The stress of cancer doesn't leave us at bedtime. Focusing on relaxation, rather than sleep, can get you the healing rest you need.
There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep. Homer
The worry and stress of living with cancer often leads to insomnia. I often couldn’t fall asleep, or would pass out and be wide awake a few hours later, unable to get back to sleep. I had no idea how badly it was affecting me until my therapist pointed out how fatigued I was during an especially miserable session.
As I always tell my children, “When you’re tired, everything’s worse.” In my struggles with insomnia, however, I’ve learned that putting the focus on sleep doesn’t help. In fact, it often makes things worse by creating more anxiety.
Instead, I’ve learned I must back up a step and focus on relaxation. If I can relax, I can activate healing responses within myself, one of which is sleep.
You can’t go to bed and instantly relax if you’ve been anxious and stressed all day. The following steps will strengthen your relaxation muscle and help you face bedtime ready to sleep:
1. Focus on the breath and meditation. Quieting your mind by following your breath in and out is the most basic form of meditation. All it takes is a quiet place and a few minutes a day. Practicing mindful meditation during the day makes it much easier to quiet the “what-ifs?” at night.
2. Create quiet time before bedtime. The light from television, computer, tablet and smartphone screens stimulates the brain, which can disturb sleep patterns. Turning off all electronics and reading a book or taking a warm bath alerts the brain it’s time to wind down for sleep.
3. Journal. Writing down your emotions and concerns on a regular basis can help ease anxiety. If you can’t sleep and are running through concerns in your head, try writing them down. Sometimes, just seeing your concerns down on paper and out of your head can help you get to sleep.
4. Exercise. There are studies that suggest moderate exercise (such as walking) reduces the incidence of insomnia. (Strenuous or late-in-the day exercise does not have the same effect.) In my experience, 30 minutes of walking in the morning absolutely helps me sleep better at night.
5. Set a regular bedtime and time to get up each morning. A regular sleep schedule eases you into a good night’s sleep by alerting your brain to wind down for the night.
6. Create a comfortable sleeping environment. A bedroom which is dark, cool and quiet is the best for sound sleep. Remove alarm clocks that put out light, which is another source of unnecessary stimulation.
7. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and heavy meals before bedtime. Like caffeine, alcohol is a stimulant. While although alcohol may initially make you sleepy, it will often wake you up in the middle of the night.
8. Treat yourself to a little TLC. Listen to guided imagery, drink warm herbal tea and curl up in a blanket. Nurturing yourself goes a long way toward relaxing your mind and body and preparing for sleep.
9. Find support. Without other people who understand, cancer is exponentially harder to endure. Before I found support I was living in my own head without anyone to talk to who understood, which made for many sleepless nights. Support gave me an outlet for my emotions, fears and anxieties. Support helped me release what was keeping me up and helped me get to sleep.
Maybe it’s just me, but the more I struggled with insomnia, the more worrying I wouldn’t be able to sleep kept me awake. It’s a vicious cycle that got me nowhere. It’s helped me to realize that a good night’s sleep always starts with the healing power of relaxation.
Do you have trouble sleeping? How do you combat insomnia? Have you found relaxation techniques that work for you?