Do you go to bed wired then wake up tired?
Does it take a considerable effort to get out of bed and into the shower?
Do you need several strong coffees before you can even think straight?
If so, then going to bed wired is probably the reason. Your mind and body are simply not in the right state for sleep. You need to relax! But what if you can’t?
In thispost I explore
- why rest and relaxation are just as important for your productivity and performance as the hours you put in at your desk.
- the practical steps you can take if relaxation doesn’t come naturally to you
- why relaxation isn’t always the complete solution for a great night’s sleep.
How do you know if you’re wired-tired? When you’re wired, your body is on alert. If you’re into biology you’ll know that in this mode your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is in control. The role of the SNS is to protect you from immediate danger. It has a really important job to perform. What happens when you’re driving on the motorway and some nut cuts right across you, far too close? You respond immediately, without even thinking, braking hard to avoid a potential collision. That’s the fight-flight mechanism kicking in, governed by the SNS and doing its job to avoid danger.
After that kind of thing happens to me, I’m aware that my hands are shaky and my heart rate is up. These are typical signs of fight-flight. A few minutes later however and I’m back to my normal, relaxed driving state.
This is what nature intended for us – to be able to flow easily from alert to relaxed, switching on the SNS when appropriate and as soon as the immediate danger has passed, re-balancing into relaxation and recuperation again. This state of protective, short term fight-flight created by the danger is sometimes called “good stress”.
The SNS also has a part to play in your performance. A quick burst of adrenalin sharpens your reactions as you give that important presentation or deal with a challenging meeting. Again, an example of good stress. The trouble these days however is that instead of experiencing short sharp bursts of helpful, protective good stress, many of us live with chronic stress.
Instead of cycling easily from relaxed to alert then relaxed again you get stuck, continuously wired.
Instead of just worrying about real, immediate threats to our wellbeing, we worry about longer-term potential challenges, things in the future that may not actually happen – but nonetheless are just as anxiety-provoking.
The impact of being continuously wired is massive. It’s bad for your health – for example it raises your blood pressure, suppresses your immune system and hinders your digestive system. No wonder then that when you live with chronic stress you catch more colds, have high BP and are more prone to digestive troubles such as IBS, heartburn and ulcers.
There are also numerous cognitive impacts of chronic stress. It interferes with memory and mental clarity, your ability to take a fresh perspective and think creatively. And of course, because you go to bed wired with the fight-flight hormones still flooding your system, sleep is an early casualty.
So what can you do if you’re routinely going to bed wired then waking up tired?
The counterpart to the SNS is another branch of our amazing nervous system. Called the parasympathetic nervous system, this is like the good cop to the bad cop, SNS. Or the yin to the yang, designed to work together to create healthy balance. This part is responsible for relaxation, switching off fight-flight and eliminating the stress hormones. Its job is again protective but this time it acts to save you from exhaustion, burnout and chronic fatigue. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the immune system works well, your heart rate slows and your digestive system returns to normal. Then you can sleep!
You feel better. You are better.
Yet many people struggle to relax. And when relaxation is held up as the panacea for so many modern day ills,
it can be a bit galling if you’re one of those who finds it hard!
As one client said to me
I’ve done all the right things. No alcohol or caffeine, did some exercise during the day. I’ve even done some yoga for heaven’s sake. So why can’t I switch off?
It’s easy for health and wellbeing professionals to glibly hand out the relaxation cure. The internet is full of suggestions too, some of them excellent. But there’s an assumption that once you put your mind to it, you’ll soon be entering that blissful state where you can float away and leave your troubles far behind…
If only it were so easy!
If you’re somebody who’s never practised any kind of relaxation technique then you might be sceptical. The idea of sitting quietly and simply breathing may seem a bit out there.
Or you might feel that your stress levels are so high that something as simple as breathing surely can’t work!
Some people find the whole idea of relaxation scary. For whatever reason, the idea of letting go feels too much. What if they can never get going again? What if when they relax, other stuff comes into their heads which they’d rather not deal with? What if they try to relax and they can’t, then they’ll be even worse off, won’t they?
I’ve also worked with people who feel that relaxing is a waste of time or their talents or a shirking of their responsibilities. This was definitely the story in my family. Our dad believed it was slothful to rest during the day. Daytime TV was banned and if you felt unwell you were told you’d feel better once you got out of bed and got on with something.
(Nowadays my sister and I know that this attitude has served us well at times but we also need to allow ourselves to rest. We sometimes share our to do lists on Whatsapp and then have a laugh when we realise we both have completely over-estimated what we can do in the day!)
Does any of this chime with you? What comes into your head when I suggest that you would benefit from relaxing more?
Whatever your response, there is no escape from reality (and biology). Relaxation is essential for your physical, emotional and mental health. It needs to be part of your daily maintenance, every day, every hour so you create the natural cycle I talked about earlier between being alert with good stress and then re-balancing soon after.
Rest and relaxation are just as important to your productivity and performance as the hours you put in at your desk
So if you’re someone who finds the concept of relaxation unappealing or challenging here are three insights:
- Relaxation is a process.
It’s not a question of throwing a switch and immediately feeling zenned out. When I go for my morning run I’m definitely not relaxed for at least the first ten minutes. My body feels tense. I’m arguing in my head about why I’m even doing this and work thoughts keep popping up as fast as those bright yellow ducks that you shoot at an old fashioned fun fair.
