a cup of non-caffeinated tea and a biscuit or piece of toast will do.
- When you go back to bed, try taking calming breaths. Count your breaths.
You might consider meditation during the day; it can help with sleep at night.
Between 10 and 30 percent of adults struggle with bouts of insomnia. The bad news is that the quality of sleep decreases as we age. Older people sleep less and not as well. Seniors with insomnia may experience daytime sleepiness, moodiness, and difficulty concentrating. This can have serious impacts on day-to-day functioning.
If your insomnia is chronic, talk to your health care provider. No, don’t call her at 3 a.m. when you can’t sleep. It’s best to first rule out any physical causes and your health care provider may have some suggestions about improving your sleep hygiene. In addition, consider a short stint of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia with a trained mental health professional. CBT has been shown to be effective for the treatment of insomnia for many adults and in the long run is a better alternative to medication for most.
Sweet dreams zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Laura Smith is a clinical psychologist as well as a member and volunteer of Village in the Village (ViV). ViV supports seniors who want to stay in their beloved Corrales homes and stay connected with their community. You can get more information at VillageintheVillage.org