We’ve all experienced it, those nights when you just can’t seem to switch off and get to sleep. You toss and turn, unable to get comfortable physically or mentally. Or perhaps worse, the nights where you are jolted out of a peaceful sleep at 4am, in the grips of a nocturnal panic attack. Your mind spinning with ‘what ifs’ and catastrophic scenarios, and your heart pounding.
While it’s relatively easy for us to understand how anxiety and worry affects us getting to sleep, it can seem incomprehensible and even cruel that it can snatch us out of sleep at 4am. That time of night where we instinctively crave quiet, peace and slumber. Sleep experts estimate that waking in the middle of the night affects roughly 25% of the population, so wherever you are, there’s likely to be other people awake with you.
What are nocturnal panic attacks?
This repeatedly waking in the wee small hours of the morning, officially known as ‘sleep maintenance insomnia’ occurs when we continue to ruminate and over-worry about things that are bothering us. As the night slips by and we progress through our sleep cycle, every time we enter a period of lighter-non REM sleep we drift back closer to the surface of consciousness. If we are stressed we’re more alert and it only takes the smallest thing, a snoring partner, a change in light or temperature or a car horn in the distance to catapult us into wakefulness where our brains begin to do what they do best… ruminate. For some people who are very stressed during their daily lives, this sudden waking is enough to throw their system into overdrive, creating the nocturnal panic attack.
The fact that we have had some sleep tricks out body into believing that we are rested enough to start the day. We aren’t. The sleep deprivation then makes our bodies release larger amounts of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline to help us get going, keep going. We turn to caffeine and sugar, trying to find that energy we so desperately need to keep us going through our busy days.
If this sounds like you, it’s okay, it’s possible to move past this and experience life very differently. By implementing simple techniques drawn from mindfulness and other third wave therapies throughout your day you can bring a sense of calm to your evenings, and sleep through the night.
Practice good sleep hygiene and create a bedtime routine
I’ve written about this previously. Too much wine, exercising or eating late at night or answering ‘just one more email’ before bed are all killers when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. You want to send signals to your body that it’s getting near time to rest, to allow it to start winding down. It’s not about depriving yourself or locking yourself into an unsustainable and rigid routine, it’s about finding new habits that support you. Perhaps you might like to have a warm bath or read a book. Spending time connecting with your family, away from the sleep-interrupting blue light from TV, computer and phone screens.
Create a ‘third space’
Most of us bring our work home with us, energetically if not physically. We bring the stresses, strains and worries along with the annoyances. How many times have you snapped at one of your family members only to realise later that you were actually frazzled by something that happened during the work day? Experts recommend creating a ‘third space’ to help us be more calm, focused and effective at home. This third space can be physical such as during your commute. Or it can be a mental break where you spend 5 – 10 minutes just sitting quietly. While you’re in this third-space it’s important to do three things – reflect on the day and put it behind you. Have a rest, even if it’s only a minute or two of sitting quietly with your eyes closed, focusing on your breathing. Finally, reset and switch your focus to your home and family.
Doing this helps you to be more present in your home and family life, and being present means that you can more effectively and efficiently problem-solve in this space. This will improve the quality of communications you have with your family and friends meaning that you’re less likely to be up half the night worrying about if you’ve missed an important school event or wondering how a friend is.
It’s all too easy to go into a negative spiral with your thoughts, especially when it’s the small hours of the morning. Instead how would it feel to say to yourself ‘wow this is something I’m clearly worrying about and finding difficult’? Spend a moment and think of something that will make you feel better in that moment. Sometimes it might be taking an action, other times a real acknowledgement of the difficulty of the situation may be enough. What would you say to your best friend if they were worried about the same thing? Spend a moment to hold yourself in kindness and compassion and feel your body relax as you do so.
Keep a notepad next to the bed
If you wake up at 4am with your mind spinning, write it all down. Tell yourself that now is not the time to be thinking, but that you understand what you’re thinking about is important (in that moment anyway). By writing it down you know you won’t forget it and you can review it in the morning and take action if necessary.
Focus on things that make you happy
Gratitude is one of the buzzwords of our era, but some days it can be hard to find things that you truly feel grateful for. Instead, before you go to bed, spend a few minutes thinking about something that makes you happy. It could be something someone said or did, something you read about, a project at work that is giving you satisfaction or a lovely plant you saw on a walk. It really doesn’t matter. If you wake in the middle of the night, instead of focusing on your worries… think about good things. By focusing on the things that make you happy you send all sorts of feel-good chemicals cascading through your body, reducing stress and tension and making it much more likely that you’ll get back to sleep.
Practise being present
During the day, make a habit of bringing yourself fully into the present moment. If you’re talking to someone, just talk to them, don’t clean up or make dinner, in your head focus on them and what they are saying without predicting what they mean. If you’re walking somewhere let yourself become aware of the feel of the pavement underneath your feet, the things that you can see or smell. Notice how the sun feels on your skin.
If you struggle with being present in the moment engage all of your senses. Connect to each sense and notice what it is that you see, hear, feel, smell and taste at that moment. Don’t allow yourself to judge what you’re experiencing because that takes you out of the moment. Just allow whatever it is to just be.
Use meditation or self-hypnosis
When you wake in the middle of the night, use the time to practise meditation or self-hypnosis. Help your body to settle by focusing on your breath. Slowing down and making your exhale longer than your inhale activates your parasympathetic nervous system which helps you rest, repair and relax. A simple body scan where you mentally review your different body parts and notice how they are feeling will help you to shift your focus away from your racing thoughts and feel calmer. If you’re not confident of doing this solo there are many different apps and YouTube videos that you can listen to instead.
For most people, implementing the strategies I’ve covered above will be enough to help them sleep soundly, but others may need more help.. The National Council for Hypnotherapy says that insomnia responds well to hypnotherapy with many clients report significantly improved sleep after treatment.
The causes of chronic insomnia and nocturnal panic attacks are many and varied. Because of this it’s important to find a therapist that you connect with. Find someone who is on your wavelength and who you feel comfortable with.
If you need some help getting to sleep, contact me to have a chat about how I can help.