Many of us know that getting a good night’s sleep isn’t as simple as it sounds. Despite some people surviving on just a few hours kip and seeing it as a badge of honour, good sleep is vital to our wellbeing – a lack of sleep can seriously affect our mental and physical health. And when it comes to your career, an exhausted worker is much less likely to be productive and focused.
“I believe that there can be no health, or mental health, without healthy sleeping,” says Dr Alanna Hare, a consultant in sleep and ventilation at Royal Brompton Hospital. “It is important to acknowledge that sleep has an architecture – like a house – and so one needs the right forms and stage of sleep to be present.”
However, most people don’t get the recommended seven hours sleep. This could be due to a range of factors from stress to a change in diet or location. Consequently, it’s important to assess what could be causing your insomnia. “Sleep is not always just a single issue but often one symptom of many other things that have gone awry,” says holistic health practitioner Christine Hansen. “Take a look at what else might be going on – could it be related to blood sugar levels? How have your stress levels been recently? That might influence your cortisol levels, which could be keeping you awake,” she says.
Monitoring your sleeping habits could help you, or a sleep expert, assess what is stopping you from falling asleep. “It might help to keep a sleep diary, which involves recording information about your sleep habits to help you understand your sleep problem and what’s affecting it,” advises Annie Crabtree, senior information officer at Mind, the mental health charity. “It could include information about things like, what time you go to bed and what time you get up, how much sleep you’re getting, how long you are awake, and your general feelings and moods, including any anxious or repetitive thoughts.”
It’s also important to remember that our sleeping habits fluctuate, and even “people with no sleep issues struggle with sleep”, says Maryanne Taylor, founder and sleep consultant at The Sleep Works.
We all experience times of stress, anxiety and change in our lives, which can affect our ability to sleep soundly, so experts recommend de-stressing and relaxing before you go to bed. This includes having at least an hour of tech-free time every day.
“Think of sleep as more of a dimmer switch than on-off switch, when it comes to your body. Try to set aside time in your day to unwind and settle before you sleep, setting yourself a technology cut-off time and avoiding any smartphone use in the bedroom,” says Sammy Margo, sleep expert and author of The Good Sleep Guide.
“Research has shown that the emission of blue light from these devices can interfere with the release of your sleep hormone, melatonin, which will in turn affect the quality of your sleep.
“Have a relaxing shower or bath, listen to some soothing music or an audiobook with a warm glass of milk or chamomile tea. Also, dim the lights to increase your chances of getting plenty of recovery-friendly sleep,” she adds.
Whichever method you choose to try to sleep better, don’t see it as a battle. “Sleep is not an active process, but a passive one,” says Hare. “The more you try to sleep, the harder it can be. Try to avoid this effort to sleep by using relaxation exercises such as progressive relaxation, deep breathing, or mindfulness exercises.”
Dr Guy Meadows, founder of The Sleep School, agrees: “Often it is our desperation to find a solution that actually keeps us awake and here lies the problem. The more we try to control sleep the more awake we become.”He advises: “Let go of struggling with your sleep and begin to trust in your body’s natural ability to sleep.
“You can be mindful by noticing things objectively and without judgment in the present moment. For example, noticing the touch of your bed sheet on your toes or the gentle movement of air in and out your nose. If your mind wanders on to worry, gently return back to the present moment. Only once you can stop struggling against wakefulness do you create a platform from which sleep can emerge.”
And if you’re still left lying awake in bed, experts recommend you get up after about quarter of an hour – but don’t keep checking the clock, as this could drive your restlessness. “The key is not to remain in your bed lying awake. We are seeking to programme the mind into seeing the bed as a place of rest,” advises Dr Paul Miller, a senior psychiatrist specialising in general adult and old-age psychiatry.
When you leave the bedroom, sit in a quiet space, try reading a book, or sip on a non-caffeinated tea.
In our 24-hour society, it can be difficult to make sleep and rest a priority in our lives. So, we need to give ourselves a chance to get the kip we deserve. Hare advises: “Switch off your electronic devices at least 30 minutes to one hour before bed and have some time to relax and wind down.”