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Wellness Matters: We’re a sleep-deprived nation because we don’t make sleep a priority


By Marty Seitz
KyForward columnist

Recently, the Today Show had a segment on the importance of sleep. No surprise the, report said: Most Americans are sleep derived, and sleep deprivation is implicated in many medical problems we Americans have, such as impaired immune systems, weight gain, greater susceptibility to infections and atherosclerosis, to name a few.

Sleep deprivation can also lead to drowsy driving, which like distracted driving, can lead to increased risk of automobile accidents. Productivity at work and the quality of interpersonal relationships are equally impaired by sleep deprivation. I can’t tell you how many couples have said that one, the other, or both of them fall asleep when they have time to spend with one another, not because their partner is boring but because they themselves are sleep deprived.

Why are so many Americans sleep deprived? One major reason is that many do not make sufficient sleep a priority. Work and/or play edge out sleep. Some wrongly believe sleep is optional instead of essential.

Another major reason for insufficient amounts of sleep is insomnia. Many want to sleep but find they cannot get to sleep as soon as they want to. This article is the first in an extended series in which I will provide a smorgasbord of sleep-promoting suggestions. I’m starting with several ideas that emphasize conscious cognitive/mental interventions.

Conscious cognitive interventions

Educate yourself about sleep and sleep hygiene (i.e., healthy sleep habits). Excellent self-help books for combatting insomnia include Say Goodnight to Insomnia by Gregg D. Jacobs, Master Your Sleep by Tracey I. Marks, No More Sleepless Nights by Peter Hauri and Shirley Linde, The Insomnia Workbook by Stephanie Silberman and Charles Morin, A Good Night’s Sleep by Jan Sadler, and The Effortless Sleep Method by Sasha Stephens.

Investigate possible causal factors and problem solve accordingly. Often with a little thought, people are able to figure out the factors that are interfering with their sleep and are capable of finding appropriate solutions. Sometimes people just need the opportunity, time and encouragement to put their minds to the task.

I once asked one of my clients who struggled with insomnia what he thought interfered with his sleep. With just a few seconds of reflection, he said that his dog repeatedly woke him up, passing car lights flashed in his bedroom window and he couldn’t stop reviewing the events of his day. All these issues bothered his sleep. He was then able to develop solutions for each of the problematic factors. He had just never put his mind to solving this particular problem until invited to do so. I invite you to do the same when you have insomnia.

Use mental devices/strategies to promote sleepiness. The standard mental device for overcoming insomnia is to count imaginary sheep jumping over a fence. Variations include counting backwards from 1,000, visualizing a relaxing scene in as much detail as possible or letting yourself simply be aware of your breathing. The main idea is to focus your mind on a repetitive boring or relaxing thing versus anything that is stimulating or anxiety provoking.

Address irrational or problematic thoughts that keep you awake. You can counter them by focusing on more helpful thoughts. For instance, if people find sleeping difficult because they are reliving the day and criticizing themselves for mistakes they believe they made, they can employ compassionate self-talk.

Instead of saying to themselves, “You’re a stupid idiot. Why did you do that? You’re going to be fired,” they might say, “OK, you made a mistake today. You’ll learn from it and become wiser.”

Instead of saying, “What happened is terrible,” say, “What happened may work to my advantage in some way I cannot yet foresee.” If a person can’t sleep because of thinking about possible difficulties coming up the next day, he or she can say, “No matter what happens tomorrow, I can survive it and grow from it.” Similarly, one can replace negative imagery with positive imagery: defeat replaced with victory, strategic retreat, or resurrection.

Yet to come

In subsequent articles in this series, I will offer behavioral, physical, interpersonal, and other categories of anti-insomnia coping suggestions. Until then, sleep right, not tight!

Marty Seitz is an associate professor of psychology in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Asbury University, where he has taught since 1989. He got his bachelor’s in psychology from Asbury University, studied at Asbury Theological Seminary, got a master’s degree in community counseling and a doctoral degree in counseling psychology from Georgia State University. In addition to his teaching, he has practiced as a licensed psychologist in Lexington since 1989, doing individual and couples’ counseling and has been working with the Access Wellness Group since its inception.

Read more Wellness Matters columns here.

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