How can I help myself to sleep well?

This is the third in a series of blogs about sleep. In it we’ll briefly describe some ways to give yourself a better chance of sleeping well. This is an abridged form of a factsheet that we use with our therapy clients.

In the first blog, we outlined how insufficient sleep can be bad for your mental health. You can find it here:


In the second blog, https://lemonstolemonade.co.uk/news/sleep-insomnia-counselling-therapy-counsellor-therapist-psychotherapy-psychotherapist-psychology-psychologist-coaching, we outlined what normally happens in healthy sleep.

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 could 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. Normally, sleep just happens naturally, governed by this cycle, and we don’t even think about it. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves not sleeping so well. Often this is because of some external cause, such as a painful injury or something else bad happening in our lives. Once we notice that we’re sleeping badly, however, we can start worrying that we’re not sleeping, and this can take over and become the main cause of disrupted sleep.

Here are some ways you can help yourself to sleep well. We’ll outline five principles developed by Prof. Colin Espie, a leading insomnia expert, that are important if we want to develop a “healthy and trusting sleep mindset”. If you absorb and follow these principles, you’ll be on your way to restoring healthy sleep.

Principle 1: Value your sleep

Sleep is one of the four essentials for human life, along with oxygen, food, and water. It’s easy to see why the latter three are essential, but we perhaps don’t always recognise that sleep is just as important. This can mean that we don’t necessarily give it the priority it deserves; when trying to fit everything into busy modern lives, for instance, it’s easy to squeeze the time available for sleeping to the point where we don’t give ourselves enough opportunity for sleep. We need to value our sleep enough to stop this happening!

Principle 2: Prioritise your sleep

While it’s important that you give sufficient value your sleep, you need to translate that into action. That means prioritising your sleep. In fact, given how essential sleep is to your physical and mental health, it should be one of your top priorities, if not your absolute top priority. This means making commitments and setting yourself goals to make sufficient time for sleep. Above all it means committing yourself to ensuring you give yourself the opportunity to have a full night’s sleep every night.

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. Think about how much sleep you normally need to feel rested and refreshed, and add around 15 minutes for getting to sleep after you’re in bed with the lights off. Then set the time you need to settle down and turn off the lights. 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. A consistent routine is one of the most important factors in sleeping well.

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 mind responds well to regular cues that it’s time for sleep, so do these activities in the same order, at the same time, 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. Find yourself a comfortable place for this that’s not in your bedroom. 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, and there are apps you can use, such as Calm and Headspace to help with this (though please try to keep the amount of time you look at the phone screen to the absolute minimum if you use these).

Principle 3: Personalise your sleep

We don’t all need the same amount of sleep, nor do we all tend to be sleepy at the same times. It isn’t true, for instance, that we all should be sleeping eight hours per night. Most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep per night, although children and teenagers need longer, and older people tend to sleep rather less. Try to think back to a time when you were sleeping well. How long did you naturally sleep for then? That can be a guide to how much sleep you need, personally; and that’s what should determine how much sleep opportunity you need to be giving yourself (allowing an extra 15 minutes for getting off to sleep). We also all have a natural tendency to go to bed early and get up early, or to go to bed late and get up late, or to be somewhere in between. This is called our “chronotype”, and its helpful if we’re aware of it and as far as possible try to plan our sleep to fit in with it.

Principle 4: Trust your sleep

Sleep is a natural process that happens automatically if we let it. When you have a regular sleep pattern and you feel sleepy, that process will enable you to fall asleep naturally. One of the main causes of having difficulty falling asleep is paying attention to whether we’re going to fall asleep or not. The more we try to get to sleep, the more anxious we become and the less likely it is that we can fall asleep.

Make sure you’re sleepy by bedtime

You need to be tired and sleepy in order to get to sleep. There are a couple of things you can do to help your body feel sleepy. The first is to take every opportunity for physical activity during the day and early evening (but not the late evening). The second is to avoid naps during the day or evening, however tired you might be feeling. Naps during the day sabotage night-time sleep!

Principle 5: Protect your sleep

It’s important to avoid things that can disrupt sleep. Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol are all disruptors of sleep and are best avoided in the evening, especially if you’re finding sleep difficult. Digesting food tends to keep us awake too, so avoid eating later in the evening. Drinking fluids in the couple of hours before bed increases the chances that you’ll wake up during the night needing the toilet. Sources of light or noise in the bedroom are a problem for sleep so try to minimise, or even better, eliminate these. We also need to wind down and relax as bedtime approaches. Anything that’s emotionally engaging (e.g. a TV drama) can have you going to bed in a mentally aroused state that isn’t going to help you get off to sleep. Finally, it’s easy to take devices such as phones and tablets to bed with us, but these are likely to confuse our minds – “I’m in bed, but am I supposed to be sleeping? Maybe not since I seem to be staying awake to browse social media…”

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 get into bed.

Keep your bedroom dark

If it’s light in your bedroom your brain will treat this as a signal that it’s time to wake up. It’s reasonably easy to remove sources of light in the winter months, but in summer, when daylight comes early, light can flood into your room around the edges of your curtains and even through them if they’re thin. You can fix this using blackout curtains or even better, blackout blinds that fit closely to the window frame and exclude all external light.

What if I can’t get to sleep?

Lying in bed awake is counter-productive if you want to sleep better. It gives your mind a confusing message about what bed is for: i.e. that your bed is not just for sleeping in but also for lying in when awake. If you’re not asleep within around 15 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 when you feel sleepy.

What if I wake up during the night?

If you wake up, don’t give yourself any 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 regularly wake up too early in the summer, fit black-out blinds.

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 contact@lemonstolemonade.co.uk or call us on 07376 010506.

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