Channel 4’s The Secrets of Sleep expert and leading Sleep Physiologist, Stephanie Romiszewski, gave us some big insights into sleep problems and insomnia related to anxiety.
Stephanie is a rebel.
You have to admire anyone who is willing to take a big subject, like sleep, and challenge the status quo.
Sleep, like anxiety, is one of those things where lots of people have lots of different opinions. One ‘expert’ will tell you something different to another ‘expert’.
What I liked about Stephanie’s approach is how open she is to all methods and solutions for sleep problems and insomnia, but rather than just blindly practising those methods (like most other ‘experts’ do), she is keen to add a new approach.
By having a new approach, Stephanie is breaking some of the myths around sleep problems (including anxiety-related insomnia) and giving us some real solutions we can work with.
Here are the top three myths about sleep problems, insomnia and anxiety we uncovered.
Myth #1: Relaxation and sleep are connected
When we think of sleeping, we think of relaxing. The two things naturally go together. But they’re not actually connected. I know, crazy, right!
When I asked Stephanie if she recommended any sleep apps, including sleep trackers, she said no, not really. Why? Because there is no research to suggest that relaxation will help you get to sleep.
We should be aiming to relax in the day, rather than when we go to bed at night.
If you want to use apps and methods to help you deal with stress and anxiety, they’re more useful in the day than at night. And when you think about it, it makes sense. How you start your day sets the tone for the rest of the day. If you start your day feeling relaxed by controlling your anxiety and stress from the get-go, your day will continue in the same fashion, and you’ll go to bed feeling the same way.
That will put you in a much better position to sleep well, rather than try to force relaxation when it’s sleepy time.
Myth #2: The time you go to bed is more important than the time you wake up
The media have done a great job at scaremongering us into thinking we need to go to bed at the same sensible time every night, which is why most of us hit the pillow and don’t feel sleepy.
I don’t know about you, but I hate going to bed and feeling pressurised to sleep when I don’t feel tired. Sometimes, it almost feels like I’m forcing myself to get those eight hours.
Going to bed at the same time every night is not the key to good, consistent sleep. It’s the time you get up in the morning that is more important!
Stephanie suggests that the best time to go to bed is when you’re ‘sleepy tired’ – when you’re literally nodding off in your chair. If you do that and wake up at the same time every day, that will build up enough ‘awake time’ to get a good consistent pattern of sleep.
The key to making this work is getting up at the same time, every day.
Myth #3: Sleep deprivation is the same as insomnia
I can relate to this, big style!
Feeling fatigued (like crap) is a common symptom of anxiety and stress. The overthinking and worry zaps your energy, so you feel like a zombie.
When anxiety was crippling me, all I wanted to do was sleep all day. And I did. Some days I’d sleep for sixteen hours straight. That’s why on the Rebalance Scale in Anxiety Rebalance, sleep is at the bottom of the scale – because it represents low mood (depression) and low energy.
On the flipside of that, I also went through long periods of sleep deprivation. At the time, if you’d have asked me why I looked like a drooling zombie, I’d have said it was down to insomnia. But it wasn’t. I was sleep deprived, and that is a different thing.
Where I went wrong is I didn’t get the pattern right. I was either sleeping too much or too little. I had no routine or benchmark to set a better pattern.
The conclusion and action to take.
If anxiety is preventing you from going to sleep, try going to bed when you feel ‘sleepy tired’ – when your head is nodding. It doesn’t matter what time it is, go to bed then. The trick to making this work is getting up at the same time every day. Set your alarm and don’t sleep past it, no matter how tired you feel when you wake up. That will build up enough ‘awake time’, and if you stay patient and do this consistently enough, you’ll eventually sort out your sleeping pattern.
You might feel tired and drained in the day, but if you can get through that pain barrier, you’ll want to sleep at night. You’ll get a decent night’s sleep and getting up in the morning won’t be the heavy task it was before.
I made some big mistakes when I was suffering from anxiety. Are you making the same mistakes, and can you dodge them to save yourself bags of time and frustration?
We have to go through our own experiences and mistakes to really appreciate them as a learning curve, but if I can save you some time and frustration, then there’s no harm in that.
I made some BIG mistakes when I was suffering from anxiety.
It was rectifying these mistakes that made all the difference for me.
Here are the top five mistakes I made when suffering from anxiety. See if you can relate.
Mistake #1: I thought I needed a cure
The biggest mistake of them all.
I spent years looking for a cure and wondered why I couldn’t find one.
I couldn’t find one because a cure for anxiety doesn’t exist!
Looking for a cure for anxiety was as useless as looking for a cure for getting upset or angry. These emotions might come with unwanted feelings, but they are part of life – just like getting anxious is.
The answer to overcoming high anxiety is appreciating that there is no cure needed.
The answer to overcoming high anxiety is to manage it better – to get it back to a better level of balance.
Mistake #2: I didn’t talk about my anxiety
Bottling things inside gets you nowhere. In fact, it makes things seem 100 times bigger than they are – anxiety included.
I used to think I was weak if I said what was on my mind, so I kept it all in.
With time, I learnt that true strength comes from the ability to talk.
You’ve got to talk about what’s on your mind.
It’s not always possible with the people closest to you, and someone impartial like a counsellor can be a good option.
The most important thing is you get talking, and don’t stop talking about how you feel.
I’ve mapped out a daily routine which I found ideal for dealing with anxiety – and easy to follow – over the first three-month rebalancing period.
I understand that, due to work/life commitments, you will have to make some modifications (such as when you start work), but try to stick to the core activity as much as possible – the more closely you can follow it, the better.
By following these few simple instructions you will instantly begin to feel more energetic, vibrant, motivated, positive and enthusiastic – key ingredients needed for BALANCE.
Over time, the routine will become easier to follow, eventually becoming second nature. Keep it up, and you’ll be rewarded with a lifetime of change.
Gaps in the routine should be filled by work or a focused activity or hobby.
6.30 am: Get out of bed
6.45 am: Exercise
7.45 am: Shower
8 am: Healthy breakfast (no caffeine)
10.30 am: Snack
12.30 pm: Healthy lunch
3 pm: Snack
6 pm: Healthy dinner
6.30 pm: Plan for the next day
7 pm: Wind down and relax until bedtime
10–11 pm: Go to bed.
Get out of bed as soon as you wake up
Start your day as you mean to go on. As soon as your alarm goes off or you wake up naturally, get out of bed. Don’t lie in bed procrastinating – it allows anxious thoughts to creep in. Concentrate on the plan you made yesterday and go for it.
I find that exercising in the morning before I eat breakfast gives me the best results. It also sets me up for the day by keeping me energised.
Shower every day. It’s not only important for hygienic reasons, but it will refresh you and help wake you up, ready for your day.
Keep your energy levels up throughout the day by snacking regularly on fruit (a banana is ideal) and nuts. If it helps you to stay organised, set your alarm or set an alert on your mobile phone when a snack is due.
Plan for the next day
You already know how important it is to have focus, and planning for the next day is the most effective method of getting it right. If the next day is a work day, plan what you need to do. If you’re not at work, plan your activities in advance. Book something (if possible) and commit to it.
Find time to relax
In a busy schedule that includes family and work, it can be very easy to forget about your own needs, only to regret it later when you’re overstressed and exhausted. Even if it’s only half an hour, take time to relax every day. Put your feet up, make yourself a hot drink (no caffeine!), and shut yourself off from the world. Read a book, or do something that allows you to wind down. If it helps, close your eyes – and if you doze off, so be it!
Go to bed at a reasonable time
Aim to get eight hours of sleep every night. Some people need more, some less. Establish what you need by how you feel when you wake up, and aim to get that amount of sleep daily.
While on my three-month rebalancing routine, I stuck to these tips. I found that they helped me so much that I now follow them daily.
1. Eat breakfast
Anxiety will deplete already low levels of energy, so you want to make sure you start your day off right. Breakfast helps fuel you from the get-go, making it the most important meal of the day. Choose something high in energy like granola or porridge, and include a banana.
2. Cut out caffeine
If you think caffeine helps to wake you up, you’re wrong. All caffeine does is bring you back to the state you should already be in. Yes, it’s a stimulant, but you don’t need it. All caffeine is good for is fuelling anxious thoughts. Be aware that tea, like coffee, contains high levels of caffeine. Ideally, seek alternatives like decaffeinated drinks and herbal teas.
If you can’t imagine a life without caffeine (and I’m including this section because there are plenty of people who think this), the theory of BALANCE means you should be able to do what you like, including drinking caffeine. My advice is to do your best to cut out caffeine in the rebalancing period (around three months), because it’s highly likely, in your anxious state of mind, that caffeine will have a negative effect on you. Like anything else, if you choose not to change your habit and continue to drink caffeine, please don’t waste your time wondering why your anxiety isn’t improving. Change often means sacrifice. All sacrifices are harder to make at the start, but get easier with time.
3. Drink lots of water
Drink lots and lots of water throughout the day. It flushes the toxins out of your body and gives you energy – which compensates for the fact you might visit the toilet a little more frequently!
4. Snack at regular intervals
Keep your energy levels consistent throughout the day by snacking at regular intervals. Snack on nuts, vegetables, fruit or any food that is high in energy.
5. Eat bananas
Potassium in bananas helps to balance the sugar levels in your blood, and the carbohydrates in bananas help keep energy levels consistent, so try to eat two or three spread across the day. I appreciate that eating lots of bananas isn’t easy, but make an effort to eat at least one (in the morning). You can also vary it a little by eating other foods that are high in potassium, such as deep-sea fish, yogurt and avocados.
I struggle to fit the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day into my diet, so I came up with a solution – juicing. I have a set vegetable juice I drink every day that includes:
a handful of kale a handful of spinach two medium carrots an apple.
It takes me fifteen minutes to make, and seconds to drink. My big tip is to get a decent juicer. Cheaper juicing machines tend to make a mess and don’t do a great job. Try not to juice too much fruit, because it’s not good for you (I’m told it has something to do with the high sugar content). If you find an all-veg juice not sweet enough, add an apple. Experiment and see what you prefer!
