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How do you sleep?

Many of my clients tell me that they are struggling to sleep...either to fall asleep initially, stay asleep or to experience restful sleep.


So what’s the likely cause of their sleep deprivation? Well, mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, and many drugs can disrupt sleep or reduce sleep quality. Also general worrying, stress at home and work, poor lifestyle habits, environmental factors such as night time noise and disruptions to sleep-wake cycles such as jet lag and night shift work can also have an impact.


This lack of sleep often leaves my clients feeling tired, irritable, anxious and low. Sleep deprivation has also been shown to decrease people’s attention and capacity for memory. Sleep is important for both physical and mental health, and lack of sleep and the restlessness which goes along with it can actually exacerbate many of the issues that my clients are already struggling to cope with.


Talking to a therapist can help you to address mental health issues and reduce any anxieties which are interfering with you getting enough sleep in the long run, but what about in the short term?

Almost everyone has occasional difficulty getting a good night’s sleep, and people's sleep needs vary across different ages, however, the recommendation for healthy adults is 7-9 hours each night. Elderly adults usually need slightly less; around 6 hours each night.


So, what can you do to help yourself get a better night's sleep?


· What is sleep hygiene?


You may have heard the term 'Sleep hygiene' which refers to a variety of different practices and habits which promote good night time sleep quality and full daytime alertness. Here are some of the recommended practices for good sleep:


· Caffeine and nicotine


Avoid drinking caffeinated products (tea/coffee/cola/chocolate/certain medications) before you want to sleep as caffeine is a stimulant which will reduce your ability to fall asleep.


· Alcohol


It's recommended that you avoid drinking alcohol for at least 4-6 hours before you want to go to sleep as although it may help you to drop off and leads to deeper sleep at the start of the night, it actually disrupts your sleep in the second half of the night as your body begins to metabolise the alcohol.


· Meals


Avoid eating large meals before bedtime as your body finds it harder to digest the food. Heavy or rich foods which often trigger indigestion for some people, when eaten close to bedtime, can lead to painful heartburn which disrupts sleep.


· Exposure to natural light.


Exposure to sunlight during the day, as well as darkness at night, helps your body to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle, so it's important to remember to spend enough time outside, especially if you spend a lot of time indoors.


· Routine


What is your bedtime routine? A regular routine where you go to bed and get up at around the same time each day will help train you mind and body to be ready for sleep.


· Exercise


As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise e.g. walking, cycling or swimming can have a really positive impact on the quality of sleep you get at night. In general, people should avoid very strenuous workouts close to bedtime, but as the effect of exercise on sleep varies from person to person, it's important to see what works best for you.

· Your Bed is for sleeping in


If you only use your bed for sleeping in (rather than watching TV, eating, chatting on the phone to friends etc.) as this will help to condition your mind and body to associate your bed with sleep rather than waking activities and sleeplessness.


· Screen time


Limit your use of screens e.g. phone, TV for the hour before you want to sleep as screens are physiologically and psychologically stimulating.


· Relaxation


Choose something that you find relaxing to do, such as listening to music, reading a book or stretching in the run up to bed time. Meditation and Mindfulness are particularly effective for helping you to feel calmer.


· Have a hot bath


Having a hot bath 1-2 hours before you want to sleep can help by raising your body temperature and making you feel sleepy as it drops again. Try adding lavender oil to your bath for an extra relaxing experience!


· Environment


It's important that you feel as relaxed as possible in your bedroom. Choose a mattress and pillows which you find comfortable. The temperature in the room should be cool (around 18 degrees) for optimal sleep. Black out or dark curtains can help to reduce the amount of light that there is in your bedroom. You could also try using eye shades, ear plugs, "white noise" machines, a humidifier or a fan to help regulate the noise and temperature.


· Naps


As difficult as this may feel if you are already sleep deprived, daytime napping should either be avoided or limited to a maximum of 30 minutes. Napping doesn't make up for a lack of sleep at night. However, a short nap of 20-30 minutes can help to improve mood, alertness and performance.


· Banish the clock


Don't be tempted to check the time if you wake up during the night, as this can leave you feeling more awake and alert. It may also reinforce negative thoughts such as 'Oh no, it's 4 am...I'll never get back to sleep now!'


· If you just can’t sleep


If you are still struggling to drop off to sleep, get up and leave the bedroom. Do something which you find relaxing until you begin to feel sleepy, then return to your bed again.


· What else can you do to promote better sleep?


If you are struggling to relax due to intrusive thoughts and worries either which prevent you getting to sleep or disturb your sleep throughout the night, you could try writing them down before you try to get to sleep/back to sleep.



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