Why is it so hard to sleep?
Updated: May 23, 2022
Probably the number one complaint I hear from people is that they have trouble sleeping. From little kids up through older adults, a good night’s sleep seems rare. We can’t fall asleep. We wake up at night. We wake up too early and can’t get back to sleep. We toss and turn all night. We wake up feeling anxious. Then the whole next day we feel it as brain fog, sluggishness, irritability, and lack of motivation. To hear everyone talk, we all fall somewhere on the spectrum from sleepy to exhausted on a regular basis.
What’s going on? Why this chronic, nearly universal problem with sleep?
Well, all I can say is, it’s complicated.
It is complicated because sleep is the conjunction of a wide array of internal physical and energetic processes that need to all be fully functioning for the body to get good rest. It is complicated because sleep depends on external factors such as having a dark, comfortable, and safe room. Even our expectations of how much and how well we need to sleep can change how we mentally evaluate it. It’s a complicated compilation of factors that make or break those hours we are supposed to be peacefully dreaming in our beds.
I can’t possibly suggest that I have all the answers, but nearly every book mentions sleep at some point. It is clear that it is vital to human health and also that we don’t understand it very well. However, there are some common themes that I see emerging that I think are helpful to point out.
First, nearly every sleep study out there suggests that 7-8 hours of sleep per night are vital to healthy functioning. It’s important for everything from driving safely to taking tests to being able to build muscle. I don’t think there is anyone who would refute this, although a rare handful of the population appears to be fully functional on less sleep.
I do think it is important to emphasize the necessity of good sleep because, in a world where everything is on 24/7, it’s really easy to forget to take care of your basic needs. On one end of the spectrum, people think they can burn the candles on both ends. They can pull late nights finishing up work and still get to the gym at 4 am. They can keep their phone on all night and respond to texts every few hours and still feel rested. They can take the red-eye flight and be ready for fun and adventure the next day. You can pull this kind of thing off now and then, but not consistently.
On the other end of the spectrum are people who get stressed out as soon as they know they won’t get 7 hours of sleep in a night. They worry that waking up early in the morning is going to make them grumpy. They worry that they will not be prepared for their day. They feel on edge and anxious about their lack of sleep the night before. To me, this is more an issue of expectation. If you expect that you always need 7-8 of perfect, deep sleep, then anything less will cause stress. Then the stress is probably ruining your day more than the lack of sleep the night before. For these types of people, I usually try to convince them that it is OK to have a bad night of sleep now and then. It happens to everyone. Your body and mind can handle it.
Most of us fall somewhere in between. We try to get a good amount of sleep. We don’t get too worked up if we have a bad night (although it doesn’t feel great) and sometimes we intentionally stay up late just because life demands it for some reason and we know we’ll catch up later. That’s normal.
So part of good, healthy sleep is having good, healthy expectations. If you have a lot of anxiety around sleep, then it might be good to talk to someone and see if your expectations need to be adjusted. If you don’t care one bit about sleep and often run on four hours a night, then you should start caring before you do long-term damage to your body and brain.
Now, the next question is what do you do when you have reasonable expectations but still just can’t get good sleep consistently? Well, this is where some detective work comes in. As I mentioned, sleep is complicated. It is regulated by a host of mental, emotional, energetic, and physical processes. Figuring out which one is consistently disrupting your sleep can be a challenge. There are ways to get at it, though.
Depending on the severity of your sleep problems, you may want to visit a doctor and try to rule out some of the medical possibilities such as sleep apnea, depression, hormone imbalances, and the like.
If your sleep problems aren’t overly severe, then I highly recommend checking in on some of the easy tips that are all over the internet about creating habits to support good sleep. Here is one place to start: Can’t Sleep? 31 Easy Tips for Getting Better Sleep Right Now Some of these easy hacks might work for you and then your problem is solved!
If these help but don’t fully resolve the issue, then you’ll want to dig a little deeper. I’ve broken down my suggestions into four main categories: general sleep disruption, not being able to fall asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, and waking up early in the morning long before your alarm goes off. Each of these categories has a lot of possible things that could be causing the issue. I’m going to give a brief overview here and then hash these out a bit more in the upcoming weeks. I’ll update this blog post as the new information comes out so you can find it.
So here it goes, my not exhaustive list of common sleep problems I see.
General sleep disruption
This is one of the trickiest categories to work with because there aren’t patterns to give you clues about what is going on. Often these issues are related to fluctuations in your hormones, biorhythms, energy cycles, or sleep cycles. Energy work is a good way to start normalizing some of these problems. Reiki in particular supports the body to come back into balance. Also, make sure that you aren’t using blue screens before bed because that is a common hormone disruptor (particularly melatonin). Regular exercise and time in the sun (or Vitamin D during winter months) are also vital for good sleep.
