The Times – Max Kirsten guide to getting a perfect night’s sleep

The Times

The hypnotherapist explains how to sleep without counting sheep

Anxiety and sleep are not great soulmates. This means that when we’re confronted by a global climate of anxiety, as we are at the moment, increasing numbers of people start the day feeling exhausted. I know this is happening because in recent months more of my clients have been seeking help for sleep problems.

It’s time to make some changes, not least because poor sleep damages our health – one consultation in ten with a doctor relates to sleep difficulties. A recent five-year study by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health indicated that people who suffer from anxiety as a result of stressful events can have disturbed sleep for at least six months afterwards. Feeling irritable and unable to concentrate, common symptoms of sleep deprivation, are unhelpful as we face the challenges of 2009.

If you’re tempted to count sheep, take note of last year’s report by Oxford University scientists who found that imagining a relaxing scene is considerably more effective. But first I’d like you to take some practical steps to create an environment that will induce a relaxed state of mind.

Make sure you’re tired
A child who has been running about will sleep better than one who has been playing computer games. The same is true for adults. Regular physical exercise counteracts depression and anxiety – as studies have shown – and helps you to sleep. You don’t have to work out – a brisk walk, some gardening, a swim or a bike ride are all beneficial. If you’re less mobile then do some gentle stretches.

Create a sleeping room
You need an atmosphere of peace and quiet. TVs and computers are not conducive to sleep: keep them out of the bedroom. You need curtains or blinds to make the room dark and it should be ventilated. If you have an uncomfortable mattress make changing it a priority.

Dealing with worries
Don’t talk about your anxieties just before you go to bed. Do something relaxing instead, like reading, listening to soothing music or have a bath.

Get up early
Set an earlier wake-up time on your alarm. Research has shown that consistently getting up half an hour earlier than usual helps to reset faulty sleep patterns.

Things to avoid before bed
Caffeine less than five hours before. More than a glass or two of wine. Nicotine – including patches and gum. The late news or any action, suspense or horror film.

Dream away your cares

Make yourself comfortable in bed. Close your eyes. Begin to relax by taking a few deep breaths. Then have a long, slow stretch throughout your body, tightening the muscles and holding the tension first in your face, shoulders and neck; then your chest, back, stomach, arms, hands and fingers. Continue the stretch down to your legs, feet and toes. Then let go and relax.

Notice your breath: feel it happening as, slowly, you draw in each breath from the abdomen and release it. In and out. Feel the gentle rise and fall of every breath, like a glass of liquid filling and emptying by itself. As each breath leaves you, feel relaxation spreading throughout your body, down your arms and legs to your hands and feet. As you let go more and more with each breath, every muscle throughout your body relaxes.

Continue to notice your breathing, feel it relaxing you, and slowing down, becoming more shallow, relaxed and automatic. As you release each breath, you can see all the thoughts that fill your mind during the day streaming away like bubbles from your nose and mouth.

Now begin to think of a place where you are totally relaxed. Somewhere that you’ve been on holiday perhaps, a favourite room, or a place that you’d like to go. You’re lying down, you’re comfortable, wonderfully relaxed, you’re calm and safe. With each breath you can let go a little more and drift off to sleep when you want.

Interview by Penny Wark