Yet ten minutes or so in, I feel something happening. It’s as if I’ve turned a corner. My thoughts stop churning and I start to notice my surroundings, enjoying the river and trees all around. My body feels warmer and I’m moving more easily. I feel good! My body’s in a relaxed rhythm and my mind is calm.
When you want to relax, accept that it will take some time. In fact the more wired you are, the longer it may take. However, the more you practise doing something relaxing, the easier and quicker it becomes.
2 Relaxation isn’t about sitting cross-legged on a mountain top!
I’m sure that could be very relaxing but most of us just don’t have that time or inclination. Relaxation has to fit in with your life. It’s important to find a way that works for you. At first this may involve experimentation. Relaxation isn’t a competitive activity either. So while your friend may extol the benefits of yoga, this might be a stretch (excuse the pun) too far.
If running isn’t your thing, try swimming. If you’ve tried to sit and meditate but struggled, try mindful walking, walking slowly in nature, with the express intention of noticing everything around you. Or listening, really listening to a piece of music that you love.
Or anything where your body and mind are working as one, engaged in something in the here and now, focussing on the feedback from your senses as you pay attention to sounds, sights, things you can feel, touch or taste….
At first you will need to apply some patience as you experiment. If you’ve been used to always pushing hard then it’s going to take time for your body to respond. You might not even know what relaxation feels like. So it may take a few attempts before you start to feel the benefits. Little but often is a good rule here – try starting with 5 minutes every day.
3. Some relaxation activities are more beneficial than others.
Maybe up to now your relaxation activity of choice has been Netflix and a glass of wine. Join the club! Or maybe you like to play online Scrabble before bed or catch up on YouTube.
Now these activities can be relaxing but the relaxation you get on a physiological level will not be as deep as when you engage in the kinds of other activities that I mentioned. You will still be on alert to some degree – following the Netflix plot, thinking hard about your next Scrabble move, or following a train of thought on YouTube. In other words there’s still active cognitive engagement and processing going on. Your body may still be holding physical tension too.
With deeper relaxation methods, there’s a letting-go of thinking. For example in mindfulness meditation, you allow thoughts to come into your mind, but you don’t follow or develop them. You let them go and bring your attention gently back to your breathing or walking. In this way the mind can unwind.
And of course because there’s such a close connection between body and mind, once one relaxes the other follows. That’s why running hard when your thoughts are focussed on the physical exertion, your mind can switch to a free flowing, relaxed state.
Let’s look now at the part relaxation plays in sleep.
For sleep to arrive, certain conditions to be fulfilled –
- the opportunity – you have time to sleep
- the right environment – you have a comfortable, quiet place to sleep
- a strong positive association between the bed and sleep – the act of getting into bed cues your body for sleep
- a desire to sleep – you’re not fighting it or anxious about it
- a need for sleep – you’ve been awake long enough to build up sleep pressure
- a positive sleep mindset – you’re confident in your ability to sleep well
- your physiology is in the right state for sleep – you’re tired not wired
Relaxation is an essential ingredient for the last condition to be met as it shifts your physiology into the right state. Fight-flight is the opposite and will wind you up. After all, we’re not designed to sleep if there’s a metaphorical tiger in the bushes! I often advise my clients that when in bed their job is to relax, rather than sleep. Relaxation opens the door to sleep and as we’ve seen is an important pre-cursor to restful Zzzs. Focusing on relaxing rather than sleeping takes the pressure off – and hey presto, once you relax about sleep, it happens!
Many people however focus all their efforts into sleeping and they forget about relaxing first.
If you focus instead on relaxing,even before you get into bed, and staying relaxed once you are there,then sleep will take care of itself.
But what if you try to do the right relaxing stuff but it doesn’t fix your sleeping problems?
Learning to relax in the hour before bed can be enough for some people with mild sleeping difficulties. But as you can see from my list of sleep conditions, there are other factors that come into play. When I work with clients I certainly encourage them to find ways to relax both in the evening and also to take micro-breaks during the working day. But when someone has had chronic insomnia for months and even years, it’s nigh on impossible for them to be able to relax about sleep. Their sleep (or rather their struggle with it) has become a source of stress.
It’s also likely that many other aspects of their sleep patterns have got completely out of whack. The other conditions for sleep aren’t being met –
- They may be so distressed by their lack of sleep that they feel anxious as bedtime approaches. They aren’t confident in their ability to sleep and their anxiety/ frustration activates the fight-fight response. The bed is no longer a cue for relaxing sleep but anxiety.
- They may try to survive on broken nights during the week and catch up at weekends by sleeping in late. Sleep thrives on routines and rhythms and varying bed and wake up times confuses the body so it “forgets” when it’s supposed to feel sleepy
- One teacher I once worked with went to bed at 8pm every night hoping that somehow in the hours between then and the alarm going off at 6.30am (that’s 10.5 hours in bed!) he would manage a few hours shut-eye. He was spending too many hours in bed not sleeping. Again this undermined the link between bed and sleep and his confidence in his ability to drop off.
So if you’re struggling with sleep, going to bed wired then waking up tired, and you’d like help with re-setting your sleep patterns, do get in touch. My structured, science-based Programmes will take you from sleep-deprived to sleep-confident in 5 weeks or less, without of course, the need for pills.
You’ll learn skills and a sleep positive mindset that will stay with you forever, benefiting not just your sleep but your work and your whole life.
Book a call with me to explore how this might work for you. I’d love to be your guide so you can sleep well, work well and live well.