When I was very small I remember trying desperately to stay awake to get a glimpse of Father Christmas. I couldn’t wait to tell my two brothers that I’d seen the reindeer, and been invited for a spin in the sleigh. But no matter how hard I tried to see him, every Christmas morning I would wake up in the early hours to find the mince pie that we’d left out for him half eaten, the brandy glass empty, and no sign of the carrots for the reindeer. Three bulging stockings for my brothers and I would be in their place.
As I got a bit older, and my protests about not going to sleep got louder, my Mum explained that Father Christmas will never turn up when you’re wide awake; he only visits children who are fast asleep.
This makes sense. Father Christmas has a lot to do on Christmas Eve, and he wouldn’t have time to stop to chat or pose for a selfie in every home.
My parents were also quick to point out that if Father Christmas knew that a child had ignored their parents’ instructions to go to sleep, they would probably end up with coal in their stockings.
I took this warning to heart. I tried harder to get to sleep. I started to worry that if I didn’t get to sleep, I wouldn’t get any presents. What made it worse was that my brothers were sleeping soundly - what if I was the only one not to get any presents? Christmas Day could be a disaster!
We often associate sleep problems with stress, but feeling excited in anticipation of a big day can have similarly disruptive effects on sleep. Feeling excited can boost adrenaline, the hormone which readies the body for action. Adrenaline increases our heart rate and blood pressure, and triggers the release of energising glucose into the bloodstream. This can make us feel restless and irritable, and make it much less likely that we’ll fall into a deep asleep.
So what can you do when you’re too excited to sleep?
1.Avoid getting over tired
At Christmas time there is a lot going on.. presents to wrap… 101 Christmas movies to watch.. and it’s easy to ignore your normal bedtime. There is no problem with being a bit more relaxed during the holidays. However, if you push your usual bedtime back too far, passed the point of sleepiness, your body will rely on stress hormones to keep you awake. This is often the case for children who are insistent that they want to stay up, but then it can take much longer than usual to settle down to sleep. Aim to wind down at a similar time each night, but only switch out the light when you’re feeling sleepy.
2.Stick to a relaxing bedtime routine
If you have a routine on a typical work or school night, try not to change it too much the night before an important event. Our brains find it easier to relax under familiar circumstances, when they recognise what is coming next. It might be the holidays, but a warm bath, reading a book and a cuddle in bed is still a great recipe for preparing for bed. Other options for your wind down routine might include meditation, listening to music, doing crafts or gentle stretching. Try to avoid screens if you can.
3.Slow your breathing rate
If you’re in bed, and you notice that you feel tense or wide awake, you may need to switch off your stress response, and activate the opposing relaxation response. One of the simplest ways to do this is to take control of your breathing. Take some long slow breaths, in and out through your nose. Feel your belly rise as you breathe in, and fall as you breathe out. Try box breathing: in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, out for a count of 4 and hold for a count of 4. Repeat.
4.Imagine the North Pole, or somewhere else pretty cool
If your mind is too busy for sleep, it can help to distract it with some positive visual imagery. This could be based on one of your favourite dreams, a holiday destination, or walking around your ideal home.I used to imagine myself as the child in The Snowman, flying around the world, holding the Snowman’s hand. Nowadays I’ll often take my mind to my favourite beach. The idea here is to immerse your mind in an experience which makes you feel happy, calm and relaxed.
5.Try and stay awake
Finally, it turns out that the approach that I used when I was aged five could be surprisingly effective.. By trying to stay awake, you remove the pressure to sleep which can help you to relax and enter a better mindset for sleep. This approach is called paradoxical intention. It won’t work if you force yourself to stay awake too actively! Instead, turn out the lights and focus on the fact that you are warm and safe in your bed. Gently keep your eyes open. Tell yourself that you’re warm and safe in your bed, and it’s OK to just relax. You don’t need to sleep. If you’re tired, sleep can then take over.