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Sleeping With Anxiety

If switching off and falling asleep is a struggle, try these strategies to get some shuteye.

Sally Storch; 'Night Stories', 2009

This is our second piece in a two-part series on sleep. Read part one on the importance of quality sleep.

You’ve tried everything from herbal teas, silk pillows to white noise machines, yet you find it hard to sleep or wake frequently throughout the night. It’s more than an inconvenience; we also know that poor sleep can have detrimental effects on our emotional and physical health.

Before you reach for pills, consider the causes. Insomnia is not a single sleep disorder. It may be a symptom of another problem, caused from something as straightforward as drinking too much caffeine during the day or more complex issues like chronic worrying.

“We usually struggle to fall asleep because we have our heads full of chaotic thoughts and have lots of worries," says Singapore-based psychologist and life coach, Beata Justkowiak. "We still overanalyse things.”

When it comes to her clients, she says it's imperative to first find out if their sleep patterns are affected by stress or anxiety, or in recent weeks, recovering from the lockdown.

“The most important thing would be teach them how to clear their minds and how to process their emotions,” Justkowiak says.

Here, she shares five ways to calm your mind and achieve better sleep.

1. Breathwork. “I usually recommend breathing techniques, like deep belly exercises where the exhalation is much longer than inhalation,” says Justkowiak. “And a little bit of restorative yoga if they want to move their bodies in the evening, my favourite is Yoga with Adriene.”

She adds however, to avoid exercise at least 2 hours before bedtime.

2. Progressive muscle relaxation. This anxiety-reduction technique involves alternating tension and relaxation in the body’s major muscle groups. Muscle tension is commonly associated with stress, anxiety and fear, as part of a process that prepares our bodies for a fight-or-flight response.

Justkowiak says to do 30 to 45 minutes of this exercise. “You tense the muscle, and relax, tense and relax. The sequence goes through the whole body, going from the feet up.”

3. 2-minute meditation. “Meditation is an absolutely brilliant technique, but too often we give up,” she says. Instead, she suggests starting out with just 2 minutes as a way to take a step back from the day and de-stress. “I usually do it just before I finish work and I close my laptop.”

Try Do Nothing for Two Minutes, a site developed by the popular app Calm, that does exactly as the name says. Once you're on the page, you’re not supposed to touch your keyboard or mouse for two minutes. You simply sit and watch a picture of a seashore, listening to the sound of waves.

4. Journaling. Depending on what you're struggling with, there are different types of journaling Justkowiak would recommend. Research has found that writing may ease stress and trauma as it helps people overcome emotional inhibition. By writing down your thoughts and feelings, you learn to organise them better, increase your emotional awareness and importantly, gain control of them.

5. Schedule 'worry time'. Setting aside 15 to 30 minutes each day to work through intrusive thoughts has been shown to be an effective way of dealing with stress. In one study, participants who were told to focus their worries at a specific time and location experienced a significant decrease in their anxiety. They also slept better.

Justkowiak says to do it every day for a week, ideally in the evening. You may find it challenging at first, but your effort will make a difference. She reminds us not to do it when you're already in bed as you may end up ruminating and trying to problem-solve. “You want some transition and downtime before you sleep.”

In this video, she explains how to get started.

A final note: Observe your current sleep routine, prior to making any changes. Justkowiak offers a free sleep log on her website, which she recommends filling up for at least two weeks to find out why and how you can make small tweaks to improve your sleep.

Beata Justkowiak is an ex-athlete, psychologist and life coach who works with individuals and corporates. As a mental wellness advocate, she takes psychology out of the therapy room, proving how practical it is in managing life’s challenges. Follow her on instagram for tips and learn more about her work on her website.