At times of stress, sleep can be one of the first indicators that we are struggling. We might struggle to get to sleep, have fitful sleep, insomnia, or early morning waking. The result of not having enough sleep is feeling tired, agitated, emotional, and we are more likely to make decisions that are not as rational as they otherwise would be.
Here are some things to consider that may help you:
- Exercise is an activity that can make a real difference in the quality of your sleep and your ability to switch off and de-stress. You don’t have to go to the gym (we can’t at the moment anyway!) but going for a walk and being in the ‘here and now’ is bound to help. No one ever said, ‘wow, that was a terrible walk’. Being out in natural day light each day, especially in the morning, is really helpful for your brain and to wake it up.
- ‘Sleep hygiene’ is taking your routine back to basics and stripping out all the things we do that don’t help us to relax – we can self-sabotage our sleep without even realising it. Create a routine and be consistent. We are told that we need at least eight hours of sleep per night so create a routine as if you are training a baby to go to sleep. If your mind knows the routine, you will start to relax as you will subconsciously know the signs that you are getting ready for bed, and sleep will come more easily. This may include a bath, breathing and relaxation techniques, or reading a good old-fashioned book by lamp light.
- As much as we all love having a coffee – coffee, green tea, tea, alcohol, smoking, sugar – they are all are stimulants and our eating and drinking habits can affect our ability to sleep and can take hours to wear off (caffeine = 8 hours!) You may wake up with ‘hangxiety’ after drinking alcohol the night before too. Track what you are eating and drinking, and when. Could your habits be impacting on your ability to relax, switch off and sleep? What would you like to change?
- Use a ‘Thought Park’ – park those pesky intrusive thoughts that are rattling around in your head. If you hold on to them, they will potentially be barriers to sleeping. Maybe make it part of your routine to write them down as the evening goes on, so you don’t have to carry them in your head – avoid doing this just before you go to sleep as you will struggle to relax. If you wake up in the night, resist the urge to type them into your phone or email yourself. Instead, write them on a piece of paper or in a notebook and revisit them in the morning. Your thoughts are generally not as important at 7am as they seemed at 3am!
- Avoid screens at least an hour before bed. The blue light triggers your brain to stay alert and suppresses the sleep hormone, which is the opposite to what we want. We need to switch off ready for sleep so avoid using screens at bedtime and in the night if you wake up. Charge it somewhere else so you aren’t tempted to ‘just check it’.
- Make sure your bedroom is comfortable, cool, dark and quiet. You can use ear plugs, blackout blinds, eye shades, fans, etc to help create a safe and secure place for sleep.
- If you like to ‘cuddle’ and you aren’t able to, look at buying a long, curved pillow or a pregnancy pillow. It can help you to feel more cosy and secure.
- If you wake in the night, try not to panic or get cross with yourself that you aren’t asleep. Instead leave your bed, and if you can go and read your book in another room until you feel sleepy, then try that as a strategy. Staying in bed and tossing and turning can train our minds to be stressed about being awake and leave us feeling anxious about our lack of sleep.
- ‘Nanna naps’ – these are short naps that you may take in the day. These can help you to feel alert and improve your mood, but unfortunately, they don’t make up for deep bedtime sleep so, limit them to no more than 30 minutes.
- Don’t go to bed feeling hungry or thirsty. This can distract you from sleep and conversely, if you go to bed over full, you will most likely feel uncomfortable and find it difficult to relax.
- Dreams can be lovely or can be nightmarish and frighten us in our sleep. They can also leave us feeling confused and emotional. Often, we don’t have any memory about them, we may just be left with the notions of familiar feelings. We can be aware that we are dreaming, during the dream, and can re-configure the outcomes to take back some control. However, heading to bed with the idea of needing to manage our dreams is not conducive to switching off. Practice relaxation techniques on a regular basis, including diaphragmatic breathing, so you have a strategy you can use when you are woken up by the dream. Therapeutically, dreams can be seen to be symbolic, for example, they may relate to something your mind is trying to process, or something you are trying to come to terms, and can be worked through in therapy.
- Sex – having sex can make it easier to fall asleep. The hormones that are released boosts oxytocin (the ‘love’ hormone that makes you feel connected to your partner) and lowers cortisol (the stress-related hormone).
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be really helpful in changing your thoughts, beliefs and subsequently your sleep pattern. If you begin to fall into the pattern of thinking that you can’t sleep and therefore expecting not to sleep, which can be stressful and leave you feeling powerless to change it, CBT can help to break that cycle.
- Use a sleep journal to record how you are sleeping to help identify any patterns or triggers and if sleep is becoming really problematic, then see your GP as they may be able to prescribe medication that can help you get some rest. The sleep journal will be useful in the consultation as you can discuss what is happening in more detail.