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  • Writer's pictureAbigail Barragry

What causes sleep anxiety?

For some of us, being unable to sleep until the birds start tweeting at dawn is the norm. For others, waking relentlessly every hour is our battle. Then there are those who fall into the group who wake up far too early with such pounding, all consuming dread that no amount of hiding under the duvet will enable further sleep. But why is such a natural, biological thing such as sleep such a problem for so many of us?


I've been all three of the above at different times in my life. I haven't noticed what, specifically, causes the difference in symptoms. What is similar however is when I have a lot on my mind and, ironically, when I know that sleep is of utmost importance. The pressure I out on myself to sleep along with the things I think about as I drift off make all the difference.


I have had a difficult relationship with sleep for most of my life. It started as a child when I used to scream swear words. I had no recollection in the morning (although that wasn't enough to let me off the hook with my mother!). As an adult, I have had phases where my sleep talking ranges from screaming and crying, to giggling and singing right through to delivering talks and presentations. For any other sleep talkers or lucid dreamers out there, you willl know that on waking it can feel as though you have just been on the front line of a global emergency trying to single handedly save the universe from apocolypse. Or had another full day at work, but one where you are dressed from head to toe in kitchen roll and trying to deliver training on something you know nothing about (ahem). I.e. pretty blooming tired.


There are many theries about the purpose of sleep and dreaming. The most common is that it is a time for us to reconcile unresolved matters. Our brain plays as it literally 'plays out' different scenarios. It fugures that the more anxiour we are, the more catastrophic these scenarios may be. Our brains have a chance to run wild and explore, without the bind of our conscious mind which judges, inhibits and evaluates everything.


For some of us, going to sleep can become a scary time. But the more we see it as that, the more likely it is to be just that. I learnt a trick as a child, quite by chance, but I still use it now. When I cotton on that I'm dreaming, and I don't like the dream, I squeeze my eyes shut really tight and then try to open them. Nine time out of ten I then wake up. However, this trick relies on one knowing they are dreaming...


The following may be cliche, but I thought I would share some of my best tips for a decent night's sleep. They don't all work all of the time and it is very much trial and error for each person, on each occasion. Maybe one of my top five tips here will ease things, if even a little, on one of your sleep evasion brain-downs:


  1. Listen to classical music. I recently bought some over the ear headphones. They were about £26 from a shop called Richer Sounds and when playing classical music through these it is a totally different experience. I recommend trying to notice all the different instruments you can hear. Then visualise yourself dancing, swaying, swirling inside the music itself.

  2. Pillow spray, essential oils or some other smelly potion in scents such as lavander, ylang-ylang or bergamot. Smells trigger feeings and memories in the brain and body faster than input from any other sense. Our olfactory detectors are directly linked to the parts of the brain governing memory and emotion. Find a smell that makes you feel calm allow your body to sink into it.

  3. Breathing. When we are anxious, our in-breath become longer than the outbreath (rapid and shallow breathing). This results in too much oxygen in our bodies and we move closer to fight or flight- the feeling that we are facing a real physical threat. We need to control the breath so that we breathe out for as long as we can. Try counting as you breathe in through your nose for 5, then breath out again slowly and steadily through the nose for 7. The counting itself will help to distract you from any racing throughts, as it controls the racing breath.

  4. Write things down. Even if it means you have to turn on a light. Those thoughts on their little hampster wheel may have nowhere to go unless you give them an outlet. To-do lists, idea, worries... both good and bad thoughts and feelings can keep us from catching that train to the ol' nod-land.

  5. Do some physical activity every day. Even if it's just stretching your body out or having a short walk. We need physical activity to help us process feelings. Feelings are only chemicals at the end of the day and they can get stuck and stored within our cells and bodies. By moving we allow them to travel- to reveal themselves so that we can notice them and use them as the guides they are meant to be. The diligent guard keeping feelings repressed clocks off when we go to sleep. Allow yourself time and space to notice them in the day.


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