Sleep doctor: The five secrets for combatting stress induced restlessness – and what your bizarre dreams are REALLY telling you
- A sleep expert’s revealed her tips to combatting stress induced sleeplessness
- The expert said more people are having sleep problems since lockdown began
- Exercising on stressful days, meditating and a night time routine are key
Dr Carmel Harrington said the COVID-19 crisis has lead to an increase in the number of people suffering psychologically and in many cases this leads to an inability to get to sleep or stay asleep at night
An Australian sleep expert has revealed her tips on beating stress and anxiety induced sleeplessness as more Australians are impacted by the condition following widespread lockdowns.
Doctor Carmel Harrington said the COVID-19 crisis has lead to an increase in the number of people suffering psychologically and in many cases this has meant many have developed an inability to get to sleep or stay asleep at night.
‘It often makes no difference whether our worries are reasonable or unreasonable – both will make relaxation difficult and cause sleep to become elusive,’ Dr Carmel told FEMAIL.
‘Once sleeping difficulties begin a vicious cycle can start to build up with our sleeplessness causing increasing anxiety which leads to increasing sleeplessness and then increased anxiety, and so on. What’s more, often just the thought of missing out on sleep can lead to incredible stress.’
The doctor explained hormones are responsible for the sleeplessness we experience during high-stress periods.
This is because our body’s natural response to challenging situations is to make adrenaline and cortisol – two chemicals integral for an effective ‘fight’ response.
1. ‘If you have had a busy and stressful day make sure you factor in some exercise.
2. When you stop working, devote some time, no longer than 15 minutes, to thinking about the issues of the day and perhaps write them down in a book, along with any potential solutions. Importantly, when you finish, close the book, and put it away. Not only are you physically putting aside your worries, but you have now managed to deal with your concerns, rather than waiting until going to sleep.
3. Establishing a sleep routine is very important in preparing our mind and body for sleep. One hour before bedtime, switch off technology, dim the lights in the room, and reach for sleep inducing essential oils. My go-to is the In Essence Sleep Blend popped into a diffuser. This act of switching off allows our body to recognise when it’s time for sleep. Our brain responds so well to environmental stimulators, so when diffusing essential oils at this time, our body gets ready to quiet down and enter the nurturing and nourishing phase.
4. Practising a relaxation or meditation exercise, or using some aromatherapy is a great way to prepare the body and mind for sleep and will often assist with initiating and maintaining sleep. Restorative yoga can also work well to calm the mind and put us in a good place for sleeping well.
5. If however you find yourself lying in bed not able to get to sleep after about 30 minutes – whether it be at sleep onset or in the middle of the night – it is better to get up, sit in a dimly lit room and do something relaxing, like reading a magazine or maybe even doing a breathing exercise to relax. It is important not to go back to bed until you feel sleepy again. Once in bed, if you are not asleep within about 30 minutes, get up again and repeat the process. By doing this you are teaching your mind and body that bed is for sleeping and you will find that over time you develop the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep on a nightly basis.’
‘Unfortunately though, our body will increase adrenaline and cortisol production regardless of the source of the stress, and the stress hormones cause many bodily reactions including increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and increased breathing rate to name just a few, but they also stimulate the alert pathways in our brain and actively prevent us from succumbing to sleep,’ she said.
The doctor recommends prioritising exercise on stressful days and devoting 15 minutes to thinking about and writing down any issues creating stress.
She also recommends developing a sleep routine which should include dimming the lights and turning off technology an hour before bed time.
‘It often makes no difference whether our worries are reasonable or unreasonable – both will make relaxation difficult and cause sleep to become elusive,’ Dr Carmel told Femail
The addition of aromatherapy and meditation exercises can also help.
Dr Carmel also recommends getting out of bed if you don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes.
Research has shown that the sedative action of simply smelling a few drops of your favourite oil can help induce a state of slumber that will continue throughout the night.
In addition to acting as natural sedatives, essential oils reduce stress levels often synonymous with sleep disorders.
Having a good routine is important for a good night’s sleep, the doctor explained
The doctor previously revealed what your increasingly vivid dreams really mean during the pandemic – from deaths, fears, going to the supermarket and talking to animals.
Dr Carmel Harrington said the COVID-19 crisis sparked a rise in unusually strange dreams around the world – as millions of people shelter at home due to strict social distancing to minimise the risk of spreading the virus.
