Monday, November 1, 2010

When sleep won’t come

A DIFFERENT SPIN By JO-JO STRUYS
jojostruys.com@gmail.com

Sleep problems are not to be taken lightly as they affect more than our physical and mental health.

IT is way past your bedtime. Your body is exhausted but your mind is still ticking away. You’re tossing and turning but you can’t seem to sleep. Or you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night or waking up too early, though you’re still tired.

If this happens for a few days or up to a few weeks, you’ve got short-term or transient insomnia. If it goes on for most nights for more than a month, it’s considered chronic insomnia.

I remember what my lecturer said about those suffering from chronic insomnia when I was studying psychology: “Whatever deep-seated fears you have or issues you are not dealing with in your waking hours can affect you in your sleep. Sometimes, they’re so deeply rooted, we are unaware of them but not being able to sleep night after night, gives us a clear sign that we are not at peace with ourselves.”

Years ago, I met a girl through work who was really attractive but she was teased about the fact she never dated anyone. No one knew her tragic story but when we all found out what happened to her with her first boyfriend, it was the last time anyone ever teased her again.

One night, she had a heated argument with him. He drove off in a temper and was killed in a car accident that night. To make matters worse, she later received a small parcel from one of his family members. As it turned out, he had purchased an engagement ring for her just days before his death.

She started having sleepless nights, imagining the life they could have had together and the “what-ifs” had they not argued that fateful night.

Six years later, she was still having sleepless nights and was diagnosed with chronic insomnia.

When she was in a counselling session, it hit home when she was told: “I’m sure you’ve tried everything possible to sleep at night and it hasn’t worked. All you have to do is something no one can give you medicine for. Just forgive yourself.”

Slowly but surely, she started letting go of the guilt of her boyfriend’s death and coming to terms with it. Peaceful sleep eventually found its way back into her life.

Lack of sleep is not characterised just by major events or traumas. Things like work stress, financial worries and anxious thoughts can trigger off short-term insomnia and affect our ability to focus at work.

According to the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health, a study on Malaysians between the ages of 30 and 70 showed that a staggering 33% of them had symptoms of insomnia, similar to global statistics.

In the United States, at least 70 million people are suffering from sleeping problems.

On the home front, it is important for us to bear in mind that a tired workforce is a less productive one. If bosses are increasing everyone’s workload, and everyone is putting in longer hours, it does not necessarily mean better work is produced. People are not machines and we cannot expect them to produce work, especially creative work, like a factory without rest.

When you’re stressed and overworked and surviving on lack of sleep, your creative juices might dry up and you’re actually better off stopping for a while just to recharge your batteries before resuming your work. It doesn’t need to be for a whole day. Think along the lines of quality rather than quantity.

Even five minutes of deep breathing at your work desk can clear the mind and calm your thoughts down. In fact, in an insomnia programme conducted at Northwestern Me­­morial Hospital in Illinois, those practising a form of meditation called Kriya yoga in the daytime, had actually increased their sleep time at night in just two months.

For all of us living in Asia, we have no excuses if we want to take up the ancient breathing and relaxation techniques found in tai chi, qi gong or yoga. Take your pick! So many of our public parks conduct group sessions together and it’s free of charge.

The health benefits of meditation are too long to list but it slows down our breathing and heart rates, so it’s incredibly therapeutic. Not to mention, it energises the body because it improves our blood circulation.

Sleep problems are not something to be taken lightly. Not only do they affect our physical and mental health, they even affect road safety.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, one in every five serious motor vehicle injuries is related to driver fatigue, with 80,000 drivers falling asleep behind the wheel every day and 250,000 accidents every year related to sleep.

Prof Jim Horne, one of the foremost sleep researchers in the world, said: “The test of insufficient sleep is whether you are sleepy in the day or if you remain alert through most of the day.”

For those of you who have trouble sleeping at night, here’s what may be of help. Your bedroom should be a place to unwind after a long day, so activities like reading a book or listening to relaxing music create the right atmosphere for bedtime.

Do not use your bedroom like an office. Ideally, you should be associating your bed only with sleep rather than stressful triggers. Avoid using your phone, taking calls, doing work in bed or even watching television because like cigarettes, these are stimulants. If you feel you must watch some television, do it in another room.

Avoid caffeine at night because it can stay in your system for several hours from the point of your last coffee cup. Don’t have a nap in the daytime or consume a heavy meal with alcohol before bedtime because it will only make it harder to fall asleep at night.

Last but not least, remember the same mind that keeps you awake at night is the same mind that can put you to sleep. Keep your thoughts peaceful at bedtime.

If you know what’s really bothering you, don’t obsess about it just before you sleep. It’s important to deal with your issues but find the right time in the day, away from your bedroom to really address them.
> Jojo Struys is a TV host, producer of content at www.kyanite.tv and an avid health enthusiast based in KL. Catch up with more of Jojo’s thoughts on her blog at www.jojostruys.com or twitter @jojo_struys.

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