Her challenge: Alexandra Acker, 29, a single executive director of a nonprofit organization from Washington, D.C., has suffered from sleep issues on and off since high school, but they became worse when she moved to Washington, D.C., and took a new job. “My sleep problems are definitely stress-related,” she says. While she has no trouble falling asleep, she wakes up many times throughout the night and can’t turn her brain off sufficiently to get back to sleep. She lies in bed thinking about work, making mental to-do lists, and even listening to random songs that play in her head. Making matters worse, there’s traffic noise outside the windows of her studio apartment.
Expert advice: “She seems to have a predisposition for insomnia, and for people like her, whenever there are additional pressures, like a new job, the insomnia bubbles to the surface,” says Gary Richardson, M.D., a senior research scientist and a staff physician at the Sleep Disorders Center at the Henry Ford Hospital, in Detroit. Since Alexandra is probably not going to change her job or leave D.C., she needs to find ways to handle her stress better so that it doesn’t wake her up at night. “We expect the brain to turn off when we sleep, but it doesn’t do that, and there’s some evidence that in insomniacs, the areas of the brain that control stress stay active at night,” says Richardson. So rather than lying awake listening to song lyrics and making lists in her head, Alexandra might:
- Distract her brain by trying a relaxation technique, like focusing on her breathing.
- Working on keeping her sleep environment quieter, such as using an air conditioner or a fan, as well as blackout shades to block street light.
- Try wearing earplugs.