As the hashtag #pandemicdreams sweeps the internet, many are sharing their amazement of the strangeness of their dreams, while others feel disturbed by their dark subconscious.
‘It’s due to anxiety and the high media coverage of COVID-19 we’re being exposed to. Every article is about COVID-19, you have nothing else to think about,’ Dr Harrington told Daily Mail Australia.
‘The things you are contemplating during the day will be processed at night in your sleep, it’s embed in our memories.
‘If that’s what you’re exposing yourself to especially one hour before bedtime, the fear and anxiety we’re getting can produce quite vivid and worrisome dreams.’
The managing director of Sleep for Health has highlighted what each dream really means – and what you can do in the one hour leading up to bedtime to ensure you get a good night’s rest.
Some of the common ‘lockdown’ dreams circulating on Twitter include death, fear, loss, betrayal, coronavirus-related, going to the supermarket and conversing with animals.
Many people revealed their dreams have been centered around deaths or loss. Dr Harrington said she believed this was due to the high coverage of COVID-19 death tolls we read about
Death and loss
Many people revealed their dreams have been centered around deaths or loss.
‘The stories we read increases these dreams because we’re being confronted with the high coverage of death tolls. We can’t avoid it,’ Dr Harrington explained.
‘The headlines we read about is how many people have died around the world we live in or the death toll in the US, UK or Australia.’
For people who have dreams about losing a loved one to coronavirus, Dr Harrington said it’s due to the real-life stories you read about.
‘Stories about loss are very personal. Personal life stories like ‘the loss of a young person’ or a ‘beautiful mother dying’ can really affect people,’ she said.
Fear and being scared
Some people said they are dreaming about their biggest fears such as spiders, snakes or drowning, while others are experiencing ‘scary’ nightmares.
‘How that happens is it’s an acute emotional time so our dreams are accessing an emotional part of our brain a lot,’ Dr Harrington said.
‘When we sleep, fear files new information about COVID-19 that we’re exposed to during the day. Our brain looks at all the ‘fear’ files like snakes, spiders or drowning, and when it’s not there, it investigates that file you remember encountering.
‘So our brain investigates our ‘fear’ or ‘scared’ files to figure out which file to put this anxiety and fear into.’
Dr Harrington said many of us only remember dreams when we wake up in the middle of the night.
‘If dreams aren’t fearful, we go into the next stage of sleep and gradually go in and out of sleep. We don’t remember dreams but if you have a strong emotional response like it made you upset or happy, it responds to that and you wake up,’ she said.
‘We remember dreams due to the acute emotional response – that’s the only reason we’re aware. If it’s a fearful dream, you wake up more.’
Some people said they are dreaming about their biggest fears such as spiders, snakes or drowning, while others are experiencing ‘scary’ nightmares
Dr Harrington said the rise in COVID-19-related dreams stems from the repetitive information we’re being exposed to in our daily lives such as washing your hands regularly
Dr Harrington explained we’ve been told ‘over and over’ again about the signs of symptoms – and so it begins to play on people’s minds
Dr Harrington said the rise in COVID-19-related dreams stems from the repetitive information we’re being exposed to in our daily lives such as washing your hands regularly or the signs of symptoms to look out for.
‘It’s a personalisation. We’re told over and over again we might have it even when we have no symptoms. We might feel fatigue, or have a cough or runny nose – that’s the hidden thing we don’t know about,’ she said.
‘So we walk around and when you go to bed, it all bubbles to surface. I always say that when we don’t deal with things during the day, our brain deals with it at night.
‘The thoughts we don’t think about now, our brain and body will think about it later – our brain doesn’t stop.’
Dr Harrington said she believed dreaming about being betrayed is linked to people flouting social distancing of maintaining a distance of 1.5 metres in public.
‘This is an interesting one. We are now relying on ever more than we have on other people to protect us,’ she said.
‘In these circumstances, people have given up so much to ensure others are safe but when we go out and about, we see other people who aren’t abiding by the rules, so it ignites your betrayal of trust.’
