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Waking Up and Worrying
When I was young sleeping was the easiest thing in the world. I couldn’t understand how anyone could have problems with such a natural state. And then my forties hit! Suddenly it was impossible to know if I was going to sleep through the night or not.
As I’ve worked with this problem for a few decades I’ve learned that there are few things that lead to a more restful sleep, and how to handle middle-of-the-night awakenings. I have discovered the same thing that many others have discovered. If I’m worried about something I wake up, lay there and worry, and don’t get back to sleep for hours. I can lay there and actually feel the stress hormones filling my body as I worry. If I’m not worried, I wake up and am able to get back to sleep fairly quickly. The cure seems obvious: stop worrying. Easier said than done!
Keep to a Schedule
Most experts will agree that restful sleep is easier if we keep to a schedule. As much as possible set a standard bedtime for yourself, and develop a few going-to-bed rituals. It is also a really good idea not to eat anything past 7 p.m., and to keep sweets to a minimum.
However, if you are like me, you will often find your schedule at the mercy of circumstances, and even under the best of conditions have your eyeballs pop wide awake in the wee hours of the morning.
We are told over and over that reducing stress leads to better sleep. Of course that is true. The problem is that it gives us one more thing to worry about! Now, not only are we stressed out, but we are worried about the results of stress! Everything from heart disease to obesity is caused by stress. That’s enough to make me lay awake at night worrying about the fact that I am not sleeping.
I have found, though, that taking a purposeful stand against my own problems can have positive results. I learned this while working a temporary and completely crazy job last summer. I was in a situation where no amount of worry and/or planning was going to make the next day better. Each day was a complete unknown that had to be dealt with as it came. Because the job was temporary (and very high paying) I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I should quit. Work it to the end was the only choice. All I had to do was get through each day, sleep, and then get through the next day.
I slept like a baby again.
This particular day-to-day grind knocked me out of my rut so that everything was new. That experience taught me that it wasn’t really the stress that was causing the problem, but the accumulative effect of my life that was making thinking stressful.
I am sure that hormones and an older body have a lot to do with not sleeping through the night. But when I was younger so much less stuff had happened to me that I did not have an accumulative effect of stress. Understanding that made it easier for me to take a conscious stand against stress. I now have a different attitude when I go to bed. There will be plenty to worry about tomorrow, but for sleeping I put it all aside.
Even with all that I still find myself awake during the night, and have found a few strategies that help me get back to sleep.
Get up and make lists: This is the best strategy of all. I get up and make long lists of whatever I am laying there thinking about. Once it’s down on paper I can put it aside and get some sleep
Don’t eat: never take the time to snack, even if you are hungry. If you eat you will suffer both the accumulated stress of not sleeping and more and more weight.
Meditate or pray: in our busy lives few of us have sufficient time for meditation or prayer. Take advantage of your awake time and you will find that it adds to your joy rather than detracts from it.
Don’t Worry Be Happy
Most important, don’t worry about not sleeping! Something else is keeping you awake, and adding one more worry to your list is not going to make things better. You have a lot of time there in the middle of the night; use it for the real stuff!