If you’ve got insomnia, you’ve probably heard of “worry lists.” Sleep doctors for years have been urging insomniacs to write our worries down before going to bed, claiming this will alleviate anxiety and sleep will come more easily.
Really? Write about looming deadlines and all the upcoming functions I have to prepare for before I go to bed? That’s sure to send my anxiety through the roof! (not to mention keeping me up for hours).
But the idea may not be as counterproductive as it sounds.
These days people are worried about jobs, health care, the environment, the possibility of worldwide war. Uncertainty about the future, and fear of negative outcomes, may rob even reliable sleepers of sleep from time to time.
But for many insomnia sufferers, worry and anxiety about sleep itself—“It’s two o’clock and I haven’t slept a wink!”; “If I don’t get to sleep now I’ll get sick!”—is an equally powerful enemy of sleep.
Here’s more about worry and insomnia and how to keep them from spoiling the night.
Let’s say you grow up in a family of champion sleepers, yourself included. At college, you sail through rowdy dormitory life sleeping like a log. Job interviews, stressful to some, don’t faze you. By 27, you’ve landed a good job and in a few years earned enough for a down payment on a house. Sleep is still dependable and stays that way for a decade.
Then, coinciding with a move and the birth of a second child, you find yourself wide awake at your normal bedtime, staring at walls. Soon this becomes the rule rather than the exception. Before you know it you’ve developed chronic insomnia. How can sleep go from good to bad so quickly?
Insomnia sufferers write to me often with complaints about sleep-related worry and anxiety.
“The more important the next day is to me, the harder it is for me to sleep,” Jessica says. “So I worry about not sleeping and then it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Finding a solution to this problem can be tricky. It may require experimentation before you home in on a strategy that works.
Worry is the most common reason people cite for sleep problems, and worry and sleep disturbance invite the use of alcohol. Worried insomnia sufferers are twice as likely as people without sleep disturbances to become problem drinkers.
But I’ve spoken and corresponded with quite a few people who say an occasional drink or two before bedtime gives them a good night’s sleep. Here’s a look at the effects of alcohol on the brain and differences in how people respond to it.
Occasionally I hear from an insomnia sufferer who can tell me precisely the times she woke up the previous night. “Went to sleep at 11:30, up again at 12:55. Lay awake for an hour. Got back to sleep but woke up again to go to the bathroom at 2:40. Woke up again at 4:40 and stayed awake until the alarm rang at 6. What should I do?”
This person—let’s call her Judith—doesn’t sound like she’s getting much sleep: little more than 4 hours if you tally up the numbers. Few of us could thrive on a steady diet of 4-hour nights, and Judith is no exception. She works full time and cares for her family in the evening. When the alarm rings, she’s got to be up and on her toes all day until she crashes at 10 p.m. No wonder she has a lot of anxiety about sleep and is desperate for more of it.
I’ve blogged about various ways to improve sleep, but one small change of habit I’ve mentioned deserves more attention.
Researchers at UC Berkeley have shown that sleep deprivation amplifies anxiety in people prone to worry. In a study written up in Science Daily, the researchers found that a single sleepless night greatly ramped up neural activity in two brain regions associated with the processing of emotion.
Older adults tend to sleep less than younger adults, with total sleep time declining by about 10 minutes per decade.
But the assumption that sleep problems generally increase with age does not always hold true, according to two studies recently published in the journal Sleep.