Are you the type that gets on their computer at 10:30 p.m. to start surfing the web? Or decides to engage in a massive spring cleaning right before bed? Or do you tell people you’re a night owl and “just get started when the sun goes down”? These are all common traits for adults with ADD.
Getting a good night’s sleep is very important for proper functioning in all adults but especially in adults with ADD. Science shows that those who get at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night have a reduced chance of heart disease, cancer, inflammation, depression and other physical ailments.
In each sleep cycle, a person needs to go through all five stages of sleep to feel rested. However, when people sleep for only a few hours or constantly wake up, they miss out on that last stage of sleep. (Check out Health and Ambition’s article on sleep hygiene to understand the importance of REM sleep for mental health).
Yet, for many adults with ADD, a really good night’s sleep is something they haven’t experienced in decades. Recognizing the problem is the first step to change. This is harder than you may think as many of my adult ADD clients actually enjoy the energy boost they receive in the evenings before bed. “This is when I do my best work, ” said one of my clients. I asked him when he usually went to bed. “Anywhere between 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. each night.” “And what time do you wake up?” I asked. “Most days between 7:00 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. to get the kids to school,” he replied.
Aside from the detriment to his physical and mental health, this sleep schedule directly impacts his relationships. Although he likes to cuddle with his wife, he is on a completely separate sleep cycle from her, limiting the quality physical contact a couple needs to maintain intimacy. He’s also tired often and doesn’t have the energy to play with his kids during the day.
I asked this client, and many of my clients with adult ADD, to think about going to bed earlier. I specifically didn’t want them to actually do anything different—simply think about the possibility of going to bed at a reasonable hour, say 10:30 or 11:00 p.m.
First, I needed them to see that this is a choice and to begin to realize how much activating work they do right before bed. I suggest to them that around 9:30 p.m. they should start to think about bed.
For this first experiment, I just want them to notice the time and begin to consider the idea of going to bed. Understanding time and the passage of time can be very challenging for adults with ADD. Russell Barkley PhD, noted Adult ADD researcher, calls this “time myopia.” He theorizes this is why so many adults with ADD are late to appointments and miss meetings. Time Myopia may also play a part in getting to bed later than desired. Due to their nocturnal activation, many of my clients simply lose track of time in the evenings. Before they know it, it’s midnight and they haven’t even begun to think about going to bed.
Step one is recognizing much earlier that their body needs to wind down. I suggest to my client that for a month they simply notice that around 9:30 p.m. they need to think about going to sleep. This will train them to begin to look at the clock and realize how long it takes them to cool their engines before hitting the sheets. I specifically state that they should do nothing different but notice the time.
In month two, I implement the second step of this sleep hygiene plan. I encourage the client to set a timer to know that it is 9:30 p.m. An alarm on an i-phone will suffice. Set the alarm for a gentle reminder at 9:30 p.m. The second part of this step is to reduce one distraction that increases their feeling of activation. Of course, for each person it can be different, although surfing the web or using the computer past 10:00 p.m. is very common.
Research has shown the the close proximity to the bright computer screen or cell phone screen activates the Pineal Gland, which controls the amount of Melatonin in your body. Melatonin influences biological rhythms, including sleep. Staring at your computer or cell phone for hours before bed fools your brain into thinking it’s time to wake up; the sun is shining brightly and you should be ready for the day. Problem is… you need to go to sleep in a half hour.
If the client can successfully limit distractions after 9:30, particularly cell phones and computer usage, he or she is half way there. This step may take some practice but in time new habits can form. So what to do instead of surfing the Drudge Report or Facebooking friends at 10:30? I recommend that my adult clients with ADD take a hot shower. Hot showers can do wonders to reduce tension acquired throughout the day and minimize the activation many adult ADDer’s feel at night.
Getting mentally prepared for bed at 9:30 p.m., reducing distractions (particularly computers ad cell phones), taking a hot shower and cuddling with a loved one can do one wonders to realign your sleep cycle.
If challenges persist, try seeing a specialist in sleep to determine if medication or other treatments might be helpful.