I also recommend clients consider disruptions that might be waking them up at night such as noises, flashing lights (especially if you live near a road), neighbors, fluctuating room temperatures, etc. Another common disruption that many don’t think about is cell phones. If your phone is making any kind of notification noise at night, that is causing problems no matter how much you try to deny it. Even if the notifications aren’t waking you up fully, they might be pulling you out of the deepest cycles of your sleep that are most necessary to feel rested. Also, if you are energy sensitive then just the radiation from your phone could be bothering you at night. If I have a restless night for some reason I often realize in the morning that I have left my cell phone on all night and it was just mildly irritating enough to cause me trouble.
There’s a lot more to say in this category, but I’ll leave that for another post.
Not falling asleep
Hormonally, if you get into bed and can’t fall asleep the first thing to check is low melatonin levels. If I have one or two nights where I feel tired but can’t quite drift off, melatonin supplements often do the trick. Long term, though, this isn’t a great solution and you should figure out why your body might not be making or absorbing melatonin. Again, Reiki can be really good for working on the hormone balance. Blue screens are terrible for melatonin levels, as is drinking alcohol. If you think this is your problem, do some more research in this area.
If you get in bed and have that “tired but wired” feeling, then your brain is on high alert and you need to figure out what is triggering it. My first suggestion for clients is to get up and write down every single thing on your mind. Everything from your grocery list to what happened at work gets written down. Sometimes just getting this stuff out of your brain helps you calm down enough to fall asleep. Another possible cause is that your body and brain actually don’t feel safe enough to relax. It could be something from your present life or something from your past that is creating an internal state of freakout. I’m going to write more about this in another blog post, but if you want to learn more now, I’ve created a free mini-program to help you identify why your body/brain is freaking out and how to start teaching it to calm down again. You can sign up for that here: Safe Enough To Sleep.
Waking in the middle of the night
One thing you should know, that I didn’t until recently, is that it is completely normal to wake up for a period in the middle of the night. We think good sleep requires 7-8 SOLID hours of deep sleep, but research doesn’t support that. So if you do wake up, try not to get upset or stressed about what is going on. Just lay there and rest peacefully until you fall back to sleep.
If you wake up at the same time every night and can’t fall back to sleep for hours, then that’s a slightly different problem. The first thing you want to do is notice the time. If this happens at the same time every night, then you can use that pattern to track down what is going on. Once you know the time, take a minute to see if there is something external that may have woken you up. Does your neighbor get home from work every night at this time? Is there a notification of some sort going off on your phone that you forgot about? Does your kid wake up for the bathroom at this time? If you can figure out the initial trigger, you might be able to minimize it so you don’t wake up at all. Or, you can devise some strategies to help you get back to sleep faster. Maybe a tiny snack next to your bed and a quiet playlist will quickly lull you back to sleep. I find that at least knowing what woke me up helps me dismiss it faster so I can get back to sleep.
If you can’t figure out anything external that might be triggering you, then you will need to turn again to internal hormones, biorhythms, energy cycles, and such. Start with all the suggestions above for general disruptions to sleep that will help normalize your cycles. You may also want to get some help from an energy worker or medical professional to help balance your systems. Acupuncture and yoga can be really helpful in this regard as well.
My third suggestion is that this might be something your brain is trying to process. When you wake up, grab a notebook, write down the time, and then write anything on your mind including any dreams you remember from before you woke up. If you can fall asleep again after doing this, then something in your ramblings is important for you to pay attention to. The next day, take a look at what you wrote and see if you can figure out what your brain was trying to tell you. It may take a few nights for the meaning to come through.
Waking up early
Of course, there is a possibility that your body just doesn’t need any more sleep and you are ready to get up. If you feel rested, then don’t stress and just start your day. If you consistently wake up early and feel exhausted, then start to look into other possibilities.
This one is very similar to waking up in the middle of the night, and all the same, suggestions apply. Early in the morning, it is even more likely that things outside your house are reaching into your subconscious and waking you up. Early trash trucks, neighbors turning on the news, family members starting to stir, and that sort of thing.
Where I think this one is often unique, though, is that waking up early can be related to high anxiety. You are worried about your day, you are nervous about getting stuff done, or have something in particular on your mind. This happens to everyone once in a while and is totally normal. If you have a big event that day you will likely wake up with a lot on your mind. Where it becomes a problem is if you wake up often with a lot of generalized anxiety you can’t even articulate. In this case, you need to deal with the anxiety itself rather than just the sleep issue. Anxiety is just a whole lot of unprocessed emotions that get jumbled together and stuck in your body/mind causing energy blocks and heightened sensitivity. Go get professional help and start to process the emotional stuff. As you do this, your sleep will slowly return to normal. I have a blog post about how energy work helps with anxiety. EFT in particular can be an excellent tool for dealing with unprocessed emotions.
Sleep problems are tricky. There is usually no simple answer and there is definitely no one-size-fits-all solution. If there were, someone would have made a fortune selling the answer! But don't despair, there are lots of things to try and lots of ways to tackle the problem. I’ve given you some suggestions to start trying above and I’ll post more over the next few weeks. If you want to try some energy work to see if you can figure out what is going on, feel free to contact me and we can talk.