The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Wide awake at 3am? Here’s how to escape the anxiety trap and get back to sleep
Finds out from the experts how diet, drink and deep breathing can help us deal with stress-related insomnia
Midlife should, by rights, be a time of good quality slumber. The vodka-fuelled clubbing of youth is long behind us, as – for most parents – are the nocturnal demands of young children. Yet, after our children master the art of sleeping through the night, we forget how to do it ourselves.
I hit 40 and with it came the inability to stay asleep. Falling asleep is no issue but, as the witching hour of 3am comes around, I’m wide awake, my busy brain processing everything it hadn’t found space for the previous day. This impacts everything from my work to my wellness. With a good sleep, I can take on the world. Without, I can barely take on the laundry.
“There is a desperation to finding yourself suddenly and completely awake at 3.21am,” says artist Jo Hathaway, 51. “I’ll think ‘Here we go again.’ The problem at this stage of life is that I don’t just have my own avenues of anxiety to stagger down, but my children’s. What could hurt them, the ways I could fail them, plus the perpetual anxiety of how to fit my own life and work around their demands.”
Only 12 per cent of women report sleep issues in their younger years, but that rises to at least 40 per cent among the menopausal and post-menopausal. Men aren’t immune either. “Three hormones are involved in sleep regulation: melatonin, cortisol and testosterone,” explains hormone expert Rachel Sherriff. “Low testosterone is linked to lower quality sleep and fewer deep-sleep cycles. As testosterone levels reduce, which happens with men around the age of 40, cortisol increases, leading to night-time waking, shallower and shorter sleep. This is linked to depression, low confidence and unnecessary worry, in both men and women.”
So what can we do about this? “Testosterone supplements are available, but you can also try zinc, stinging nettle, pantothenic acid, ashwagandha and omega 3,” says Sherriff. “You can also regulate your cortisol levels through meditation, breathing exercises and gentle activity.”
While hormonal upheaval wreaks havoc, it isn’t the only cause of 3am anxiety. “We need to look at the big picture,” says Heather Darwall-Smith, author of The Science Of Sleep. “Is there too much caffeine? What is your alcohol consumption?” Indeed, Hathaway found that, though she still wakes, her anxiety levels plummet when avoiding alcohol. “Drinking is a horror that turns the usual waking hours into a florid, sweaty nightmare.”
Then there is the scientific impact of stress. “Midlife is often a car crash of lifestyle issues,” says wellness coach Geraldine Joaquim. “All this results in stress, which causes insomnia. During sleep we go through four to five cycles of light sleep, into deep sleep, into REM (rapid eye movement) – the dreaming phase. This is when the brain processes experiences that have happened that day. REM is restricted to 21 per cent of our sleep patterns, so when that 21 per cent has been used up your brain wakes you up.” Even if it’s 3am.
Ian Murton, 50, fell into this stress trap when he was made redundant four years ago. “I was a PE teacher who’d become too old and expensive to employ,” he says. “I didn’t know how I’d support my family and would wake with negative thoughts. It felt lonely.”
Murton began listening to a self-hypnosis track, and has since qualified as a sleep hypnotherapist. “Our negative thoughts each day are stored in the hippocampus, the stress bucket,” he explains. “When that bucket is full, we use the primitive part of our brain which can only think with anger, anxiety or depression.” REM sleep takes the emotion out of the memories so we have more control of them or forget them. It’s why we are advised to “sleep on it”.
“An argument with a colleague may not be forgotten, but we will have a more reasoned approach to it the next morning. By listening to self-hypnosis, I was able to empty my ‘bucket’ more quickly. I’m now back to sleeping seven or eight hours a night.”
Sleep psychotherapist Dipti Tait explains how she gets the brain to tidy itself up. “There are lots of methods to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, training the brain and body to relax on demand. Meditation and yoga nidra are brilliant.” Dipti also uses deep breathing, NLP (neurolinguistic programming) and hypnotic trance. “It feels like a peaceful Sunday morning lie-in, when you can still hear what’s going on around you. It mimics REM and the brain will begin to declutter.”
Darwall-Smith suggests using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to break the pattern of 3am anxiety. “If you look at the clock and think – How much sleep have I had? How much will I get? – you slide into catastrophising, which will keep you awake. This fearbased repetition builds a powerful neural pathway in the brain. This pattern continues in a vicious cycle, making stress and sleep loss intimately interconnected. CBT can help to refocus the thought process to help build a different neural network.”
Darwall-Smith says we all must remind ourselves that waking in the night is normal. “Some nights are good, some bad. This is normal. Chasing sleep makes the problem worse. Shift your effort to learning to self-soothe. The most important thing to remember is that sleep is an imperfect beast.”
‘At this stage of life I don’t just have my own avenues of anxiety to stagger down, but my children’s’