7. Cut out junk food
Eating too much unhealthy junk food will slow you down, reduce your energy levels and make you feel sluggish – the perfect breeding ground for anxiety. It’s also worth noting that spicy food can increase anxiety. (Like caffeine, it can produce symptoms associated with panic.) I’ve never fully trusted fast food for a number of reasons, including animal welfare and what actually goes in the food, so it’s easy for me to avoid it. I can appreciate its convenience, but it can be just as quick and easy to prepare healthy, nutritious meals at home.
If you do decide to treat the kids at the weekend, or avoiding fast-food outlets is impossible for you, most chains have picked up on the fact that people want a healthy alternative to their triple decker, double- bacon-and-blue-cheese special burger. For example, you can buy a salad bowl at Subway. These can be just as fulfilling as one of their foot-longs. They fill you up, they’re a lot healthier, and they don’t make you feel as bloated – all perfect for reducing anxiety, increasing your energy and achieving BALANCE.
8. Chew your food and eat more slowly
Make your food easier to digest by chewing it more and eating more slowly. By chewing more you also trick your brain into thinking you’re eating more than you actually are – which is great for losing a few pounds.
9. Get a good night’s sleep
Your body needs sleep for effective digestion. Poor sleeping patterns (or no sleep) will disrupt the process and aid the fear cycle. The average amount of sleep an adult needs is eight hours, although we’re all different, so you should gauge what you need based on how you feel when you wake up. Sleeping too much, or too little, will not only affect your digestion, but also cause other anxiety-related symptoms. If you choose to prioritise any of these tips, it should be this one – without it, none of the other tips are useful.
The cause of our anxiety can be obvious, but it’s not always clear why we feel anxious. Why does it sometimes feel like we’re anxious all the time, and what can we do to stop it?
It can sometimes feel like we’re constantly anxious.
Anxiety hits us as soon as we wake up in the morning.
Anxiety is there when we’re struggling to go to sleep at night.
No rest or respite.
In the medical field, it’s called Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
Rather than focus on the diagnosis and symptoms of GAD, let’s focus on the cause and solution – the two things that will help you break the cycle of consistent anxiety so you can go back to normal levels of anxiety.
The cause of constant anxiety (GAD)
If you’re feeling consistently anxious, it’s down to two things.
There is an issue with something (or someone) in your life you haven’t dealt with.
There is something (or someone) making you feel out of control.
‘Something’ usually relates to work or money – these are the two big causes of our stress and anxiety.
‘Someone’ refers to a relationship, like a partner, friend or family member – another big cause of our stress and anxiety.
All these examples highlight external problems, but the truth is, our anxiety comes from ourselves.
Getting fired at work, having piles of debt we’re struggling to repay, and having a partner cheat on us, will all cause us stress and anxiety – there is no doubt about that.
How much anxiety?is the question.
Life has a habit of throwing all sorts of stuff at us, so it’s normal for us to expect to experience anxiety on a daily basis.
It’s when anxiety becomes constant that we need to start paying attention to it.
When anxiety feels like it’s sticking to us – like we can’t shake it off.
When it’s stuck to us and anxiety feels constant, it has a strong grip, making us believe and think we don’t have a choice – but we do.
We always have a choice.
It’s up to us how long we allow our feelings of anxiety to last.
If anxiety comes from us, and we have a choice, why does anxiety feel constant?
There is a fear (worry) that is hounding you – a fear that is likely been buried or swept under the carpet (on purpose) – and it’s that fear that is causing the anxiety.
This fear will be based on something that has happened in the past or something we think might happen in the future.
The solution to constant anxiety (GAD)
We create our stories.
These stories we tell ourselves are based on the past (what has already happened) and the future (what might happen).
We live our lives based on this story.
If this story is filled with fear (the what ifs and mights), we’ll feel anxious – all the time.
If you want to shake the constant feeling of anxiety, it’s time to change the story.
The solution to constant anxiety (GAD) is to live more in the present moment.
There is little point in worrying about the past. It’s gone. There is nothing we can do about it.
There’s also no point in worrying about the future. It hasn’t happened yet. We can’t control it or predict it accurately.
The only thing that is real is this moment, right now.
There’s a lot of anxiety-relief and comfort to be had from knowing this.
You can draw immense power and mental strength from living more in the moment.
Living in the present moment
The next time you feel your anxiety and stress levels rise, or you find yourself worrying about the past or future, STOP YOURSELF IMMEDIATELY.
Become consciously aware that you’re allowing your thoughts to get out of control.
Find a quiet space (if possible), and close your eyes (if you feel comfortable).
Take the opportunity to breathe calmly, and just appreciate the moment.
Appreciate that this moment is the only thing that is real.
With time and practice, the more you do this, the easier it will get.
The more you allow yourself to go into the present moment, the more you’ll break the pattern of feeling constantly anxious.
The past and the future, including what has already happened and what might happen, will have a lesser hold on.
As you continue breaking the pattern of feeling constantly anxious, your anxiety levels will continue to reduce, and you’ll get back into healthier habits.
The constant feeling of being anxious will go, and your mental strength will flourish.