A Good Night’s Sleep

In a world that never seems to settle down, sleeping appears like an untimely need. And yet, a good night’s sleep is an efficient and valuable source of energy that has no substitute.

Psychologist Dr Melanie Robertson is committed to restoring sleep’s deserved status. She advises us to think of sleep as a caring big brother who embraces you protectively each and every night.

ESCAPING THE VICIOUS CIRCLE

Somewhere in the city, a church clock chimes twelve. It’s midnight and the moon is high in the sky. However, no one seems to be thinking about sleeping: People crowd the counters in the bars, the streets are busy, and the windows are brightly lit. Now seems as good a time as any to quickly make a final bank transfer for the day, to place an online grocery order for tomorrow’s birthday party at the deli around the corner, and, once you’ve put on your reading glasses and poured yourself a glass of wine, to check out the latest goings-on on your social media channels. And, before you know it, night turns into day and the clock strikes again. Those who go to bed at such times may well wonder why sleep seems so elusive: The brain and body are wide awake. Reason – and reason only – suggests turning off the lights. And when the alarm clock rings the next morning, you hardly feel up to the day’s challenges. Your head is buzzing and your eyes are watering. Sleep was unable to perform its healing effects. Instead of allowing sleep the time it deserves and seeing it as a source of regeneration and rest, it is instead treated like an unwanted problem. The result: a vicious circle. Dr Melanie Robertson can help you to escape this pattern. 

Dr Robertson: Yes, in some ways that’s a good parallel. We all want to function at a high level. When we are asleep, it seems like a waste of time. It’s a time when we all must let go, which is hard for many people. The idea of relinquishing control for a few hours does not fit to our lifestyles of constant accessibility and availability. Therefore, sleep is having a hard time in our current living and working world. Sleep patterns change as we grow older. Sleep becomes more fragmented. Sleep continuity, for example, decreases during menopause. Basically, it is important to regard these changes as ‘normal’ in order to be able to deal with them more easily.

Dr Robertson: Even though our entire system is shut down during sleep and we are no longer physically active, many processes run autonomously. Our brain, which never rests, is also active during sleep. It uses the nightly downtime to process events and happenings. The amygdala, for example, is extremely active at night. It is part of our limbic system and links events to emotions. This is one reason why dreams can often be very intense and emotionally overwhelming. During sleep, important processes of cell renewal, detoxification and metabolism also take place: Hormones, enzymes and fats are absorbed, broken down, metabolised and produced. It is a wellknown fact that permanent sleep deprivation provokes numerous diseases and symptoms. Conditions such as digestive disorders and obesity, an increased risk of developing cancer or type-2 diabetes, emotional problems such as depressive moods and cognitive impairment can all be the result. Reduced sleep also causes a reduction in attention span and concentration decreases. In fact, when we close ourselves off to sleep, we lose our ability to perform.

Dr Robertson: Absolutely, and this is the value that sleep should be given. It is not something to be annoyed by but is instead a very effective and simple strategy we should adopt for better health. In combination with good nutrition and exercise, sufficient sleep is probably the most efficient rejuvenation cure. But in addition to sleep itself, we also need dreams. After all, those who sleep also dream.

Dr. Robertson: It would be accurate to say in the last fifty years or so. In the 1960s, humans slept an extra hour and a half per night on average. This probably also has to do with the fact that more physical work was performed, but also more time was devoted to sleep. Basically, the levels of sensory overload, stress and general strain have increased dramatically. 

SLEEP PATTERNS change as we grow older. Sleep becomes more fragmented. Sleep continuity, for example, decreases during menopause. Basically, it is important to regard these changes as ‘normal’ in order to be able to deal with them more easily. 

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SERENITY – A GOOD REMEDY FOR INSOMNIA

Dr Robertson: Sleep disorders are very individual. There are people who lie awake for an hour every night, but don’t give it much thought. Others, on the other hand, are afraid of going to or falling asleep. Some lie awake for long hours in the morning, constantly looking at the clock and becoming nervous. They thus suffer from a feeling of severe pressure. As a psychologist, I would classify this as a sleep disorder. 

