It’s very hard to feel well or to cope with difficulties if you’re not sleeping well. In this blog we outline ways to give yourself a better chance of a good night’s sleep. This is an abridged version of a more detailed factsheet that we use with our therapy clients.
Sleep is a natural state of the body that helps to restore and maintain our minds, bodies, and immune systems. Without it neither our minds nor our bodies can function properly. Our natural sleep cycle is governed by a “body clock” in the brain that normally is synchronised to the day-night cycle in the world around us. Most people need between seven and eight hours of sleep per night, although that can reduce somewhat as we get older.
What can stop you from sleeping?
Mental health difficulties including stress, anxiety, depression, and psychological trauma, can all make it difficult to sleep. So can problems with living, such as struggling to cope with loss, being bullied, or relationship issues.
Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs can all lead to difficulties in sleeping. Sleeping tablets can provide a short-term solution for getting off to sleep, but in the long run their use can stop you from working to develop a healthy sleeping pattern.
A number of medical conditions including asthma, heart disease, and sleep apnoea (where you stop breathing for several seconds while asleep) can interfere with sleeping. If you think you might have any of these, consult your G.P.
Developing a regular, healthy sleep pattern
Set up a regular sleep schedule
To get a good night’s sleep every night it’s important to set up a regular sleep schedule, with fixed times when you go to bed and when you get up. Your body clock will gradually synchronise with this and prepare you for sleep at the appropriate time. Determine what time to go to bed by working backwards from the time you need to get up. As well as allowing for seven to eight hours’ sleep, you should include around 20 minutes to get to sleep after you’re in bed with the lights off. Once you’ve set this up, you need to stick to it, even at weekends. It may take several weeks for your body clock to fully adapt to your new routine, so don’t give up after a few days if it hasn’t yet had a beneficial effect.
Develop a standard routine for getting ready for bed
Most people do a variety of things to get ready for bed, like having a wash, brushing teeth, getting undressed, and putting on night clothes. Your body clock responds well to regular cues that it’s time for bed, so do these activities in the same order and in the same room each night.
Build in a winding-down period in a comfortable place
As part of your routine build in a period of around an hour when you relax and avoid physical activity as far as possible. Also avoid anything stimulating, such as drinking coffee or alcohol, watching TV, or using anything else with a screen (computer, tablet, mobile phone). Conversation is fine but avoid discussing emotional issues that could lead to you being angry, anxious, or excited. Don’t eat anything during this period, otherwise your body will be digesting it at bedtime and that can hinder you getting off to sleep. Choose a comfortable place in your home that you’ll use for your wind-down period, then stick to it. Turn down the lights and relax, for example by reading or listening to relaxing music. A relaxation exercise can be helpful.
Make your bedroom a special place
If you can, make your bedroom somewhere that’s just for sleeping and/or sex, and avoid doing anything else there. As soon as you get into bed, turn off the lights and settle down for sleep. Avoid reading in bed or anything else that requires leaving the lights on. Don’t use anything with a lit-up screen, like a phone, tablet, or TV. If you stick to this, your mind will gradually adapt and recognise that it’s time for sleep when you go into your bedroom and get into bed.
Make sure you’re tired by bedtime
You need to be tired in order to get to sleep. There are a couple of things you can do to help your body feel tired: avoid naps during the day or evening, and take every opportunity for physical activity during the day and early evening.
What if I can’t get to sleep?
If you’re not asleep within around 20 minutes or so after bed, don’t lie there worrying about it. Just get out of bed, go to the place where you have your wind-down period, and start your wind-down period again. Return to bed after you’ve repeated your wind-down.
Schedule “worry time”
If you find yourself worrying or thinking about things over and over, and this is keeping you awake, then find some paper and write down your worries or thoughts. It might be useful to keep a notebook and pen by your bedside for this. Put what you’ve written away somewhere, e.g. in a drawer. Then set yourself a specific time the next day when you’ll return to it and work those issues through. Now you can then tell yourself not to keep worrying/thinking about them because you’ve captured them all and fixed a time tomorrow to deal with them.
What if I wake up during the night?
If you have normal curtains, then it can be quite light in the bedroom as soon as it starts to get light outside, which can be as early as 4am. This might make it difficult to get back to sleep if you wake up in the second half of your planned sleep period. Black-out curtains or blinds can help you deal with this.
If you wake up don’t give yourself any other counter-productive light cues. Avoid putting any main lights on; and don’t check your phone or switch on any other kind of screen, even briefly.
If you can’t get to sleep again because you’ve started thinking or worrying about things that are affecting you, write them down and schedule worry time as discussed above.
If you can’t get back off to sleep, go back to your comfortable place and repeat your winding-down period.
Need further help?
If your sleep difficulties are related to mental health difficulties or problems with living, and you’d like further help, email us at email@example.com or call us on 07376 010506.
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