Improve Your Sleep

            Do you have sleep difficulties? Does it take longer than 10-20 minutes to fall asleep most nights? Do you wake in the night and have trouble returning to sleep?  The former is referred to as onset insomnia and the latter is terminal insomnia. Also, some people have erratic sleep schedules that include naps during the day. These can be part of a larger psychological issue such as an anxiety disorder or mood disorder, or they can occur independently. Sleep is a vital physical and mental need for our bodies and our brain. Improving your sleep might be the best thing you can do for yourself. Sleep is often the first issue I address with my clients with regards to improving physical self-care, and is becoming an increasingly common problem. More on that later.

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            Before we address ways to improve sleep habits, I think it is important to discuss the benefits of good sleep. While some of these might seem obvious, there may be others that are helpful to know about. Benefits of good sleep include:

·         Happier, more content mood

·         Increased energy and staying alert

·         Ability to be productive at work or school

·         Less irritability with others

·         Improved concentration and memory

·         Better physical/medical health

·         Reduced stress

·         More creative

·         Physical performance is enhanced

·         Healthier weight

·         Avoid mistakes or accidents

            So, if you’re still reading, you might be interested in ways to improve your sleep hygiene. Here are my 9 tips for improving your sleep:

1.      Have a consistent sleep schedule. The parts of your brain responsible for sleep really, really like consistency. The more structured your sleep schedule is, the less your brain has to adjust to changing demands. Attempting to go to sleep at about the same time every night and waking at about the same time every day puts your brain in a pattern that makes it easier to predict so that your body will prepare for sleep. Try to not change your schedule by more than an hour on weekends and days off work or school to keep that consistent pattern going. Of course, life happens and there will be occasions that prevent us from sticking to the schedule. This is fine occasionally, and the more consistent you become with your schedule in the long-term, the easier it is to return to your sleep routine once your situation allows. It helps to have a pre-bedtime routine too-see next tip for more information.

2.      Have a bedtime routine. Keeping with the consistency of a sleep schedule, your mind will prepare to go to sleep when it is easy to predict. Having a bedtime routine including the same behaviors in the same order every night helps prepare your mind and body for sleep. I recommend this routine include activities that are not too engaging or active. Common parts of this routine can include changing into pajamas or sleepwear, brushing your teeth, drinking a glass of water, reading in a dimly lit room, etc. Avoid noise, light, and too much activity with this routine.

3.      Avoid wakeful activities in bed. Nowadays it seems like I hear everyone talk about their sleep difficulties, and the first question I ask is, “Do your read, watch television, or play on your phone/tablet in bed?” Most of the times the answer is “yes”, which I believe is one of the causes of increasing frequency of sleep disturbances. The mind is very cue oriented when it comes to sleep. If you use your bed for active and engaging activities (especially ones with light or noise-more on that later), your brain thinks you should be awake in that place. If you limit these activities to places other than your bed, then your mind knows that the bed is only for sleep and is likely to reduce any problems you might have.

4.      Reduce noise or light interference. Sometimes the simplest explanation is the right one (see Occam’s Razor). When assessing the origins of sleep problems with clients, some are surprised to learn that a simple and straightforward strategy that solves their difficulties is reducing/removing the light in their sleep area or cutting down on the noise in their home. This might include asking a roommate or neighbor to turn down that television, music, or video game in the next room, using a sound machine or app, buying darker curtains/blinds/shades, or putting insulation around the crack at the bottom of a door. Humans tend to sleep best in the dark and the quiet.

5.      Make your bed comfortable. Issues of comfort can be a culprit and cause of sleep difficulties. Do you need to invest in a new mattress or box springs? Is your bed too small to accommodate you comfortably?  When is the last time you purchased a new pillow? Also, issues of comfort might be temperature related. We sleep best when our heads and faces are a few degrees cooler than the rest of our bodies. Do you have the right covers for the temperature in your bedroom? Are your covers heavy enough to help you feel cozy? These small changes can go a long way in solving some sleep problems.

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6.      Reduce caffeine use. An obvious cause of poor sleep is too much caffeine use, especially late in the day. Can you skip that afternoon latte? Caffeine stimulates the nervous system which is responsible for going to sleep. Even with experienced caffeine consumers who claim to be able to drink a pot of coffee just before bedtime, but complain about having sleep difficulties ‘some times’; I challenge you to reduce your caffeine use or at least consume the soda, energy drink, or coffee beverage earlier in the day and just see what happens. What do you have to lose? Plus, you might save a few bucks.

