Monthly Archives: Aug 2020

Difficulty sleeping?

It is important to state that this is not a replacement for an appropriate consultation with a medical professional who is experienced in managing sleep difficulties. What follows is what has helped me in my personal life and some of the clients that I have seen. After discussing what seems to be the most common issue and most helpful strategy, I will outline other things that have helped.

The most common obstacle to falling asleep seems to be the inability to ‘switch off’ – people talk about lying away in bed, feeling physically tired, but their brain is still racing. Of course, there will be other reasons that some people cannot fall asleep but this seems to be the most common. And what has helped them seems to be a variation of getting out of bed and addressing reasons that their brain is still racing.

A lot of people talk about the seemingly endless list of things they need to do the following day, and there is a part of them that is worried that they will forget one of the things on the list; they may be anxious that they will wake up late and miss the appointment or deadline; they might be anxious that they should be doing work instead of sleeping. Anxiety can be overwhelming in moments like this – especially when we need to sleep.

Counselling can help manage the anxiety and feelings of not being good enough. It helps to address core beliefs of not being smart enough, or never working hard enough, and helps people to see that, in fact, they are doing enough. Working on the root cause of the anxiety helps them to realise how much they are achieving, and helps them to feel more secure and safe in what they are doing.

Counselling can also be about outlining simple strategies to manage the anxious thoughts in the moment. Sometimes it helps to get out of bed and write down the list of things that need doing so that we don’t worry we will forget anything. It sometimes helps to plan the following day with what needs completing and by when. Spending a little bit of time with a visual representation of the tasks that are keeping you awake, brings a sense of calm and order into things. Anxiety can often feel chaotic, and if we gently introduce some order and boundaries, things can start to feel less overwhelming.

As always – get in touch if you want to discuss anything that has been mentioned. Counselling is a great space to work on those areas that directly and indirectly affect sleep. Sometimes it’s something simple, and other times it’s something deeper. With a little practice and support, it’s not an impossible goal to sleep and feel better.

And for other things that have helped me:

Physical

  • Physical movement – any exercise that gets my heart rate up, and pushes me a bit each time, in the first half of the day, seems to help. There’s also research that links increased physical activity with improved mood!
  • Magnesium – I take this daily for a number of reasons but there’s a lot of talk that it helps promote restful sleep. A lot of us are supposedly deficient in this, so worth looking into it!
  • Starting again – I find that if I haven’t fallen asleep within a certain (short) period, it’s worth getting out of bed and trying again a bit later. Spending that time doing something to relax my body and brain is important – deep breathing, light stretches – rather than forcing myself to fall asleep and then becoming frustrated when I don’t. Someone described it to me as not sitting at the dinner table and forcing yourself to eat when you are not hungry. Pay attention to the signals of being tired!
  • Consistency – Even on weekends, I find it helps to wake up at the same time every day (or as close as possible..). This apparently helps with sleep cycle and our internal body clock.
  • Avoid caffeine – not entirely, of course, but I avoid having caffeine later than around lunch time. The half-life of caffeine – the time required for the body to eliminate one-half of a dose – varies between individuals but can be between 3 and 7 hours.

Environment

  • Blue light – apparently the blue light from our screens (TV, laptop, smartphones) disrupts the release of melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep). I have a pair of the glasses that seem to help, and I have a blue light filter on my phone.
  • Low light – not only does this make the rooms more relaxing and appealing (personal preference) having low light in all the rooms apparently prepares the brain for sleep. If I surround myself with bright white light, I find it harder to fall asleep.
  • Bedroom – make this a quiet, calming and peaceful space. Avoid having clutter in the room; avoid TV screens if possible; avoid bright colours.

Reading also helps me to drift off to sleep. And be selective with what you read because reading non-fiction supposedly activates a part of the brain that needs to switch off for us to fall asleep!

Take care.

Struggling to reach a goal? Be SMART

As far as I know, the idea of having SMART goals came from the business world, and has found its way into other areas. Lately, I have found the concept of making our goals SMART more and more useful. And the more I speak to people in the counselling room, the more I find that using even one of the criteria is helpful in getting them closer to where they want to be.

You can search online for slight variations of it, but generally I use the following approach to setting goals.

