Does counting sheep mean sleepless nights?

A good night's sleep not only makes you feel better in the morning, it is essential to good health.

Do you find it difficult to fall asleep, or once you are asleep, do you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, unable to return to slumber? You are not alone; about 40-million people out there are fighting Mr. Sandman.

Without sleep, we do not function well in our daytime lives; concentration and motivational levels tend not to run at full speed. Adults generally need about one hour's sleep for every two hours that they are awake. Some people require between seven and eight hours of nightly sleep, and others appear to get by with much less; still others can't function best unless they sleep for eight or nine hours.

The real test for detecting just how many sleeping hours you need is not so much how many hours you sleep as how alert you feel the next day. If you drag through the day and want a nap, you probably need more sleep.

A few nights of missed sleep or several restless nights aren't major concerns if they can be followed by a few nights of sound sleep. Fortunately, we don't have to recover every lost hour of sleep.

All of us are vulnerable to pain and suffering that can cause sleepless nights, but chronic sleeplessness can cause physical and mental problems.

Approximately 10 percent of the population suffers from chronic insomnia. By itself, it is not considered a disorder; rather, it is a symptom of several disorders or problems, and it can affect the immune system and cause bouts of depression.

There are many causes of sleep deprivation, some of which we can help to banish. General lifestyle habits can have an impact on sleep patterns. Being too busy, as well as being too inactive, can be disruptive to sleep; creating and maintaining a balance in work, play and rest is important for developing healthy sleep habits.

One of the leading factors in sleeplessness has psychological roots. Stress in all its varied forms can disturb many a normal sleep pattern; stress, depression and anxieties all interfere with sleep. Anxiety disorders, a general term that covers a wide range of emotional anxieties, can be held accountable for many sleepless moments. About 25-million Americans have anxiety disorders of one type or another. Here are three that can contribute to insomnia:

Generalized anxiety disorder occurs when you allow yourself to constantly worry and expect the worst. You move beyond what could be considered normal worry into a zone of "never-go-away worries." Although there may be varying levels of generalized anxieties, feelings of tension are constant companions.

Panic disorders are feelings of extreme fright that can occur suddenly, unexpectedly and with no apparent reason. You may be at a social gathering, or you may be suddenly awakened from a deep sleep. The attacks can be accompanied by physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat, even chest pains, shortness of breath and dizziness. You feel out of control.

Because you don't know when or where you will be when an attack occurs, you remain fearful of even the mere possibility of future sudden and unexpected attacks; eventually, you begin to use avoidance techniques. If you had a panic attack while you were sailing with friends, you might avoid sailing.

I had a friend who was dealing with panic attacks. She avoided flying. Her friends thought she was afraid to fly. She wasn't; she was terrified of having a panic attack on a plane.

If panic attacks are left unattended, some people become so fearful of having them that they won't leave their homes. Fear of leaving home is known as agoraphobia.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is triggered by thoughts of past traumatic experiences that have been witnessed or experienced, and panic is the reaction. Symptoms vary, but they often include disturbing dreams and restless sleep.

Many people who suffer from insomnia will resort to self-help by taking sleeping pills, which may become addicting and are often ineffective when used for a long time. It is better to see a physician for an evaluation and treatment; if there is no evident medical problem, you might want to consult a licensed psychotherapist for cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Sleep tips

Shift gears: Try to slow the pace of your daily activities several hours before you go to bed; shift into a relaxed mode. Shut off the television and try listening to your favorite music, do some stretches, read a book, try some meditation.

30 minutes of daily exercise: Go for at least 20 to 30 minutes of some form of physical activity most days of the week; avoid vigorous exercise within four to five hours before bedtime.

Regular, moderate physical activity minimizes the effects of stress, acting as a tranquilizer. It will take a little more than 10 weeks of an exercise program before you begin to notice significant changes in long-term anxiety. Aerobic exercise has the most positive effect upon stress and anxiety levels.

Hide the clock: If you are having difficulty falling asleep, the last thing you need to see is how slowly the time is passing. If you cover the clock or move it away from the bed, you won't have the added frustration of constantly checking the time and seeing how long you have been tossing and turning.

Limit nap time: There are good reasons to take naps but, generally speaking, if you lead an active life and sleep well at night, you shouldn't require much napping. Naps can make it harder to go to sleep at night. If you do treat yourself to a nap, try limiting the time to less than 30 minutes.

Nix the late-night snacking: A light snack may help to relax you before retiring, but avoid any heavy-duty eating that could rev up acid production in the stomach, and avoid drinks with caffeine.

For many people, caffeine causes a reaction much like sugar; it gives you an instant "high." Remember that it comes in forms other than coffee, cola and tea; it also is in chocolate. The darker the chocolate, the more caffeine it contains. In general, it takes the body three to five hours to rid itself of caffeine.

Check medications: If you take medication regularly, check with your physician to see if some of the medicines could be causing your insomnia; check labels of over-the-counter products. Some may contain caffeine or other stimulants.

Have a consistent wakeup time: Try to be consistent with your wakeup time, even if you haven't slept well the night before.

Limit time in bed: Too much time in bed can promote shallow, unrestful sleep. Contrary to expectations, spending too much time in bed usually disrupts sleep in the middle of the night. Nine out of 10 people with insomnia stay in bed longer than necessary.

If you can't sleep, get up: If you awaken in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep, don't stay in bed. Go into another room until you begin to feel sleepy.

Try diaphragmatic relaxation breathing: Taking a slow, deep breath, inhale through your nose, feeling the air fill your diaphragm. Hold for several seconds; then exhale slowly through the mouth, letting your shoulders drop. When you exhale, imagine you are blowing out a candle. Focus on your breathing several times a day.

Try progressive muscle relaxation: Close your eyes and, starting with your feet, visualize the different muscle groups throughout your body relaxing.

Make your bedroom a comfort zone: By all means, make your bedroom and especially your bed as comfortable and comforting as you can; create an inviting ambiance to your bedroom.

Use cognitive focusing: Use imagery to focus the mind; concentrate on something you want to think about and repeat calming thoughts.

Try cognitive behavioral therapy: This kind of therapy has proven to be an effective tool for helping to reduce stress and anxieties. It teaches you an awareness of just what causes your symptoms, and you learn effective relaxation and coping skills; you learn to challenge irrational thinking.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found an increase in total sleep time and a reduction of nighttime awakening in adults who received intensive educational training.

Try meditation: Focus on a sound or word, even your breathing. When your mind wanders, quietly return to your focus point. Begin with three-to-five minutes of positive focusing every day for a week.

Increase the meditation time to 10 minutes a day, gradually increasing to 20 minutes once or twice a day. Ideally, you might want to start meditating in a quiet environment, but when you get good at it, you can meditate anywhere. You learn to treat the distractions the same way you distance yourself from your rambling thoughts.


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