The Counselling Centre


Sleep is as essential to us as food, air and water. Sometime in your life you may have difficulty sleeping - many people do. Anyone can suffer from insomnia, although sleeping problems are more common among women (especially menopausal), the ill, the elderly, smokers, and alcoholics. Sleep problems are, however, surprisingly common among young people. While it is not an illness and is in no way life-threatening, insomnia can be very distressing, frustrating, exhausting, depressing and at worst it can make you feel like you're going crazy.

Reasons for Insomnia

  1. One of the most common complaints is the difficulty falling asleep because of racing thoughts and anxiety. Your mind can't easily "step off the hamster wheel" of your busy life and slow down enough to let you slip into Slumberland. Conversations get replayed with what you would have said or should have said more cleverly under different circumstances. All the "what-ifs" of your uncertain future get played out in an infinite variety of scenarios. You find you are lying there, exhausted, but wide awake and with a pounding heart or twitching legs, watching the digital clock flick over yet another number as the night slowly crawls by.
  2. Caffeine is a big culprit in keeping us from our rest. Some people find that if they drink anything with caffeine in it (coffee, tea, cola, Mountain Dew, etc.) beyond mid-afternoon, or even mid-day it will disturb their sleep. Chocolate can have the same affect - whether a candy bar, hot cocoa or a dessert. Some people are sensitive to sugar too and sweet drinks/food can prevent them from getting to sleep.
  3. A lack of physical exercise or a sedentary lifestyle can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Often, in our busy lives, we are weary from mental activity but may have sat at a desk all day. Our bodies are holding muscular tension and have no outlet for release. We are wiped but can't sleep! 
  4. Alcohol in any form can interrupt sound sleep. Initially, alcohol acts as a depressant and can make you feel sleepy. Later, however, it can have the paradoxical effect of causing you to wake up and have difficulty getting back to sleep.
  5. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs, nicotine and illegal drugs can adversely affect your sleep pattern.
  6. What we eat and when we eat can interfere with our sleep. Rich or spicy foods can act as stimulants or cause digestive upset and impair sleep. Eating late at night and then lying down with a full stomach can make it difficult to sleep. Acid reflux can cause discomfort, making sleep elusive.
  7. Too much light or noise can stop us from slumbering. Early morning light in the Fall and Spring can wake us sooner than we wish. Ambulances, fire reels and police sirens are disturbing if we live in the downtown core. Housemate and neighbour noises can be annoying. Roommates with different schedules can disturb us with their late arrivals home or early departures. The snoring of a partner or roommate can keep us from sleep.
  8. Pets in the bedroom are big culprits in disturbing sleep. Pets jumping on and off the bed, or jingling their tags can be annoying.

What Can We Do About Insomnia?

  • Anxiety and racing thoughts are tough to tackle but strategies can be learned and practiced to help manage them.
  • Thought-stopping: As soon as you recognize negative or worrisome thinking, take a deep breath and shout or say/think to yourself "STOP!" Repeat several times. Replace these anxious thoughts with calming and supportive statements to yourself (it's a good idea to custom-design these before you need them) such as "I am calm and strong," or "I am in control of my thoughts." Shift your focus to deep abdominal breathing, watching your rhythmic inhalations and exhalations. "Watching" your breathing helps you stay grounded in the present moment. Anxious thoughts are almost always about the remembered past or the imagined future.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This is the practice of tensing and relaxing muscle groups from head to toe, accompanied by deep, slow breathing. This releases tension from the body, and the experience of feeling relaxed is discrepant with feeling anxious, i.e. you can't feel both at the same time.
  • "Download": It's a good idea to always have a notepad and pen by your bed. When you think of something you must remember to do tomorrow or a problem that needs some analysis, turn on the light, reach over and write down one or two key words that will remind you in the morning. Then let it go, roll over and let yourself fall asleep.
  • Take an Inventory: If you can't sleep because you are worrying about things that are happening in your life- STOP! Sort your concerns into two categories- Things I Can Do Something About and Things Beyond My Control. For all the concerns that fall into Category 2, let go or try Thought-Stopping (see above). For each concern in Category 1- Things I Can Do- reach for that pen and paper, make a list of Pros and Cons or Action Plan. Resolve to make that phone call tomorrow, mail that application form, or get the information you need to answer your question. Plan to take action so that, in your head, you can take it off the Must Worry list and put it on the Under Control list.
  • Correcting Distorted Thinking: This is not something you will try for the first time while lying in bed and then miraculously fall asleep. It is a practice that starts with awareness of your current thinking processes, critically assessing them for accuracy and effectiveness, and, if they are faulty or harmful to you, replacing them with accurate, positive thoughts more appropriate for your present reality. Negative thinking is learned over time and may not be appropriate or healthy for your situation now. We can spend a lot of time, waking and sleeping (or not sleeping!), mulling over past and future events using distorted, faulty thinking.

