The importance of good sleep can hardly be overestimated. Especially for those with ADHD and other neurodivergencies. We need our time to replenish more than most!
You can read part one of this blog series here: Sleep, ADHD and other neurodiversities start of a blog series
In this series I aim to talk about common challenges we face around sleep
- not getting to bed on time
- procrastinating going to sleep with in bed activities
- distractions in the bedroom
- unable to fall asleep once you are in bed, and have the lights out
- restless legs
- rumination/worry keeping you up
- boredom leaving your mind seeking stimulation instead of sleep
- excessive dreaming
- worries, heavy dreaming, apnea, or other reasons for waking up leading to middle-of-the-night wakefulness
- waking earlier than needed in the morning and not getting back to sleep
- not getting enough deep sleep
- not getting enough rem sleep (this is where you dream most often)
I’ll cover a few of these that are connected to problems sleeping once you are in bed this time. I’ll discuss some of the things we look at when I coach people.
Getting to sleep once you are in bed
Having ADHD can make it really hard to get the amount of sleep we REALLY need. The two main things people I coach on this topic struggle with are:
- Getting to bed on time
- Getting to sleep once in bed
I’ll tackle the second issue in this blog and give some basic suggestions. The first blog Sleep, ADHD and other neurodiversities start of a blog series covers getting into bed on time.
Even these two main problems tend to be highly personal in how they present, so keep in mind in coaching we can come up with different solutions that suit YOU when those mentioned below do not work for you.
What is getting in the way?
Once you have mastered getting into bed in time – or just that one time you did manage to crack it! – you may be faced with the second enemy to good sleep: once you are finally lying there it seems impossible to actually succumb to lord Morpheus….
- Your mind is racing
- You really cannot get comfortable
- All manner of urgent tasks suddenly pop into your head, prompting you to get back up
- You start ruminating over things that happened or that you did not get done that day
ADHD brains have a big problem with two things that are needed for you to fall asleep at this point:
- Task switching
- Low stimulation
Let’s cover these one by one:
For the first: at this point in the day, we need to make the switch from being active, doing stuff, to going into a recovery mode, where we are not actively engaged in any way, even mentally. That takes effort. Waking up and falling asleep are likely the two biggest, most impactful task switches that people have to make each day……
I used to really beat myself up over having such trouble with letting go of the day and getting to bed. But now that I know more about how -and why- my brain resists switching into recovery mode, it’s much easier to deal with, and there is a lot less shame about it too!
Task switching can be hard for ADHD brains and we often need to be goaded into it. Two things help: making the upcoming tasks less daunting and making steps that enable the switch more habitual, so a lot of the effort is replaced by automation. Having a bridging routine that helps us ease into recovery mode is really useful, especially if it’s also a largely pleasurable series of actions. Try to structure your evening routine- the activities that lead up to your getting into bed- in such a way that you have the least active bits last and the most active bits first. If brushing your teeth is a lot of active work for you, perhaps do it before watching your favorite show before bed? Or do some quiet meditation or light reading before getting into bed, or IN bed, but before you turn the lights out.
If you keep to this evening routine and carefully weed out activating behaviors later in the routine you’ll build a habit of slowly guiding your body and mind into a more relaxed state. Keeping to a set pattern of steps – that you repeat IN THE SAME ORDER every night before bed- will help, simply because your brain recognizes the sequence of events and begins to anticipate winding down for sleep.
Our ADHD brain is often primed for action, always on the hunt for dopamine generating events, because that is what we naturally lack, and therefore crave. This can lead to all manner of weird side effects when we deprive your brain and body of stimulation: like we need to do to fall asleep: or so we’ve been taught….
We can suddenly start to notice all manner of external or internal signals that we were not paying attention to before the quiet, low stimulus environment of the bedroom was entered. Our brain sort of cranks up the volume on these, now that other signals are absent.
- Scratchy blankets, tags in pyjama’s
- Being too hot/ too cold
- Our own thoughts going in a million direction
- Processing stuff that we did not fully process from earlier in the day
- That one embarrassing conversation you had two years ago with that girl you bumped into on the street…
- Things we pushed out of our head to try and focus on other stuff, or because we were avoiding it
- How to organize that priority project for tomorrow
- Things we are worried about that make zero sense to think about now, because we cannot actually DO anything about them, except overthink or ruminate…
- 101 things we meant to do today, but forgot about or did not get around to
Our brain is still stuck in active mode, and when the external signals die down it starts to hunt for something to do- because we need to be active, right? It feels its job is STILL to be the problem-solver and keep us alert to any dangers and therefore it either:
- turns up the volume on our external signals – making you lose your mind over that noisy neighbor or that slightly too warm pillow
- starts hyperfocussing on all the remaining thoughts and issues left in your brain
To get our brain to tolerate the lower stimulation and switch over from active mode into recovery mode there are three things we can do:
We can actively take steps to cut out the signals that are left that keep our brain stuck in active mode.