Many are dreaming about breaking social distancing because we’re in isolation at the moment
In Australia, Scott Morrison announced only five people will be allowed to attend weddings – so it’s no surprise people are dreaming about ‘crashing’ a special day after tens of thousands of brides and grooms were forced to postpone their wedding due to the guest restrictions
Dr Carmel Harrington’s top tips on good sleep practices
- Maintain a regular bedtime and awakening time
- Do not sleep during the day
- Avoid alcohol
- Avoid caffeinated beverages after noon
- Do not smoke before bedtime
- Do light exercises before bedtime
- Finish eating two to three hours before bedtime
- Read a novel before bedtime or do crosswords
- Adopt a going-to-bed routine: One hour before bed turn off all technology and dim all lighting. Perhaps do a relaxation exercise and/or have a hot shower
- Do not use the bed or bedroom for anything other than sleep and sexual activity – do not watch TV or read complex material
- Keep the bedroom cool, dark and quiet
Having conversations with animals
Many people said they have been experiencing bizarre dreams about having conversations with animals or their pets.
‘We always have weird bizarre dreams at any time in our lives, there’s nothing more to it but if you’re increasingly speaking to pets in your dreams, it’s our brain responding to not having much social contact with people,’ she said.
‘Many people live alone or they are now working from home so they’re not having the same conversations they normally have with friends, family or colleagues.
‘I’m not surprise we’re getting voices from something else like animals we don’t normally do.’
Many people said they have been experiencing bizarre dreams about having conversations with animals or their pets
Dr Harrington said the reason we are dreaming about talking to animals is because we haven’t had much social contact in the real world
Some people revealed they’ve been dreaming about going to the supermarket or ‘finally’ getting their hands on essential items like toilet paper or pantry staples
Going to the supermarket
Some people revealed they’ve been dreaming about going to the supermarket or ‘finally’ getting their hands on essential items like toilet paper or pantry staples.
‘I think this also comes into fear,’ Dr Harrington said.
‘People are fearful of going to the supermarket, they don’t want to go so their dreams are driven by necessity. I have spoken to people who are fearful of going to the supermarket. It doesn’t surprise me that this translates fear to a supermarket.
‘It’s been playing on your mind, you need to go tomorrow but what If I get there and there’s no more toilet paper or what if I have to fight with someone? Interestingly, emotional centre is acute in dream sleep – it’s very busy processing our memories.’
How to combat your ‘pandemic’ dreams to ensure good sleep
Dr Harrington said a ‘lost routine’ can lead to poor sleep patterns, waking up at odd hours of the night or struggling to fall back to bed
Dr Harrington said a ‘lost routine’ can lead to poor sleep patterns, waking up at odd hours of the night or struggling to fall back to bed.
‘The biggest issue is people have lost their routines. Normally we need to get up at 6.30am and go to bed at 10 at night, we have particular times of eating and exercising and all of a sudden, we’ve lost that routine,’ she explained.
‘When we end up getting up much later or we have breakfast or dinner late, our routine affects our ability to sleep. We’re hanging around the house more so we have a lack of routine.
‘Establishing a routine is super important in these times. Pick a wake up time and stick to it. Don’t change your routine more than half an hour at a time. Within reason have meals, exercise at regular times, give your body clear indication of a time to go to sleep.
‘Your body loves routine but when you take routine away, it’s very confused.’
Dr Harrington said once people lose that ‘high level of anxiety’, they could ‘go back to normal’.
She advised doing a light exercise before bedtime.
‘Having a good exercise routine can reduce our anxiety so you should start doing that and continue until after COVID-19 finishes,’ she said.
‘One of the biggest tips is using that one hour before bedtime to relax the brain and mind. Don’t go to bed on high alert after reading about COVID-19.
‘Switch off everything, have a warm to hot shower, or do a relaxation or mindfulness exercise for about 20 minutes to relax your brain and calm your physical system as well.’
For those having recurring vivid dreams, Dr Harrington said you need to have a good bedtime ritual at least one hour before you sleep.
‘We need to accept these dreams but if you’re having recurring dreams that’s deterring you, you need to take it out during the day when you have a conscious brain,’ she said.
‘Spend time during the day understanding the sensible foundations of your dream, recognise it’s not fearful and move on. Practice good sleep hygiene.
‘Switch off before bedtime, decrease screen time after sunset and don’t read the news or listen to someone talk about COVID-19. Reading a novel or doing a mindfulness exercise will give you more pleasant dreams.’
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