Drugged sleep is not so good as natural sleep, and pills often have a kickback effect.
Most people are surprised to know what can be done without drugs. There are some do-it-yourself was in which you can improve your sleep – most of them are simple, and often surprisingly effective – and it’s certainly worth trying to see if any of them suit you.
You may when you think about it be taking sleeping pills purely to blanket out the minor disturbances around you that seem to keep you awake. Could you do this without the pill? Noise, for instance, is a major cause of insomnia or waking unrefreshed. To cut it out, try low melting-point earplugs, easily inserted and removed.
If you depend on an alarm clock you needn’t be afraid of oversleeping, because the earplugs tend to loosen towards morning; but if you’re worried, get someone to give you a call just to be on the sale side.
Light in the bedroom often causes wakefulness; a street light just outside your window or even sunshine, when it gets light around 5 am in summer.
Many people put up with inadequate bedroom curtains when a heavy dark lining and a good overlap at the sides and center is all that’s needed to cut out the light properly. Or if, you prefer you can buy or make a fabric eye shield with a lining.
General physical discomfort is another thing that impinges on our consciousness and keeps waking us up.
It is known from animal experiments that poor nutrition leads to insomnia, and conversely, that overeating produces excessive sleep. It is also known that restless movements during sleep are often associated with the contraction of the stomach that can occur when a person is hungry.
For a long time the makers of a well-known food-beverage have claimed that it improved the quality of sleep, and a lot of sophisticated people have been skeptical. But recently these claims were investigated, and reports published in the British Medical Journal show that they were justified in making them.
So if you tend to wake a lot in the night, or early in the morning, try some kind of substantial milk drink before going to bed.
It seems obvious to suggest that an uncomfortable bed is likely to cause poor sleep. But it’s amazing how many people won’t recognize that a sagging, too soft, or too hard mattress may be the root of their trouble.
The weight of the blankets or a heavy eiderdown can be another unpleasant stimulus. And if you’re too hot or too cold in bed, try changing the bed-covering and check the heating and ventilation in the room.
If the job of a sleeping pill is, in part, to make us less sensitive to unpleasant stimuli, these simple measures will often do the same job, merely by removing the stimulus (as with the heavy bedclothes) or by controlling our perception of it (earplugs and lined curtains).
For many people, cutting out these minor “environmental” disturbances will be enough, but there are others whose sleeplessness is due to causes within themselves.
For one reason or another, they can’t relax sufficiently to sleep well. Drugs are intended to make them do so. Can tense people learn to sleep without them? It may be just a question of a small change in the daily program.
Many insomniacs, women especially, relax quite easily and may even feel quite sleepy in the evenings while they sit watching television, reading, or sewing.
But when it’s nearly time for bed, they rush around, tidying up, getting ready for the morning, putting out the cat. They arrive in bed wide awake and unable to sleep for hours.
It’s better to organize things so that you don’t have to rush. Leave as much as you can till the morning, after all, if you sleep better you’ll feel fresher anyway and should be able to get up a few minutes earlier so that you can cope and consciously slow down and relax while getting ready for bed.
A leisurely warm bath can be soothing and relaxing for many people, though others do find it has the opposite effect. All movements should be smooth and gentle.
This slowing-down may be all that’s needed to get you into the mood for a relaxed sleep. But if you still find that your body is tense, and this usually means that your mind is active, you can learn relaxation, just as you can learn any other skill.
Psychologists have been teaching relaxation to their patients for many years, in the course of treating them for phobias. One of the reasons for the growing interest in yoga is its emphasis on relaxation techniques, which not only help to induce sleep but can be used to reduce anxiety in many of life’s difficult situations.
Although it is probably easier to learn to relax if you have a teacher, it can be learned on your own. The aim is to become aware of the state of your muscles, so that you can identify and control those that are tense and preventing you from going to sleep.
You can begin by lying comfortably in bed or sitting in a chair that supports you well. Start by clenching your fist. Feel the tension building up in the muscles in your hand and forearm, until it becomes quite uncomfortable, even painful, then slowly relax.
Feel the tension slowly draining away, and the relaxation gradually taking over. Feel the relaxation get deeper and deeper until you reach a deeper level of relaxation than you have ever felt before.
Go through all the muscle groups in your body, in the same way, giving particular attention to the muscles of the jaw, neck, and shoulders, which are chronically in a stale of tension in many people and lead to headaches, and so on.
Aim to make your limbs so relaxed, warm, and heavy that you can hardly imagine moving at all. Take in a deep breath, and feel the tension building up in the muscles of your chest.
Then breathe out, and feel your whole body relax more and more deeply. By this time you should feel calm, peaceful, and quiet, with no anxiety or tension at all.
When you’re trying to sleep, focus your attention on the quiet rhythm of your own breathing. This will help keep your mind from the anxious or angry thoughts that make you tense and unable to sleep. Roll gently into the position you find most comfortable.
If you have a cassette player, you could buy one of the sleep therapy tapes that have recently come on the market. Many people find the sound of a calm, quiet voice giving relaxation instruction is most soothing and favorable to sleep.
Physical fatigue often seems to make it easier to relax body and mind.
Several studies have shown that people who take regular exercise sleep best on the days when they’ve done so. If they can’t exercise, they begin to feel uncomfortable and complain about a waning appetite and increased sexual tension. At the same time they say they are sleeping less deeply and wake in the night.
So many of us work at desk jobs that involve a lot of tension and anxiety; we drive everywhere or commute in sardine-like conditions.
There’s no physical release of tension. You don’t necessarily have to be keen on sport – half an hour’s brisk walk every day would improve both sleep and general health.
There are two more things you can do. You can look at the stresses of your daily life and see whether you couldn’t cut some of them out. Are you taking on too much work? Do you have a lot of social commitments? Are you sitting on too many committees?
Try to have a less stressful day, cultivate a more detached attitude, and you’ll probably have a more peaceful night.
The other thing you can do is to look at the way you spend your spare time and you should have spare time! You should regard enjoyable activities as a necessity and not a luxury, and see that you get them regularly.
An enjoyable break – a regular few hours and a very necessary holiday – will help you get your worries into perspective and make them less unreasonably compelling.
In these ways, you may be able to improve your sleep quite substantially and avoid the use of habit-forming drugs, which in the end lose their effectiveness and reduce your general efficiency. So before rushing off to the doctor, try to help yourself.