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It’s been said that one third of the population in developed countries doesn’t get enough sleep and battle with staying awake at night.

As a statistic that’s insane and as a problem it’s disturbing because we need sleep to refresh and restore, to think well, to make good decisions, to feel energised and stay in a positive mood.

There are many reasons why so many of us stay awake at night, but the one I hear most commonly is:

“I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about what’s going on at work.”

With all the talk about the need for life-work boundaries this is one area that clearly needs some help!

Worry and anxiety about work related issues are the main culprits, but sometimes there’s something else at play too, i.e. too much going on to think about during the day.

When asleep the brain remains active processing the information we’ve taken in during the day and determining what needs to be kept in our long-term memory banks. It’s not a great time to divert that activity to work through problems. While it’s nice to experience that time when we do wake up with a solution formulated, too often our over busy mind has gone down a multitude of rabbit holes or got stuck in the groove of looping thought, so we wake up exhausted (and grumpy).

My hubby is the classic example. He has what is called “sleep maintenance issues.”

He can fall asleep at the drop of a hat and frequently does so on the couch after dinner – So much for scintillating conversation in the evenings.

After going to bed he sleeps for a while and then something wakes him up in the wee hours. He used to blame the cat (now deceased), me for snoring (sorry darling) or the rain on the roof. Unable to go back to sleep he gets up, makes himself a cup of warm milk and paddles around the house and commonly ends up deciding to do some work, to catch up on emails, pay a few bills, etc.

When I ask, “What kept you awake last night?” his reply is usually “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

Which he does. He’s involved in a number of businesses, is designing a new widget and is heavily involved in a voluntary organisation that seems to take up more of his time than his regular work.

Thinking all day and working long hours places a huge burden on our ability to stay fresh, alert, creative and productive.

Working from home also poses the extra difficulty of extricating oneself from the notion “I’ll just” do a little extra.

The irony is, the solution to our over thinking, over worrying and poor sleeping is readily available to us IF we give ourselves permission to do so.

Give Your Brain a Break

We’re not designed for long term focus. While the feeling is there’s too much to do and too little time, remember you’re human, not machine, and we operate much better when we address our physiological and psychological needs.

This includes chunking our day into blocks of activity and taking regular brain breaks of a few minutes every 60-90 minutes, as well as taking a proper lunch break.

Get out of the office

Stepping away from the desk and the office even for a short while provides your mind a bit of breathing space to think things through. It’s estimated we spend almost 90% of our awake time in buildings, so getting out preferably into a green space is great for reducing stress and calming the mind.

Leave work behind

While loyalty, commitment and dedication to your work is highly commendable it’s only part of who you are. Taking time out for holidays when due, having hobbies and interests unrelated to work and spending time with family and friends is essential to our health and wellbeing.

Move It

The paradox of mental exhaustion means the last thing we feel like is heading off to the gym after work yet getting regular exercise and being sufficiently physically active during the day has been shown to make a huge difference to the quality of our sleep. The minimum is 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week (think brisk walk, swimming or cycling), and getting up to move for ten minutes every hour during the day. Why not try a standing or walking meeting, working at a stand up desk or choosing to always take the stairs and not the lift.

Take Time Out in Your Thinking Space

Far from adding to your cognitive burden, scheduling in a daily thinking session of 10-15 minutes for quiet reflective thought provides you the thinking space to think more critically, to reflect on how things are going, and consider what’s next. Failing to take this time out leaves the brain little option than to seize the opportunity of you going to bed to do that thinking work.

Let’s Meditate on That

Meditation, whether mindfulness or other forms, can be very helpful to reduce stress levels and symptoms of anxiety. Building self-awareness of thoughts and feelings assists in reducing brain fog, clarifies thoughts, assists with self-compassion and improves sleep. In the same way, learning breathing and relaxation techniques, jotting down thoughts on a notepad, or keeping a gratitude journal all assist to reduce the emotional load that can work to keep us awake at night.

Put Away the Sackcloth and Birch

If sleep is elusive and tricky stop beating yourself up about it. Identifying what is keeping you awake at night is the first step to putting into place new ways of doing and habits to move you towards sleep recovery. Worrying about not sleeping only adds to the problem.

There are a myriad of sleep hygiene habits to try, including reducing the intake of stimulants such as caffeine (stop by early afternoon), alcohol and smoking.

Establish some ground rules about when to switch off from your technology in the evening  and stick to them.

Go to bed when sleepy (rather than just tired) to increase your chance of gaining more restful sleep.

Keep the bedroom for sleep and sex only, and if you can’t sleep get up, have a warm drink and entertain yourself with a quiet activity that doesn’t require technology and definitely doesn’t include work. (Yes, we’re still working on this one at home)

Sleep is essential to our physical, mental and cognitive wellbeing.

If work is keeping you up at night, don’t put up with it and seek extra help if needed from your health professional or psychologist.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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