We all know that sleep is super important - try going a few days without it and see how you feel! But what can you do when you can't get to sleep no matter how hard you try? Poor sleepers buckle up - this one's for you (people who also struggle to sleep once in a while, it's for you too, I don't discriminate).
The first thing to say is that if you have a serious sleep-wake disorder, the advice in this post might not be exactly what you need. If you just struggle to sleep a lot of the time though, this advice might help. It's important to be aware of the beliefs that we have about sleep, which often derail us from taking on board advice about good sleep practices (or "sleep hygiene" as it is often called). If you sleep well then you can probably get away with doing the exact opposite of everything on the list below - but if you don't sleep, then you probably can't. With that said, here are five things that might just save your sleep:
Go easy on the caffeine
Come on people, it's 2019, we all know this right? And yet, when I work on sleep hygiene with people in therapy, this is still one of the most common things that derails sleep. The half-life of caffeine is six hours, which means that the cup of coffee you drink at 4pm has just about gone from your system at 4am the next day. The number of people who tell me that they get up in the middle of the night to drink a coffee and have a cigarette makes my eyes water - both of those things are stimulants, and even if you're the kind of person who says things like "caffeine doesn't affect me," if you're struggling to sleep surely it's better to be safe than sorry? Drink some chamomile tea and calm down!
(I'm being a little bit glib - being addicted to cigarettes, or feeling like you need caffeine to get you through the day, is no joke. It might be that you need to work on these things rather than your sleep though - with any luck, gains in sleep will follow).
Do a bit more during the day
Good sleep starts with what you do during the day. Being as active as you possibly can be during your waking hours can ensure that both your mind and your body are tired enough to take advantage of a good night of sleep. If possible, exposure to daylight is also important, as it regulates a hormone that the body makes called melatonin. Light signals to the body that it should be awake, just as darkness signals that it should be asleep - this is part of the reason why you can often feel more sleepy during the winter months. Obviously don't overdo it, and if you're going to be out in the sun for a long time then make sure you use some sun cream - but generally being out and about is good for your sleep as well as your health. If you struggle with your health then it can be difficult to be active during the day, but it's important to start with what you're comfortable with - even just walking for five minutes more than you're used to is a good start.
Have a wind-down routine
As children, we were usually pretty good at winding down before bed - usually because our parents made us! Bath, story, bed was the common refrain in my house when I was growing up. But as adults, we switch the TV off and get straight into bed, without considering the effect that this can have on our ability to sleep. About an hour before you want to go to bed, you should start to wind down. Do some relaxation, read a book (anything that doesn't involve using a screen, really), make sure you're not doing anything too stimulating like vigorous exercise or eating a big meal. A warm bath or shower can also help. When you get into bed, it should be because you feel sleepy and you're ready to try to sleep - not because you want to catch up on the latest episode of Eastenders! If you're struggling to sleep, the only things you should be doing in bed are trying to sleep, and having sex. TV, phone, radio, books - all out please.
Don't toss and turn
This is probably one of the most important things about sleep, but it's usually overlooked because people find it difficult. If you're not asleep when you're in bed, you probably shouldn't be in bed. After around 20mins, if you're struggling to drop off (or if you've woken up and can't get back to sleep), you're likely to be stressing yourself out so much about not sleeping that staying in bed is pointless. Get up, go into a different room, and use some relaxation techniques to calm yourself down. When you start to feel sleepy again, go back to bed. You wouldn't sit at the kitchen table until you got hungry, or sit in the bathroom all day in case you needed the loo - so why do we do it with sleep?! On a serious note, what you're trying to teach your body is that the bedroom is where you sleep. If you're not sleeping, you have no business being in there - otherwise your brain and body get confused - is this where I sleep, or where I worry, or watch TV? Better stay awake just in case. That's not helping you sleep, so teach your body what you want and leave the room.
Try not to panic
Psychological research on sleep is fascinating. This article in particular interested me, as it talks about the concept of "insomnia identity" - put simply, people who believe that they sleep poorly and are distressed by that are more likely to be fatigued during the day than people who actually sleep badly, but don't mind. If you consider yourself to be an insomniac, that can be more disabling than actually being an insomniac!
The important thing to remember is that your brain can function on much less sleep than you think it can. You can still do things even if you're tired, and focusing on how tired you are is likely to make it worse in the long-run. Sticking to your daily routine even if you feel that you've had a bad night's sleep feels difficult, but is really important. Doing something different, like napping during the day to try to "catch up" on your missed sleep, will make it more difficult to sleep the next night, and the cycle begins again.
How do you try to get a good night's sleep? Let me know in the comments.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects