For most clients I see in my practice, problems with sleep are part of their problem, being either a contributing factor or a resulting issue. Sleep is essential for us and has been cited by scientists as the single most important factor in terms of our ability to be alert, resourceful, and happy. When we sleep our body is regenerating, like a computer reboot.
Our body needs to process the day’s activities and food, and our mind needs to process the day’s learnings, thoughts, and questions. How often have you asked yourself a question that’s troubling you before you go to sleep and wake up with a new perspective? It’s very common because sleep allows our unconscious mind to process information in order to serve us better.
Sadly, many people suffer from sleep problems, and here I want to provide some helpful information and changes you can make to improve the quality of your sleep.
Not everyone needs eight hours a night
This is a commonly held belief but is an oversimplification of the studies on sleep. A broader spread is between 6 to 10 hours and so find the optimum hours of required sleep by you. For many clients I see with insomnia, they actually need a lot less sleep than other people. However, because they are stuck in ‘I need 8 hours’, they get stressed and worried about sleep, can’t get to sleep when they go to bed, and this becomes part of the problem. Margaret Thatcher famously only needed 4 hours of sleep a night, and, whatever you thought about her as a prime minister, she was pretty efficient!
The amount of sleep we need decreases with age
When we are born, we (if our parents are lucky) sleep about 18 hours a day. This gradually decreases as our body needs less downtime and more of our processing becomes unconscious. So don’t get worried if you find you need less sleep as you get older. I see lots of people in their 60s and 70s worried because they are awake at 5am – if you are and feel like getting up, then do; it’s completely normal.
If you catnap during the day, this decreases the amount of sleep you need at night
It’s a maths thing. Our bodies and minds need a certain amount each day and if we catnap this decreases the amount of sleep we need at night. So if you do, just plan to go to bed later. Often people go to bed at the same time and then get worried when they can’t go to sleep (which stops them from going to sleep).
Most problems with insomnia are due to anxiety
We often get ourselves into a vicious circle of anxiety about sleep, and anxiety really doesn’t help us get to sleep. You might want to try aromatherapy. It was found to effectively reduce anxiety levels and increase sleep quality.
Useful tips for a better night’s sleep
- Stop worrying about sleeping. You get 80% of what you need by lying down and relaxing with your eyes closed. So, if you find you can’t sleep, get relaxed and comfortable and you will still feel much of the benefits of sleep.
- Manage your stress. If stress is a contributory factor to not sleeping, seek professional help in getting this sorted. The UK Council for Psychotherapy has a list of qualified psychotherapists in your area. Hypnotherapy can also be very useful.
- Keep a notepad near your bed and, when worries or racing thoughts come, write them down. This empties your head and your unconscious mind then knows that whatever you were thinking won’t be forgotten. You can then look at it the next day with a fresh pair of eyes. This takes some practice as your brain gets used to it so I would suggest trying it for at least two weeks.
- Learn to relax. Easier said than done, I know! Relaxation is a skill and takes practice. Connecting with nature is one good way to relax.
- Avoid tea and coffee near bedtime. A 2013 study found that caffeine consumed as much as six hours before bed significantly reduced sleep quality and quantity.
- Take regular exercise. Notice when in the day exercise is most beneficial to you. Some people find that exercising late at night leaves them too hyped-up to go to sleep.
- Avoid alcohol near bedtime as it does not provide a good quality of sleep. Many people have a drink in the evening to relax, but the resulting quality of sleep is not very good as your body is left with all the alcohol to process and it’s dehydrating so you do not wake feeling refreshed. If you do drink in the evening, stop a few hours before bedtime and have plenty of water before going to bed.
- Do something that relaxes you for an hour or so before going to bed. No planning or working in bed.
- Avoid activities that increase your heart rate like scary movies or thrillers just before bed (there is one obvious exception to this!). While some people can watch the goriest slasher flicks and go to bed with no problem, many find that watching scary thrillers ignites their fight-or-flight response.
- Warm baths and milky drinks before bed do work. It’s medically proven. A bath an hour or so before bedtime leaves our bodies at the ideal temperature for sleep and milky drinks, because they are easy to digest and have a fat content, distract our bodies in processing so that we can wind down and drift off to sleep.
If you have trouble sleeping – or know someone who has – this information from the Royal College of Psychiatrists may be helpful. It covers some common problems with sleep, as well as some more unusual ones. There are some simple tips on how to sleep better and how to decide if you need more help.
Karen Meager is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and supervisor. She is a co-founder of Monkey Puzzle Training.
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