Insomnia No More: Expert Sleep Tips for a Restful Night

Insomnia No More: Expert Sleep Tips for a Restful Night

The dishes are washed, the thriller is over, and your teeth are brushed – it’s time to go to bed. But for many people, that doesn’t mean they can snuggle up in bed and fall asleep right away. About 20 per cent of Germans have trouble falling asleep, and almost as many cannot sleep through the night. Whether from stress, worries, pain or psychological problems – if you toss and turn in bed wide awake night after night and drag yourself to work the following day, you urgently need to change something. Sometimes, a new mattress helps, but in many cases, the body and mind need to learn to settle down. The head of the Cologne Institute for Stress Reduction, Dr. Medical Ralf Maria Hölker (46), developed simple relaxation exercises.

Around 18 million people in Germany suffer from sleep disorders. What are the most common reasons for this?

Hölker: Stressful situations from the day are often carried over into the night. This can be current conflicts or long-term stresses such as debt or a divorce. This leads to persistent brooding and purely physical tension in the skeletal and respiratory muscles. Even at night, this tension cannot be released and thus prevents the body from falling asleep.


At what point does one speak of a sleep disorder? When you lie awake at night for more than half an hour three times a week?

Hölker: No, you can’t say that exactly. One speaks of a sleep disorder as soon as it becomes a burden for the person concerned.

What can you do in order not to endanger the nocturnal peace?

Hölker: You should avoid exercising just before you go to bed. A warm bath or a visit to the sauna is ideal. Exciting books or films can produce negative images that also affect sleep. Romantic books or comedies are better. Hearty food is problematic on many people’s stomachs, as is an argument with a partner. Conflicts should never be settled in bed. A good prerequisite for relaxed sleep is a peaceful, harmonious situation in the family or partnership.


And what does the ideal bedroom look like?

Hölker: The light should be rather dim before bed because too bright a light messes up the biological clock. The bedroom should be as quiet as possible, the windows darkened, and the temperature relatively low. 18 to 19 degrees are optimal.

Many people with insomnia take another pill before going to bed. What do you think of sleep aid drugs?

Hölker: There are undoubtedly helpful medicines, such as valerian or hops preparations. However, these should not be taken regularly. Anyone who uses tranquillizers should be aware of the side effects beforehand. These drugs often make you feel sleepy the following day. Alcohol also impairs the quality of sleep. Although it makes you tired, it causes restless sleep with waking phases. The most useful seems to me to be those sleeping aids with no side effects. After several years of scientific work, I assume that relaxation is the best sleep method.

Experts often recommend yoga, progressive muscle relaxation or autogenic training to calm down in the evening. Your method relies on muscle relaxation and visualization. What is better about your concept than the others?

Hölker: Autogenic training requires some practice. It is an autosuggestive method, so you try to control your own body through the power of your thoughts. This often doesn’t work, especially when you’re excited and tense. Together with psychologists, I have tried out exercises in seminars over several years and evaluated the feedback from the subjects. This resulted in a combination of breathing, muscle, and visualization exercises.


What exactly is visualization?

Hölker: Visualization can be found, for example, in dream trips. The narrator takes the listener to beautiful places, such as a Caribbean beach or a pine forest. This creates soothing images in the head, letting the listener drift off to sleep. The principle works basically like telling fairy tales to children. The positive content, the beautiful pictures and the soothing voice ensure pleasant dreams.

Your research resulted in an audio CD (“Paths to relaxation + healthy sleep”, 14.95 euros, in bookstores). How is this structured?

Hölker: After a short introduction, the speaker gives instructions in a calm voice on how to relax the respiratory muscles. Then follow more exercises for muscle relaxation and several dream trips. There are short pieces of music with soft Japanese flute music between the individual parts.

Please tell us a little relaxation exercise to do at home.

Hölker: A straightforward exercise is “quiet breathing”. All you have to do is think of the word “rest” with each exhalation. This is repeated about 20 times a row, and the body relaxes. This is a simple but good way to calm down before sleeping or during everyday life.


And does that work?

Hölker: Yes, the exercises are all straightforward. However, after several repetitions, some subjects found the exercises even more relaxing because they now knew the content.


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