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  • Writer's pictureSophie Bostock, PhD

When the unexpected happens: how to cope with poor sleep

I haven't been sleeping well for the last two weeks. 

Sometimes something hits you out of the blue that is totally unexpected, and throws your world into disarray. It might directly effect you, or someone close to you. Your minds starts racing with endless possibilities.. you wake up worrying.. you can't concentrate.. nothing else feels important. How to cope with poor sleep is probably the least of your worries.

At times like this we have to remind ourselves that we can't control everything. Sleeplessness is an entirely natural reaction to perceived danger, or uncertainty. 

Fortunately, we humans are fabulously adaptable. Over time, things will get easier. The key where sleep is concerned is not to change anything drastic.

Here are 5 things that I think may help when you're experiencing a sudden bout of poor sleep:

  1. Stick to your normal routine. You will be getting less sleep, you will be a bit tired, but it's not forever. Trust that the build up of sleep debt will help you sleep more deeply eventually. 

  2. Take a quick nap if you need to, or rest. Just 15-20 minutes, if you can't keep your eyes open during the day. 

  3. Write down your worries during the day (not at bedtime!). Rather than ruminating, and allowing negative thoughts to whizz round and round in your head, get them down on the page. Thoughts are much less scary when they are written down. You can write down pros and cons, you can recognise catastrophic (exaggerated) thinking, and you can share what you've written down with a trusted friend or professional. Two heads are often better than one. 

  4. If you do wake up during the night in a bit of a panic, reassure yourself that waking up is normal. Take a few slow deep breaths. Breathing out for longer than you breathe in sends a message to your brain that you are safe, and in control. You could try the breathing technique in the video - I call it 1,2 breathing.

  5. If you're still feeling wide awake after 15 or 20 minutes, get out of bed. No-one ever fell asleep faster by trying harder to sleep. You'll just train your brain that your bed is where you worry about things. Get up. Go and do something gently distracting.. read a good book.. do the ironing.. until you feel your eyelids getting heavy, then you can get back into bed. 

I'm posting this at 10pm at night. The other thing that might help is to go to bed a bit later than usual, when you're really tired. This extra build up of sleep pressure might make it easier to drop off. 

Hopefully you're not in a place where you need this right now, but perhaps save it for a time that you do. I think everyone probably has the occasional bout of poor sleep. It probably means that you care about something, or someone. 

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