At some stage in our lives many of us will have a bed partner who has annoying habits that disrupt our sleep. Anyone had the quilt stolen or copped a stray elbow or knee recently? One problematic habit in particular that we often hear about in our clinical work is snoring.
Snoring occurs when airflow between your nose and throat is impeded in some way. This makes the surrounding tissue vibrate, causing the familiar snoring sound. Common risk factors for snoring can be age, weight, nasal and sinus problems, alcohol consumption, sleep posture and the structure of your airways.
Just about everyone snores occasionally. But when bed partners snore regularly at night it can become irritating, and for some couples, cause major relationship issues. Research has also found that not only can snoring impair the sleep of the snorer, but for their bed partner as well.
From a psychological perspective, we often hear that as people become more intolerant of their partner’s snoring, a hypersensitivity toward noise in general develops. People then start to monitor for noises during the night, which can cause a lot of anxiety and therefore make it more difficult to sleep. The first sign of snoring can trigger a cascade of thoughts and emotional reactions, “here we go again”, “I can’t stand this”, “I’ll never get to sleep”, “this isn’t fair, he’s asleep, I’ll be awake all night again”…….
So, what can be done? Firstly, it’s a good idea to get regular snoring checked out by a GP or sleep specialist, as there could be an underlying medical issue causing the snoring that needs to be addressed.
Following the medical all clear, there are two main approaches to responding to partner snoring: 1) reducing the noise, and 2) desensitising to the noise.
1). Reducing the noise:
– Being aware of and modifying factors that make snoring worse: avoiding or minimising alcohol, side sleeping rather than back sleeping, reducing sinus congestion (e.g. via nasal sprays), loosing weight, or experimenting with a different pillow.
– Wearing ear plugs
– Using a ‘pillow wall’ in between you and your partner to absorb some of the noise
– Sleeping in a separate room
Most advice on snoring stops here. In cases where strategies such as those above haven’t worked or aren’t possible, accomodating to the snoring is a goal to work towards. This may seem impossible, but we do see some success with helping people to tolerate, or ‘desensitise’ to partner snoring.
2). Develop strategies to better tolerate the noise “Snoring desensitization”.
Learning to better tolerate the noise can bring about very positive change for the bed partner, even if the snoring does not improve.
In our work we often find that it is indeed possible to learn to tolerate snoring, to desensitize to it. Rather like many people learn to sleep next to a railway line or under a flight path, or with a newborn baby at home.
Often, it’s not so much the noise that causes the sleep disturbance it’s the thoughts about the noise that cause the disturbance. “I can’t bear this” becomes “I can bear this”.
With partner snoring, vicious cycles often develop: The more you hate the noise, the more it will disturb your sleep, and the more it disturbs your sleep, the more you will hate the noise. It is often possible to break this vicious cycle.
Be proactive in dealing with relationship stress. It is much harder to learn to tolerate snoring if there are difficulties in the relationship. Relationship difficulties can make it feel like the partner is snoring to annoy, hurt, or disturb their partner.
People can learn to get used to the noise, to listen to it without it triggering an emotional response. Accepting the noise rather than struggling against it. People may not grow to like the noise, but they learn that it needn’t destroy their sleep (or their relationship). Managing snoring in the context of a couple becomes a shared journey of the snorer minimising and treating the snoring where appropriate, and the partner cultivating a more neutral emotional response to the noise.