7.      Do not exercise too close to bedtime. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that if they tire themselves out just before bedtime, they will be able to go to sleep. Wrong! Exercise tires some systems of the body (e.g., skeletal or muscular), but stimulates the nervous system. This makes sleep more unlikely. Think about the difference between ‘sleepy’ and ‘tired’ and put at least 2 hours between the end of exercise and the start of sleep.

8.      Deal with those racing thoughts. Many of my clients complain about racing thoughts that occur when they lay down to sleep. I point out that some thoughts and feelings try to get our attention during the day, but we tend to be too busy with activities to give these thoughts the attention they require. When is the one time of day that you are sure to not be busy? When you are trying to go to sleep. Your pesky thoughts and emotions know this and demand your attention at that time. Try journaling, social support, or counseling to express these thoughts earlier in the day so that they don’t try to grab your attention at night and sabotage your sleep.

9.      Avoid alcohol and other drugs. Although alcohol is a depressant and helps people get to sleep, it also disrupts normal sleep patterns which lessens the quality of sleep. Also, there is a risk of dependency when a person relies too often on alcohol, sleeping pills, or other drugs to go to sleep. It’s a short-term solution that worsens long-term sleep patterns.

If you need more individualized help with your sleep problems, give me a call at (405) 614-2846 to discuss or set up an appointment.

Why I Became a Psychologist

       Help others. That is my personal vision statement that I wrote several years ago in an attempt to pinpoint my career goals. It’s really that simple. This is my passion. To be able to help others. Mostly this applies to people, but is not limited to people. Everyone who knows me knows how much I love dogs and try to keep as many as I can in my home. My favorite part of Christmas is in the giving, not the receiving, of gifts. I relish opportunities to be the good Samaritan on the side of the road, sometimes literally on the side of the road. I have always found joy in making something better for someone. My primary love languages are Acts of Service and Words of Affirmation, so these are the ways I focus my help (more on the 5 Love Languages in another blog post). Volunteering with my church to wash dishes for Saturday brunch or presenting Life Skills classes at Mission of Hope. Helping with chores and errands around the house. Making a stranger smile with a look or a kind word. These are my favorite parts of life.

     So, it’s no wonder why I became a Psychologist, but I was not always aware of this career path. I began my freshman year at the University of North Texas (Go Mean Green!) as a Mathematics major. I had done well in math during junior high and high schools, taking advanced courses and doing well. But, something about Calculus II my freshman year. The excitement and fun of math was no longer there for me. I struggled for a few semesters, like many college students, with an undecided major. Until I took an introductory Psychology course. I was hooked immediately. Learning about the whys of human behavior was fascinating. I wanted to understand other people. I wanted to understand myself. I kept taking more Psychology courses and my interest continued to deepen and grow. I began to view Psychology as the vehicle I could use to help others as part of my career path. At the same time, I was taking a career counseling course to help me pick a major. The results of the assessment I took were consistent. Psychology or English. English or Psychology. Sometimes they would switch between first and second place, but these were always my top two results for my interest areas. My path became a little clearer, but this was not the only influence.

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Visiting Terrill Hall at UNT where I found and studied Psychology

Photo Credit: Audrey White-November, 2017

     While I was a college student at UNT, I had a wide variety of friends. There were wild and rambunctious musician friends I spent a lot of time with. There were serious and committed students I befriended. Some of my friends were similar to me in many ways and many of my friends were different from me in very significant ways. College was a time of social exploration and away from my family, I did some exploring as well as forming my value system. One thing was consistent though. I was the guy that people came to when they were upset. If someone was crying because of a relationship break-up or heartache, I was called in to support. When a friend was having panic attacks, I was the person to calm everyone down and manage the situation. Friends would come to me during the day with grief or in the middle of the night with depression. Without formal education, I somehow had a calm presence and some listening skills that seemed to be effective for my distressed friends.

     So, academically and socially, I was being pulled into the profession of Psychology. A world that I had little prior knowledge about. In my time in high school, Psychology was not offered as a course and no one I had ever known had anything to do with Psychology. It has been an adventure that took me to the plains of West Texas to study at the graduate level at Texas Tech University (Go Red Raiders!) only to return to Denton for my internship at the Counseling Center at Texas Woman’s University (note: not Women’s; common mistake). It has also brought me to Oklahoma. Stillwater, more specifically. With my first post graduate job at Oklahoma State University (Go Pokes!) and now with Langston University (Go Lions!). Along the way, taking on additional opportunities to help others by adjunct teaching, volunteering, private practice work, and continuing to be the go-to guy for support for my friends; I have thoroughly enjoyed the chance to help others and look forward to many more years of service to helping others.