The real secret to a good night’s sleep

The real secret to a good night's sleep

Kerstin Schneiderbauer, a freelance data analyst, was having trouble sleeping. Her mind would keep running through her work and to-do lists throughout the night when she was overloaded with projects. When she wasn’t working through an assignment, worrying about where the next one was coming from interrupted her night’s rest.

When a friend recommended a sleep coach, Schneiderbauer initially resisted. “I thought, who needs a coach? I’ll keep talking to my husband about it. But I had been doing that for a year and a half,” said Schneiderbauer, who lives near Vienna, Austria. She feared a coach would do nothing but give her a list of dos and don’ts to follow.

To her surprise, her first session with sleep coach Christina Stefan wasn’t so straightforward. The session was more like career, life and sleep coaching rolled into one.

Stefan wasn’t telling Schneiderbauer what to do. “She was asking questions, also about my family,” she said. Her primary problem was not being able to shut down from work. “I never really closed the office door in a metaphorical sense.”

After five of her 10 sessions, Schneiderbauer was sleeping better. She had learned a visual imaging technique for calming herself if she was awake at night and changed key habits that became apparent after keeping a sleep log. For starters, Schneiderbauer began writing down in the evenings all her work to-dos for the next day so she could switch gears, and expressing worries about work was banned from evening conversation.

Almost half of us don’t sleep well: 45% of the world’s population is impacted by sleep problems that threaten health and quality of life, according to the organisers of World Sleep Day, citing a 2008 study. And the health impacts are serious. Poor sleep can be linked to obesity in children and many psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety and psychosis in adults. In the UK alone, more than 10 million prescriptions are written every year for sleeping pills, according to a report by the Royal Society for Public Health.

In the US, more than 2,800 sleep clinics have been opened. Revenue was roughly $7.1bn in 2015, according to IBIS World. And the global sleeping aids market – which includes products such as herbal and over-the-counter drugs, sleep labs, mattresses and pillows, and sleep apnea devices – was valued at an estimated $58 billion in 2014, P&S Market Research reported.

Once just a resource for sleep-deprived parents or professional athletes seeking peak performance, the sleep coach is now for everyone. Sleep coaches charge different rates, depending on location and experience, but anecdotal evidence suggests the coaching costs 70-130 euros an hour in Europe.

It’s good business

Steven MacGregor, the founder of Leadership Academy Barcelona and an expert on executive health, describes sleeping as a “key professional skill” that must be learned and practiced, an activity that needs top priority every day. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is said to prioritise eight hours of sleep as the most important thing after his 12 hours at the office, according to MacGregor. And Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington frequently talks about the value of good sleep.

Huffington fell asleep at her desk one day and knocked her head so hard that she broke her cheekbone. MacGregor, who teaches at IESE, IMD and other business schools, researches health and wellness for top performers. “We ask executives how they can take their own health and well-being more seriously to improve their thinking, decision-making and life as an executive,” he said. “The type of work that is affected by sleep deprivation is executive thinking, like dealing with uncertainties.”

Stefan also sees proper sleep as a personal “resource” for executives that can help them make the right decisions and handle stress. Yet many people fail to get help if they’re struggling to rest. According to World Sleep Day organisers, most sleep disorders are preventable or treatable, yet less than one-third of sufferers seek professional help. “Sleep is still a taboo topic,” Stefan said.

Fitting sleep in

The good news is that sleep doesn’t need to be done in a controlled environment, like your bedroom. Napping or nodding off for a few minutes between meetings is equally beneficial. The National Sleep Foundation says a nap of under 30 minutes can help you feel more alert and improve your performance, without interfering with night-time sleep.

MacGregor advises executives who fly frequently to teach themselves to sleep on planes, perhaps by rehearsing it at home. Or maybe you’re among the lucky few whose company has installed a sleeping pod in a break area. It’s there for a reason.

Inducing sleep

While counting sheep never really works, there is something to be said for distraction. In Schneiderbauer’s case, her coach advised her to create an image in her mind that stimulates relaxation and evoke that image as needed. At Stefan’s Vienna office, she was stretched out on a sofa and asked to describe in words and pictures an ideal state of relaxation.

Schneiderbauer imagined diving over a coral reef, feeling weightless and hearing only the sound of her own breathing. “I see myself over the corals and with the fish, and I hear myself breathing. Then I begin to shut down,” she said. Schneiderbauer evokes the image one to two times a day in low-stress periods and up to 10 times a day when she needs to calm down or nod off. “I really try to not only see a picture, but to feel it. Now it’s automatic. Now it takes only minutes [to get calm],” Schneiderbauer said.

A willingness to change

A sleep coach alone cannot make a client sleep. The desire to change has to come from within, said Sibylle Chaudhuri, a coach and trainer in Ratingen, Germany, who offers individual sleep coaching as well as workshops.

Chaudhuri once turned down a client who was caring for her sick mother, wasn’t getting help with the kids and house from her husband, and had a job. She wasn’t willing to find help to lighten her load. The woman frequently woke up in the night and couldn’t fall back asleep. She would say, “Can’t you just make me sleep? You’re [certified] in neuro-linguistic programming, can’t you just make my brain do it?”, Chaudhuri recalled. “This is self-development and you have to be ready to change your thinking. Coaching is about change, and change is difficult for most people.”

Seeing the light

Part of achieving a breakthrough is challenging your own beliefs. “Most people think that sleep is something that just happens naturally, and it’s just supposed to happen, no matter how you treat your body. I think the worst thing is to take [sleep] for granted. It’s like going to the gym, we have to do something for our psyches and bodies to sleep properly,” Chaudhuri said.

Chaudhuri said the secret to sleeping better is really a change of lifestyle, and there’s rarely only one reason that you can’t sleep well. “Usually it’s the sum of several bad habits. Usually it’s us who have done this to ourselves,” Chaudhuri said. “The most difficult thing is that people have to change their habits.”

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