Dr. Robertson: In the vast majority of sleep disorders cases, small yet not so easy to implement changes in everyday life are required. Such changes might include: no large meals or raw food after 5 pm, sufficient exercise during the day, no stressful conversations shortly before bedtime and a pleasant sleeping environment. Warmth, for example in the form of a hot shower or a hot water bottle, helps greatly when trying to fall asleep. Alcohol, on the other hand, is not an effective sleep aid. In fact, it prevents you from sleeping through the night. You should also refrain from looking at your mobile phone, TV or tablet for at least half an hour before going to bed. Additionally, I strongly advise against using sleep apps, as they increase the pressure to sleep or constantly make you feel like you haven’t slept enough. They are usually counterproductive, as is looking at the clock at night. A good remedy for insomnia is serenity. 

Worries, fears and other burdens often rob us of sleep. It is therefore important to give these cares some space and thus to set in motion the necessary processing time. Psychologists can offer assistance in this regard. 

Dr Robertson: We like to be guided by standards, that’s true. But when it comes to sleep, only our own needs apply. There is basically no right or wrong: You can go to sleep at 9 pm just as easily as you can go to sleep at midnight. You can sleep eight hours or you can sleep six. You can lie awake or sleep through the night. As long as you don’t put pressure on yourself, sleep will happen and not become a problem. 

If sleep disorders are accompanied by pain, acting out dreams, or breathing and movement disorders, it is important to seek medical help. The medical team at Park Igls will be happy to assist you. 

Dr Robertson: There are physical reasons for this and it is good to recognise them. At night, one part of our brain – the prefrontal cortex – works less intensively than during the day. However, this area of the brain is responsible, among other things, for problem solving, and therefore we start brooding very quickly when lying awake, without actually coming to a solution. Problem solving strategies simply work less well at night. So, my tip is to get up, make a little note for the next morning and then go back to bed. This ensures that the problem is not forgotten, but there is no acute need to mull it over any longer. 

If SLEEP DISORDERS are accompanied by pain, acting out dreams, or breathing and movement disorders, it is important to seek medical help. The medical team at Park Igls will be happy to assist you.

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THE FRATERNISATION WITH SLEEP

Dr Robertson: Yes. In fact, they are strategies that should be practiced during the day. They aim to reduce the major antagonists of sleep – adrenaline and cortisol. If you lie awake at night and worry that you won’t be able to sleep, these stress hormones are released. So, if we practice regularly during the day to contain the level of stress, we will succeed more easily at night. A simple exercise would be to take five minutes several times a day to switch off briefly. This exercise can then also be used at night to help you fall asleep. 

Dr Robertson: It’s a good idea to have a well calibrated sleep-wake rhythm. This is achieved by going out into the daylight during the day and – whenever possible – going to bed or getting up in the morning at approximately the same time. The body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin begins when it gets dark and peaks between two and three in the morning. So, at this time it’s best to be in bed and not active. It’s also important to really only go to bed when you’re tired and to set an alarm during the week or for important appointments. The alarm clock creates certainty that you wake up on time, so you can really let go while you sleep. 

Dr Robertson: Those who are very sleepy during the day should give in to the feeling. However, a nap during the day should not last longer than 20 minutes and should be finished at least six hours before bedtime. So, if you go to bed at 10 pm, you should be awake by 4 pm at the latest after your siesta.

Dr Robertson: Getting back up is absolutely fine, although you should avoid overly bright light sources. I would advise against sitting in front of your cell phone, computer or television. It would be better to listen to soft music, read something or make yourself a cup of tea. 

Dr Robertson: Anxious fears concerning the night ahead should be avoided. Daydreaming is a nice way to help you fall asleep. You can dream yourself away somewhere or think back on a wonderful experience. My recommendation would be to focus your thoughts on yourself rather than external stimuli. Everyone has thoughts that relax them; these need to come into play. Concentrating on your own breath also helps you fall asleep.

THE PERSONAL SLEEP RITUAL BY DR ROBERTSON

Regular exercise during the day and a very small evening meal are part of my routine. I also consciously shower off the workday and change my clothes. This helps me go from activity to rest. 

Dr Melanie Robertson offers one-on-one sleep coaching at Park Igls. Sleep disorders are often due to personal fears and worries such as stress at work, relationship problems or dissatisfaction with certain areas of one’s life. Often, one or two one-on-one meetings are all that is needed to get a new perspective.

Gesundheitszentrum Park Igls in Tirol

Dr Melanie Robertson –

Clinical, neuro- and health psychologist, sports and emergency psychologist, specialising in stress prevention and acute intervention