Living@Guelph - Choose Your Own Adventure Living
Sleep: Choosing Strategies That Work
By Kathy Somers, Stress Management Clinic

Everyone has a sleepless night now and then (like the night before your first day at university or before an important exam) but if sleepless nights persist or begin to interfere with your life here at university then it is important to know how to get back on track.

The most common sleep difficulty is "psychophysiological insomnia", where too many active thoughts or worries interfere with sleep. After a sleepless night, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it is especially important to sleep the next night and yet the harder you try the more difficult it is. After several nights of this, you can become conditioned to being more mentally and physically tense at bedtime, AND have performance anxiety about falling asleep.

HOW can you overcome sleep difficulties at university?

  • Identify the differences between nights with good sleep and nights with poor sleep. It may be quite an adjustment to be sleeping in a residence room or sharing a house with other university students. For example: noise, room temperature, humidity, lighting, the amount of early morning light, diet, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, softness/hardness of the bed/ pillows/ nightclothes, exercise level, stress, naps during the day, events/activities during the day, worries, self-talk, relaxation techniques, bedtime routine, etc. may all have been affected. Think of what has worked well for you in the past. Take action and change what you can to correct suspected problem areas.

  • Sleep is improved by regular daily exercise.

  • Aim for exposure to outdoor light (it does not have to be sunlight) for 1 - 2 hours daily. This is the strongest input signal to set our body's circadian clock and sleep/wake centre.

  • Decrease stress by regularly practicing time management, exercise, relaxation, positive self-talk and worry control. Give yourself time to unwind and do a relaxation technique before bed.

  • Remember that self talk, expectations and worry about sleep play a very significant role in our sleep patterns.

  • Strengthen the association of your bed as a place for rest and sleep :
    - go to bed when you are tired enough that you can reasonably expect to sleep.
    - avoid looking at the clock.
    - do not nap or sleep at any other time (especially avoid afternoon or evening napping).
    - set an alarm and get up at the same time daily to strengthen your circadian cycle (yes, even on weekends or when classes don't start until 2:00 pm).
    - follow the same routine each time you prepare for bed.
    - do not read, watch TV, study, problem solve, talk on the phone, worry, snack, review the day, etc. in bed.
    - if you don't fall asleep after 20-25 minutes in bed, get up and do something quiet and non-stimulating. Read, listen to music, do a puzzle, houseclean, catch up on your letter writing, etc. When you feel that your mind is calm, go back to bed. Initially you may repeat this procedure several times in the night.

    These are very powerful strategies but they often need to be practiced for 3 - 4 weeks for full benefits.

    "Not sleeping does not lead to exhaustion; worrying about not sleeping leads to exhaustion."

    Practice making and using more realistic expectations and helpful thoughts.....

  • Sleep cannot be forced. Watch for demanding, forcing, rushing attitudes at bedtime and change them to allowing relaxation and welcoming rest. If it helps, go to bed a half hour earlier to give you a cushion of time and lessen the urgency of falling asleep immediately.

  • Take off the time pressure- i.e. the demand to fall asleep quickly, and how many hours of sleep you need. On average it takes 15-25 minutes to fall asleep and the number of hours asleep is not nearly as important as the quality of sleep.

  • People do not stop thinking when they are asleep. Rather than expecting your mind to go blank at bedtime, refocus your attention to thoughts and ideas which are calming. Similarly, expecting no movement when asleep, or "sleeping like a log", is an unrealistic goal. Changing position as many as 10 to 15 times a night is normal.

  • Statements such as, "I never sleep after such a stressful class / when the pain is this bad / before a test / when I am so anxious or angry ..." can make it difficult to sleep at bedtime. Try to take effective action in dealing with these situations and their feelings so that you can more easily clear your mind of them at bedtime.

  • Do a relaxation technique, rather than worry. Or try writing all worries down and then recording specific plans (where, when, how) on how to address each one. Close the book on these thoughts and return to bed and your relaxation routine.

  • Be aware that sleep cycles change with illness, anxiety / stress, and as you age. Quality of sleep and sleep patterns can be improved with your self-talk / anxiety management, following sleep behaviours, and by developing stronger, more effective relaxation skills. After all, insomnia is not just something that happens to you, like an illness, it is also something you do, like a habit.

    To learn more and actually practice the techniques listed above, enroll in this semester's Better Sleep Program offered by the Stress Management Clinic. This program has a strong emphasis on worry control techniques and bedtime strategies for relaxing the body and mind. For further information about the Better Sleep Program, pick up a Stress Management Clinic pamphlet at the Connection Desk or the Wellness Centre, visit the web site, or call the Clinic at ext. 52662.

    "I noticed a change in my sleep patterns right away. It gave me the ability to calm my busy mind and become more aware of my sleeping pattern. I can fall asleep easily and comfortably now. Even if I am running on a tight schedule and have only a short period to sleep, I can still wake up feeling rested and energized."

    "I am very pleased with the information and support I received in this program. It was excellent in giving me relaxation and clearing the mind techniques. It is easier to understand these concepts when you engage in them, not just read about them."

    "I'm falling asleep much faster most nights and I'm generally only up once in the night instead of 4 times. Knowing that sleeping medications and alcohol actually disrupt sleep was very helpful. And now on the occasional night that I can't fall asleep I just do relaxation exercises and don't stress about not sleeping because I know I'll be okay the next day. I learned not to stress about not sleeping, because even if I only get 4 - 5 hours that's fine - I'll get the core sleep I need. I'm definitely sleeping much better these days than I have for a very long time."