Good sleep and sleeping well takes a lifestyle, not just focusing on sleep.

Good sleepBusy through the day? Running from one thing to the next? It’s likely to be impacting your sleep. Often people looking to improve their sleep are overly focused on what they do at night and in the evening preparing for bed. They’ve stopped drinking coffee late in the day, aren’t exercising at night, have begun using earplugs, and managed temperature and light in the bedroom. But despite these measures they’re still not sleeping well. In part, that’s because they’re not paying attention to what they’re doing through the day and how they’re doing it.

We’re all busy, but are we too busy?

Running on nervous energy or rushing from one thing thing to the next are worn as badges of honor in today’s society. No wasted time, every waking minute accounted for, ticking off tasks on our to-do lists. This stereotype pervades the business world, but is also seen in other areas. One group I commonly see in my practice are supermoms. Women in modern society have the dual pressures of being expected to be successful in work and family life and can find themselves overly busy with no downtime, trying to manage their myriad responsibilities. The stereotype of the supermom is often held up as an example of a successful woman for others to aspire to, despite research showing supermoms are at higher risk of depression.

Another common group I see in clinical practice are small, medium enterprise business owners or entrepreneurs who are not sleeping well. Sometimes people I see recognize that they are burning out, but often it takes a dramatic turn of events, such as the development of insomnia or other health impacts to get them to seek help. Arianna Huffington, in her book Thrive gives a good description of the predictable consequence of this lifestyle. Arianna’s tale of collapsing with exhaustion and her reflection of just how self-destructive her previous behavior of never switching off had been is telling.

The warning signs that people need to slow down, can be intermittent episodes of insomnia or finding that they’re waking earlier than usual. If people don’t heed these signs, they can get in to a vicious cycle of sleeping less, feeling more tired, and having to work harder, running on adrenaline, during the day to keep up with their tasks. This is turn leads to worsening sleep, and the cycle repeats itself. As people develop insomnia, other areas of health can be effected such as mood.

The effect of being overly busy or stressed on sleep is something that has been increasingly clear over the last few years, both in what I see in my practice and in research. One of the key recent papers on insomnia, published in the journal Sleep  showed that stress is an important contributing factor to insomnia. That in itself is nothing new, as people have long associated stress with poor sleep. The interesting part was that it isn’t just acute, or short-term stress that impacts on sleep. Chronic stress, which can just be being overly busy on a day-to-day basis was just as likely to result in insomnia as acute stress.

Good sleep takes a lifestyle, not just focusing on sleep

The message isn’t that we need to quit our jobs, or abandon our families and go sit on the beach all day. That’s not realistic as we all have responsibilities. But it is important that we manage our workload so that it is sustainable, and give ourselves permission to periodically switch off or disconnect, as well as develop relaxation or stress management strategies that we practice regularly.

It’s also important to not lose sight of other factors that can impact on sleep. Keeping good physical and mental health, maintaining a healthy diet and being physically fit and active all impact on energy levels through the day and sleep at night.

The key to sleeping well is not just about the night. In fact, many people with poor sleep, are overly focused on their behaviors around sleep, and over-analyze their sleep, which exacerbates the problem. A common blind-spot is what they’re doing during the day, and the impact that is having. Recognizing this is a great starting point on the road to better sleep.

Are there factors about your lifestyle that may be impacting on your sleep?

An edited version of this blog was published in The Huffington Post.

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