Why can’t I fall asleep?

Chantelle K. Dockter,
MA Licensed Professional Counselor

Question: I lay down at night to go to sleep and I can’t turn my mind off. It then takes me a long time to drift off and if I wake at night I struggle with going back to sleep. Why does this keep happening and what can I do to change it?

Answer: Many sleep problems are psychologically rooted. When the mind cannot be quieted, the body also has difficulty relaxing into a deep slumber. Before looking at the psychological reasons, we need to look at how to develop a sleep-inducing “bedtime” routine that adequately prepares your body for drifting off. So many of us “go, go, go” all day long, and then flop into bed, close our eyes, and expect to fall fast asleep. We are not physically or mentally designed that way. We need some transitional time and routines to prepare us for sleep.

As nighttime approaches, be aware of your activities. Wrap up the tasks that are taxing to you physically or mentally well before you are headed to bed. Avoid eating a huge meal too late, rather eat a dinner earlier and have a light snack before bed if needed. Drinking warm mild or decaffeinated tea can soothe your senses and warm your insides. Avoid alcohol; contrary to what some believe, it is not helpful to satisfying sleep. Certainly avoid caffeine in the evening hours. Exercising too closely to bedtime can rev you up too much, so make sure you do your exercise earlier in the day or afternoon.

Prepare your body by taking a warm bubble bath or hot shower. Let your fatigued muscles soak, close your eyes, and breathe in the scent of the bath. Dimming lights or lighting candles can be soothing to your tired eyes. Prepare your mind to quiet down by turning off the television, putting all “work” away, and reading something light that is enjoyable and simple. Some people find that praying or meditating can be relaxing as well. Put on cozy socks and jammies, and hunker down.

Doing this routine consistently is important. However, this may not be enough for some people. Are you anxious? Does your mind go over and over your worries or list of things to be done? Are you unsettled because of an unresolved issue or a conflicted relationship? A disruption in sleep can be a red flag to us that something within us needs to be resolved or attended to. The more we push it down or ignore it during the day, the more it rears its’ ugly head at night.

Keep a notepad and pen by your bed, and write down what pops in your head while you are trying to sleep that you don’t want to forget. Prior to bed, write down any issues or conflicts that you are perseverating on, fold them up, and place them in a shoe box. Then place the box on a shelf in your closet, and close the closet door. This is a symbolic way of “putting away” the issues, for the night, with the understanding that you will take a moment during waking hours to come back to those issues in the box. Nobody will come and take what is in the box; those things can wait for your attention until the next day when you are hopefully better rested and have had a mental and physical break. A break can allow us to gain a fresh perspective on the problem.

If sleep problems continue and interfere with your functioning, see a doctor. If anxiety and depression appear to be a root, seek counseling. As healing and solutions are uncovered, better sleep often will abound.

Chantelle K. Dockter, MA Licensed Professional Counselor
Associate of CCCOW, cccow.org

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