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A Few Words on the Fall Season and Sleep Problems

Oakland at Night

In early fall, we can feel the transition from summer to fall and winter. The fall equinox, a day with equal number of day and night time hours, this year on September 22, reminds us of natural rhythms: days get shorter and nights become longer, the leaves are turning colors. I personally like this change of season because I more fully appreciate that each day offers less and less daylight.

In my own quest to better understand my relationship with sleep and sleep problems, I notice improved sleep with the beginning of fall. With evenings setting in earlier, I notice a positive development, that is I tend to go to sleep at an earlier hour.

Not being able to sleep can be frustrating. People with sleep problems may lay in bed, toss and turn for hours while waiting for sleep “to happen.” Worrying about how a sleepless night may negatively impact one’s life, one tries biological sleep aides such teas and herbs or asks for sleep medications. Perhaps several cups of coffee see the person through next day. It is worth considering one’s options when faced with not getting enough good snooze.

Good sleep is considered a sign of good health and considered important for people of all ages. The medical community agrees that throughout our lifetime the amount of sleep one needs varies: a newborn normally sleeps 16-18 hours, preschool-aged children 11-12 hours, school-aged children 10 or more hours, teens 9-10 hours and all adults 7-8 hours. Some research suggests the numbers for adults are higher: 8-9 hours.

Most would agree that regular, good sleep at night helps a person feel better and be more productive during the day. There are the occasional night owls, who are awake at night and feel positively stimulated, creative or particularly productive at night. These people experience not sleeping at night not as problematic and are able to sleep at a different time. Others work during the night for years and become accustomed to sleeping during the day time, which may or may not influence a person’s well-being. Still, in a study most adults in the U.S. report one to two nights of disturbed sleep in a week.

From a therapeutic standpoint, a person’s relationship with sleep and sleeplessness is interesting. It matters what one thinks and feels about sleep and sleeplessness: a helpful attitude about one’s sleepless experiences support well-being. It is better to assume an open, curious and active stance about the situation than to ignore it or maintain a judgmental, negative attitude about that part of one’s life. A mindfulness practice, also used as a therapeutic technique, can help with improved sleep and sense of well-being. Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one's attention on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting, not agree or promote, one's feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.

Instead of relating to a lack of sleep with indifference, denial, frustration or helplessness when faced with sleepless nights, it is helpful to pay close attention to what happens and what one notices internally in one's mind. Can sleep be thought of as something helpful or is it only bothersome? Does sleep take away from other things, activities, thoughts? Does one engage in sleep disturbing behaviors? What else happens in life, and what does the person want to be different? These types of questions may guide an inner exploration and help better understand the sleep problem. One may pursue these questions alone or with a friend. Keeping a sleep journal is another option.

TV, the internet and other electronic devices, such as cell phone, tablets, games interfere with sleep because they can be cognitively and emotionally stimulating. Using electronic devices before sleep generally stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and counteract sleep by increasing brain activity, increasing muscle tension and other sympathetic responses. The sympathetic nervous system is a built-in, physiological system that accelerates heart rate, increased blood pressure, increases muscle tension and more. One study shows that just the blue light emitted from an electronic device counteracts sleep.

Sleep hygiene are practical habits conducive to sleeping well. Sleep hygiene calls for reviewing work, social and self-care commitments and asks for changes in one’s life style. One suggestion asks to not over-schedule and consequently lack time for unwinding. A relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music in low light, could be part of a special bedtime ritual. Other activities could include: a hot bath, a glass of warm milk, sitting in meditation. Turning off electronic devices and phones, perhaps even removing them from the bedroom or sleeping area along with anything that distracts from sleep including bright light and sounds, is an important step for some. A good sleeping environment with comfortable bedding and sleepwear and a cool, dark room aide sleep as well.

Stimulants like caffeine and nicotine are to be avoided. Alcohol contributes to poor sleep despite its initial sleepy effect because when alcohol leaves the body, it has a stimulating effect. Large meals and beverages before bed time can cause indigestion that interferes with sleep. The internet offers other resources and practical tips on sleep hygiene. Such changes may seem overwhelming if started all at once, it is better to implement a few changes and add more once changes are integrated into one’s daily routine.

If experiencing repeated sleep problems, a person should seek medical assistance to avoid missing an important medical diagnostic piece and necessary treatment of a medical condition. Insufficient sleep is associated with a number of health issues and illnesses, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stress, hormonal changes, obesity, depression and others.

Sleep related difficulties may also point to a sleep disorders. Insomnia is an inability to fall or stay asleep. The Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is an unpleasant tingling sensation or uncontrollable urges to move the leg and that can make it difficult to fall asleep. Also, consistent tiredness during the day, despite spending enough time in bed at night, may point a sleep disorder.

Good sleep is a common sense, preventative health measure - just as eating well and being physically active are. Why not create new ways of sleeping and going to sleep, sleep rituals or rediscover old ones to support not just good sleep, but beyond sleep: a way to tap into your natural rhythms for well-being. We typically think of the New Year, spring and summer as natural seasonal change agents, times when our resolve for better living strengthens: we exercise, eat healthier, go out more, toss ourselves into accomplishing professional development goals. As we are in fall and soon winter, why not draw on what this quieter time offers: more time to rest at home and enjoy sleep.

If you are having sleep problems, why not consider treating yourself to psychotherapy now. You do not need to suffer alone. Please, give us a call, we are here to help. Be well!

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