For most clients I see in my practice, problems with sleep are part of their problem, either a contributing factor or a resulting issue. Sleep is essential for us and has been sighted 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 need 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 with sleep problems and here I want to provide some helpful information and changes you can make to improve your sleep or quality of sleep:
Interesting facts about sleep
- Not everyone needs eight hours a night – This is a commonly held believe but is a oversimplification of the studies on sleep. A broader spread is between 6 to 10 hours and so find the optimum hours of required sleep for you. For many clients I see with insomnia, they actually need a lot less sleep than other people but 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 four 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 60’s and 70’s worried because they are awake at 5 am – 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 cat nap 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 to do with a vicious circle of anxiety – As you can see from above, 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 reduced anxiety levels and increase sleep quality.
Useful tips for a better night’s sleep
- Stop worrying about sleeping – You get 80 per cent 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 is 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 you 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 you 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.
- Take regular exercise – And notice when in the day exercise is most beneficial to you. Some people find that exercising late at night leaves them to 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!)
- As much as possible, have a sleep routine – We do it for our children to help them wind down and relax so how come we don’t do it for ourselves?
- 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.
Karen Meager is a UKCP registered Psychotherapist and Supervisor. She is a Co-Founder of Monkey Puzzle Training. As well as her work with individuals, Karen also works with businesses to support employee well-being by introducing straightforward initiatives and simple practices to ensure people can perform at their best. You can follow her on Twitter @