This is a strategy a Counsellor can teach you and then monitor your progress. Most of us have taken a lifetime to learn our way of thinking, feeling and behaving. We can't change that overnight. It takes awareness, practice and a lot of patience.

Here is an example of distorted thinking:

Say - you don't do as well on a test as you'd hoped. You think,

"I'm a born loser! I'll never get this degree! I'm letting my family down."

We feel the way we think. Negative feelings like discouragement, anxiety, hopelessness do not result from the bad things that happen to us, but from the way we think about these events. If we can change the way we think, we can change the way we feel!

With a belief like "I'm a born loser" we have already condemned ourselves for life. We have made the leap from one low grade on a test to a life sentence of ineptitude! This is a HUGE overgeneralization!

"I'll never get this degree!" Here we are magnifying the situation and jumping to conclusions- negative ones!

"I'm letting my family down." Oh, the hot shame of self-blame! And probably the accompanying self-pity! How can we be anything but "paralyzed" by fear of failure, and unwilling to try again? If we think we are a "born loser", we can make ourselves feel like a born loser and consequently increase the likelihood of behaving in a self-defeating way.

  • Try cutting back on caffeine consumption. Some people react to caffeine withdrawal with headaches in the first week. Drink lots of water and increase physical activity. Try an orange juice pick-me-up instead of your old "double-double" habit. You'll be surprised how quickly your body "un-learns" its old dependency. Often it is the soothing behaviour of nursing a warm drink, which is our real "addiction". Try decaf or green tea (less caffeine than regular tea) or an herbal tea. Watch out for fruit-flavoured black teas that are not herbal and do contain caffeine. If you're a cola drinker, experiment with other flavours. Revisit your childhood favourites - Minted Grape, Orange Crush. Or, if you're keeping an eye on your sugar intake, try sparkling water with a twist of lime.
  • Probably the most effective remedy for poor sleep patterns is regular exercise. Burn off some of that tension so your poor body can "turn off" at night. A regular routine is more effective than a desperate exercise blitz just before bedtime because you need to sleep that night! Some gentle stretches and yoga postures before bedtime can help you "wind down" and be ready for sleep.
  • If you are trying to improve your sleep patterns, be willing to experiment to determine what is or is not affecting you. Try cutting back on alcohol consumption.
  • If your sleep pattern is disturbed since starting a prescription medication, note these changes and give your physician specific feedback. Your doctor may adjust your dosage or suggest you take the meds at a different time of day. Some over-the-counter medication for headache/muscle pain may contain caffeine to accelerate its entry into the bloodstream. Some cold and flu remedies contain components that can speed up your heart rate. Cold or allergy remedies often contain antihistamines which usually make us sleepy. Ask the pharmacist to explain the ingredients and the effects on sleep. NEVER SELF MEDICATE! Do not "guess-prescribe" yourself something you think may help you, e.g. Gravol to help you sleep. Gravol can make you sleepy but it interferes with your REM sleep, i.e. the quality of your sleep.

Try some drug-free self-soothers like warm milk (it contains tryptophan which makes us sleepy), or a warm bath with a drop of lavender oil in it, or turn off the bright bathroom lights and have a before-bed bath by candlelight (safely placed!). Quiet instrumental music (no lyrics as we tend to follow the words!) or CD's of environmental sounds (waves, the patter of rain) can help us relax enough to fall asleep.

  • Pay attention to what you eat and when it affects your mood or sleep pattern. Become more aware of your body's reactions to foods and consciously avoid the harmful ones.
  • If light is disturbing you (especially as days grow longer in the Spring) you may need to get mini-blinds or line your curtains with a darker fabric.

Roommate or neighbour noise is harder to control. The most mature step is to communicate your concern in an assertive way. Or ask your landlord to intervene on your behalf. This registers your complaint with him/her and he/she can document this, should there be subsequent complaints from you or other neighbours.

If there is ambient noise (police car sirens, fridge humming, water pipes clunking, neighbours in the hallway), you may reduce it with earplugs. You may wish to remove loudly ticking clocks out of earshot. Some people find a fan creates a "white noise" effect that helps screen out distracting sounds.

Snoring is an age-old complaint. Your friend/partner may have success with nose-strips (available at the drugstore) that keep nasal passages clear.

  • Pets in the bedroom are a difficult problem because of our obvious attachment to them and theirs to us. Some dogs are trained since puppy hood to spend the night in their travelling kennel with access to water. You may need to set some limits and be consistent in order to retrain your animal.

Illness may interfere with your regular sleep patterns. Allergies or colds may make it difficult to breath. Try using nose-strips: a drug-free remedy available in the drugstore. Try an extra pillow or rolled blanket to elevate your head and shoulders to permit sinus drainage. Cold medications called "Night-time" usually contain an antihistamine which makes us sleepy.

Good luck and Good night!

The Counselling Centre offers individual and couples counselling to help with these issues. For more information, call The Counselling Centre at 420-5615 or drop by our office on the 4th floor of the Student Centre.