Specific – make sure that what you want to work on is narrow enough that you can give your time and attention to that one thing. I often find people wanting to be ‘better’ or ‘healthier’, but often set themselves up because it is too broad. Being healthier could mean running 10 minutes three times a week; eating more vegetables; sleeping more. Feeling better could involve reaching out to friends; having a better work/life balance; engaging regularly with a chosen hobby. Counselling can help narrow the focus so that you make better use of your time and energy.

Measurable – it is important to measure your progress because you are more likely to release dopamine (the chemical in our body that gets released when we are doing the right thing). It is important to give yourself evidence that you are progressing and achieving something. This makes it less likely that you will lose motivation! There are plenty of apps to do this, or you can just resort to a pen and paper (or a whiteboard) – be proud of your achievements, mark them down and keep track of how you are moving forward!

Achievable – I like to push people to work just outside of their comfort zone! But think about baby steps. I can’t run 10km but I am more likely to achieve a 5km run. And then I will build up as I get better each time. Similarly, someone might not be able to manage their stress but could manage to focus on their breath once a day. Improving relationships could be about practicing being more honest or assertive. I often ask people, “if that feels too difficult, what feels achievable right now?” and build up from there. We fall short when we set our expectations too high and when we don’t reach the goal that is too difficult, we lose motivation. So it is important to be more realistic (and caring)!

Relevant – It happens too often that other people give us something to aim for, and in doing so we don’t develop that internal motivation. In the counselling room, it seems to be far more helpful if the person sitting opposite me comes up with something on their own. I might say, “OK, so what do you want to focus on?” rather than “it might be useful to focus on meditation to help with your stress”. Of course, I am there to offer guidance if needed but it is important to find the internal motivation or the thing that is most personal to you. This is better than allowing someone else to push you somewhere that isn’t meaningful. You know what direction you need to head in.

Time bound – rather than making the goal too restrictive (achieving it by next week) or too loose (no end date, or too far in the future), it is important to work out a date that you want to achieve something. You might even link it to a specific event (by the time your birthday comes around, or by the time the end of term happens). Having a fixed endpoint can help to focus some of the attention, and help you to aim for something concrete. And it allows you not to drift, or to not take it seriously – after all this is your happiness or well-being!

So to recap:

  • Narrow your goal down so that you know what to focus on – don’t waste time on a goal that is too broad.
  • Keep track of any progress you make – it is important to recognise how far you get.
  • Work at something realistic – it could be slightly outside of your ability or comfort zone but within your reach if you push yourself
  • YOU need to decide what is a meaningful goal – this increases your chance of keeping at it, rather than feeling like you are being told to do something.
  • Give yourself an endpoint to work towards – this avoids becoming too relaxed or too rigid

If you need support with achieving your life goals or to create a plan that works for you, reach out and see how counselling could help.

Take care.

How meditation reminded me to release the tension

As in my previous post – getting back into meditation has reminded me of two things. The first was addressing and working with the judgement of starting again. One of the types of meditation I do (and generally quite a common meditation) is simply focusing on my breath. And that’s never straightforward – I find that it takes me a while (weeks, if not months) to really get into the habit of it. And even then, it isn’t for a long period at all. But each time I refocus on my breath and start again; however, there has been something else that I noticed.

Even when I try and focus on my breathing, I might still feel tension in my shoulder or back or jaw. I’ve noticed that I actually have to focus, first, on consciously and purposely relaxing my muscles, starting with the main ones. And once I am physically relaxed (and I could always keep going with it) I then bring my attention to my breath. If I am able to do that, I find that the whole experience is more satisfying.

It reminds me that we carry a lot of tension in our body without even realising it. I could talk about the need to spend more time focusing on physical health and body posture, but for now it’s a simple reminder that tension needs to be actively addressed. We become so familiar with the tension that we don’t even recognise it until it grows into a headache or we become unwell.

Our emotional and physical states are so intimately connected. If we want to stand the best possible chance of feeling better emotionally, we need to remember to get ourselves into a physically calmer state. And if we can get into a habit of remembering to relax our shoulders, un-clench our jaw, un-furrow our eyebrows… we might notice that the emotions, too, become more relaxed. It is then that we can set our intentions – this could be focusing on the breath during a meditation, or it could be about addressing those other issues.

Don’t let the unconscious tension in your shoulders be a barrier to you meeting your needs and feeling better. When we are more aware of how we feel (physically and emotionally) we are more able to change our behaviour and bring attention to something more useful and more helpful.

Photo by Kelvin Valerio from Pexels