8 tips for a good night's sleep
I heard a brilliant statistic about the impact of sleep on our mental health*. Using something called The Hamilton Rating Scale, (which is used to rate how depressed a person is), researchers have shown that, while taking antidepressants can improve your score by an average of 1.8 points, improving your sleep can increase your score by 6 points.
So, according to this research, improving our sleep is over 3 times more effective at improving our mental health than antidepressants.
Pretty compelling findings I thought, and the impetus for this blog, where I'm going to share with you my top tips for a good night’s sleep.
Not getting enough good quality sleep is an issue for many of us, with a third of the UK’s population struggling to sleep for the recommended 7-8 hours**. For people experiencing anxiety and / or depression, sleep problems can be particularly acute, with the majority having difficulties getting to sleep and staying asleep or, on the flipside, sleeping too much and feeling groggy and lethargic during the day.
In the short-term, lack of sleep reduces our ability to problem solve, increases impulsive behavior and impairs our memory, specifically leading us to remember negative experiences and forget the more positive ones. In the long-term, poor sleep is connected with a whole host of serious health problems.
So, here are my top tips for a good night’s sleep. As with most lifestyle changes, you’ll need to persist with these for a few weeks before you start to feel the full effects, but good sleep can be transformative, so it’s well worth giving any of them a go if sleep is currently a problem for you.
1. Get up at the same time every day
There used to be nothing I liked more than having a lie in at weekends; the absence of the alarm, the chance to 'catch up on missed sleep'. Well, sadly research now shows that lie ins aren’t good for us after all, messing up our body clocks and making it harder for us to get to sleep the following night.
If the thought of foregoing your lie in seems like a miserable prospect, particularly on these cold, dark mornings, then perhaps you can console yourself with the fact that you don’t have to get dressed or go anywhere and use the time to relax and do something you enjoy instead.
2. Ditch the daytime nap
In line with the above, if you have problems getting to sleep and staying asleep at night, then you are best off ditching any daytime naps. Very simply, you want your body and mind to be as tired as possible by the end of the day.
If you’re feeling depressed, daytime naps can be particularly alluring, as you might well have disrupted sleep at night and your depression may lead you to want to hunker down under a duvet during the day. However, if at all possible, try to resist the urge to nap, find something to distract yourself and hold out until your usual bedtime. As comforting as it can be, daytime sleeping often serves to maintain depression and keep the person stuck.
3. Move during the day
You don’t have to do a full work out; as little as a 10-minute walk in the fresh air is a great start. Exercise helps us sleep because, on a very simple level, it makes our bodies more tired. It is also a great way to release adrenaline from our systems, (the hormone that’s released when we’re feeling stressed or anxious).
There’s just one caveat to this point though, which is to avoid exercising just before you go to bed, as this can have the opposite effect, stimulating your body so as to keep you awake.
4. Set the lights down low
Light inhibits the release of sleep hormones, so it can be helpful to dim the lights an hour or two before bedtime. Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible and, as you will no doubt know, avoid looking at screens before you go to bed. Many people benefit from keeping their phones downstairs at night, so they’re not tempted to take a peek!
On the flipside, try to get outside and expose yourself to daylight during the day, as this helps to regulate your internal body clock by signaling that it’s daytime and that you should therefore be awake.
5. Avoid any stimulants before going to bed
This includes all the obvious culprits – caffeine (including chocolate!), cigarettes and alcohol. Although alcohol can sometimes help us to get off to sleep, it seriously effects the quality of our sleep, meaning we are more likely to wake up in the middle of the night and to feel tired the next day.
This also refers to any activities which are mentally or emotionally stimulating, like watching an exciting TV program or playing computer games. Similarly, having an important or potentially heated conversation with a friend or partner is best left to earlier in the day!
6. Get out of your head
Many people (myself included) get to sleep fairly easily, but then find ourselves waking up in the middle of the night and struggling to get back to sleep. Often, our minds go into overdrive and we can seemingly become locked in overthinking mode and even start to panic that we might not get back to sleep at all.
In these instances, I recommend a 2-stage approach.
Firstly, try a simple mindfulness exercise. My favourite is the Body Scan and it goes like this:
Get your body really comfortable in your bed.
Start by taking some slow, deep breaths.
Start to notice what the bed feels like underneath you – the duvet, your head on your pillow.
Continue to breathe slowly and deeply.
Now draw your attention to the very top of your head. What does it feel like? Can you feel any tension? Any tingling?
Then move your focus to your forehead. How does that feel? Is there any tightness?
Then move your focus down to the bridge of your nose, then your cheek bones. Again, just notice how they feel and then continue to move down your face – to your jaw, the back of your head.
Slowly work down your entire body in this way, paying close attention to how each part feels. Continue to take slow, deep breaths.
Very often, people nod off half way through this exercise as it is fantastic for interrupting whirring thoughts and their associated stress hormone production. Moving your attention out of your head and into your body is one of the very best ways to get to sleep, so I’d definitely recommend giving this one a go.
(A lot of my clients say that they aren't sure if they're "doing deep breathing" correctly. If this applies to you, it might be worth watching my video about breathing techniques.)
7. Get up
If you’ve tried the above exercise and you’re still awake after 30 minutes, then I’m afraid it’s best to get up for a bit.
Make yourself a hot drink if you want to and find something relaxing / boring to do. (I always have a fairly boring book on hand for these occasions). Sit somewhere quiet, focus on something other than trying to get to sleep and then go back to bed when you start feeling sleepy again.
8. Let it out
And last, but definitely not least, bottling up our thoughts and feelings can be a major factor in disrupted sleep, with worries or unresolved issues seemingly waking us up in the middle of the night. This is massively unhelpful of our brains, as the middle of the night is usually about the worst time to think about our problems. Not only are we unlikely to be able to do anything about them, but we can also often end up over-analysing issues and catastrophising future scenarios.
Given that I’m a counsellor, it won’t come as a huge surprise to learn that I strongly encourage you to find the opportunity to talk about your problems during the day. If talking feels too much for you at the moment, then try writing your thoughts and feelings down. The process of just getting the words out in one form or another can be extremely therapeutic and might help you to sleep more easily.
So, there are my current favourite tips for a good night’s sleep. I hope you find at least one that you’ve not tried before that you can give a go.
If you have any questions or would like to find out more about how I work with people with anxiety and depression, then email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call or message me on 07871 314 030.
* Professor Irving Kirsch, Harvard Medical School https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4172306/
** The Sleep Council