Making our sleeping environment as comfortable, safe and as quiet as possible, using cooling pillows, weighted blankets, noise-cancelling headphones, or a pet or partner to keep you feeling safe. And doing journaling, meditation or a brain dump until things are quieter – and feel safer – in our heads.
We fool our brain into recovery mode with ‘white noise’ and mildly distracting activities.
This goes against the ‘normal advice’ of just limiting signals as much as possible. Some of us actually need signals to sidetrack us from the action signals of the day… Some people listen to podcasts or ambient music that drowns out the other more disturbing signals. Many have special bedtime reading materials that will not excite them enough to keep them reading, but will allow their brains to let go of the day’s troubles. Others have elaborate fantasy worlds they retreat to, where the daily worries hold no power.
We can self-talk our way into switching to the recovery mode
Being aware that your mind is a trickster intent on not letting you slip into recovery can be helpful. You can actively self talk your way into recovery mode. There are many ways to do this:
- By doing a sleep meditation that lets your release every thought that pops up into a ballon that will float up into the sky. Trust that the things that are important will fall back into your lap in the morning. (If trusting this idea this is hard, try journalling or doing a brain dump before sleep).
- By doing a sleep meditation that has you mentally shutting down all your body parts for rest and recovery during the night.
- By visualizing and strengthening your motivation for better sleep, reminding yourself how much more effective happy and energized you will be when you let go now and allow your body and brain to recharge for tomorrow.
Whatever you do, don’t FORCE yourself into sleep, or berate yourself for not being able to succumb straight away. That won’t work. Find a way to be content, just lying there, drifting, amusing yourself with something low-key, relaxing all your different body parts.
If you do find yourself forcing it, tensing body parts, or stressing out in your thinking: do this. Get up, and do something simple to reset. Visit the bathroom, do some light stretches, walk around the house with low lighting on, have a cup of (unsugared) tea, do a brain dump on a piece of paper, cuddle with a pet or a housemate. Then go back to bed and try again…
I want to make an added note of the fact that neurodivergent kids may need lots of patience from a parent to learn how to do this by themselves eventually. That is especially hard for parents who were never taught these strategies themselves. Especially when we are sleep deprived we tend to revert to the automatic patterns of our own childhood. We repeat how we were treated when adults did not know how to deal with our problems in getting to sleep.
Many of us parents are advised, or even heavily pressured into trying, ‘cry it out’ methods, or signal deprivation methods when our kids will not fall asleep by themselves at ages that ‘normal’ kids generally have no more issues with this. We are often accused of spoiling our kids when we refuse to let them panic and struggle on their own. But you are building lifetime sleep habits with them by investing the time and energy to get this right!
Parenting in the evening, especially for neurodivergent parents with neurodivergent kids, can be really hard. Especially since everyone’s executive functioning is impaired at the end of the day, due to being tired and really needing some quiet recovery time.
Kids who are afraid of going to bed because they cannot cope with their difficulties falling asleep -and the fears and frustration that come with it- can easily become highly dysregulated or have meltdowns (some critical family members might say ” throw tantrums”) These can be hard to snap out of for the kid, and hard to deal with for the parent. Many kids need their parents to co-regulate with them until they feel safe enough to slip into the recovery state. Talking through the day’s events, helping them process -ending on a positive note – can really help. As can the tradition of reading a book together or listening to an easygoing audiobook or piece of music. Don’t feel obligated to be the ideal parent here: find something you both enjoy and that serves as ‘white noise’ for your kiddo. That could also be them listening along to a radio show you enjoy. Something interesting to you, but that is too incomprehensible for them to really engage with, but they feel real “big” for being allowed to listen in on…
Having a solid and predictable bedtime routine -tailormade to help your kid with the issues described above as they appear for them- can really help. If you have little executive functioning left by the end of the day yourself and have a hard time regulating when things don’t go smoothly: finding a way to tag-team through the harder parts with your co-parent- if available- can be what you need. Tag teaming can make all the difference. Tagging out will give you just that bit of time to self-regulate during a break, so your kids can feel your calm, and feel safe again when you tag back in. If you are a single parent don’t hesitate to involve trusted visiting family or friends in the nighttime routine!
You can try to slowly wean children off of your support. Teach them strategies and encourage them to self-soothe and self-support while switching into recovery mode. Just remember kids often go through periods of added stress or growth spurts where they may revert back to needing more support, even if they could do without it for a while.
It may take tons of time and patience, but it will pay off in the end!
Till next time….
That is it for now. Next time I’ll go into the different sleep phases, and what -if anything- you can do to ensure your get enough of all of them…
Keep in touch!
Have a pressing question around sleep? Post a comment, email me your question or book a free coaching consultation call on the contact page
Further reading / other tips
Why We Sleep : Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker – This is an amazing book if your want to find out more about sleep, why we need it, and the science around sleep
Masterclass has actually added a course by Matthew Walker to their wide array of masterclasses by experts. It’s worth checking out if you are on the platform already! Here is the trailer: