With today’s economic turmoil, it’s no wonder that people can’t get to sleep.
A report released by ComPsych Corporation, a provider of corporate employee assistance programs, found that 92 percent of the 1,137 workers polled in October are losing sleep because they are worrying about their finances.
High levels of stress are a significant cause of sleep disruption. At night, with no distractions, worries tend to spiral out of control. As you become increasingly anxious, catastrophizing in the dark, you lie awake. You breathe more quickly, tense your muscles and know you will have a terrible night. Following that, you will have a terrible day.
Sleep is tremendously important, affecting both physical and mental health. Lack of deep, restorative sleep can lead to mood alterations, depression, hunger and fatigue. A lack of concentration means work performance suffers. Irritability means relationships suffer. It’s no wonder that sleep deprivation is used as a means of torture.
So if you are facing disturbed sleep in these tumultuous times, what can you do?
First, rule out side effects from any new medications. If you have begun taking something new and are having trouble sleeping, the medication is the first potential culprit.
I don’t advocate taking sleeping pills for sleep problems that are likely temporary and situational. Unfortunately, what happens to many people is that a stressful situation causes them to have trouble sleeping for a few nights and then they become panicked about not being able to sleep. This vicious cycle can result in many more nights of no sleep, which is why it’s important to take steps right away to correct the situation. First, make sure you practice good sleep hygiene.
Reserve your bed for sleep and sex
Don’t read unsettling news reports or watch the TV news in bed. You will only increase your level of agitation.
Eliminate energetic activity a few hours before bedtime
Don’t jog or exercise before bed. Don’t party, pore over bills or discuss the slumping economy. Instead, try to relax. Watch something mindless or funny on TV, listen to music you like, eat some comfort food to help you wind down.
Avoid alcohol before bed
Sure, sometimes it knocks you out. But it also messes up your sleep architecture. You will wake in the night and fail to sink into the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep.
Don’t eat a heavy meal before bed
This will cause some amount of gastrointestinal distress, which will keep you uncomfortably awake.
Think relaxing thoughts
If your mind is racing with worry, be prepared with a list of relaxing things to think about. This can be visual imagery or a relaxing memory. Conjure how things looked, smelled, tasted, felt on your skin. You can also try a special sound pillow that lets you listen to relaxing music or nature sounds while in bed.
Relax your muscles
Starting at your toes and moving upward, squeeze and release individual muscle groups. Breathe deeply and slowly from your abdomen. Inhale and exhale to a count of four. Put your hand on your belly, which should be rising and falling as you breathe.
Formulate a plan about what you will do tomorrow
Before bed, remind yourself you did everything you could. Worrying won’t change anything.
If you really must break the no-sleep cycle, consider an antihistamine for one to three days before bed. These are not sleep agents, but do have somnolence as a side effect. These medications will work for only a few days, but can help get you back on track so that you can stop worrying about not sleeping on top of everything else.
If sleeplessness is accompanied by palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating or nausea, you might have an anxiety disorder. If your sleep problem persists for more than two weeks, or is accompanied by feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness or despair, you could be suffering from major depression. In both cases, you should be evaluated by a psychiatrist.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.