We all know that a good night's sleep can be the difference between a good day and a bad one.
Yet with 1 in 3 people struggling to get enough sleep and 10% suffering from chronic insomnia, getting a full night’s sleep is ironically more of a dream than a reality.
Living with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, Sarah Bailey knows how much sleep can affect mental health. Read her top tips for good sleep hygiene and getting yourself to drift off.
I've had issues with my sleep for as long as I can remember. In fact, I can't recall a time I had a "normal" relationship with it.
Sleep often eludes me until the early hours of the morning. Insomnia is ever-present, gloating behind the mask of medication. Add in the chronic fatigue I have from myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome), and you can say that sleep and I have a complicated, turbulent relationship.
Of course, this isn't unique to me. Trouble getting a restful 7 to 9 hours of sleep is becoming an epidemic. 36% of UK adults struggle to sleep at least once a week. 1 in 5 say it's an ongoing battle every night.
Meanwhile, health sciences are obsessed with us all getting enough shut-eye. According to experts, just 24 sleepless hours is enough to trigger the first signs of sleep deprivation. After one bad night, many people suffer from these symptoms the next day:
Scientists agree that one poor night's sleep every so often won't massively impact a person's health. But the outlook isn't as sunny for the 20% of the UK with ongoing sleep problems. Chronic insomnia - insomnia lasting months or years - can cause permanent adverse effects on the brain.
It's not only lack of sleep that can cause health issues, either. Some sleep experts argue that oversleeping is just as bad or worse. Both insomnia and hypersomnia (sleeping too much) can lead to higher mortality rates over time.
And the recent pandemic and accompanying isolation haven't helped anyone get adequate slumber. Many people found their rising stress levels and stunted social lives led to strange, vivid dreams.
Sleep issues with mental health conditions
As I said before, it's well documented that even 24 hours of no sleep can affect people mentally and physically.
It can become a vicious cycle for those with existing mental health issues. Symptoms of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and borderline personality disorder can increase with lack of sleep. Unfortunately, some of these disorders make it much harder to sleep in the first place. Then, add to that the cycle of sleeplessness leading to worrying, then worrying leading to insomnia... all this can pile stress onto already burdened minds. And, yup, sleep does not respond well to pressure.
It's also been recently discovered that lack of sleep deprivation can trigger episodes of psychosis - even in otherwise mentally healthy individuals. But what can we do to help us slip into a good night's sleep?
Here's what I've tried so far.
For many years, I thought mindfulness had no place for me. Therapists and coaches would tell me to imagine myself "walking down a sandy beach" or "floating inside a big red balloon." As someone who has aphantasia (I cannot conjure images in my mind), this wasn't possible for me.
However, as mindfulness has gained traction as a helpful practice, I've found several techniques to help me wind down at night.
When I get into bed, I do a "body scan." This guided meditation can last anywhere from three minutes to over half an hour. The idea is to feel each part of your body slowly "drifting off," allowing you to relax your whole body as the meditation goes on. They have great videos on YouTube, so I recommend checking some out.
The second technique I use is simple - I count down from 100. Somebody else told me they use the same method and picture themselves walking downstairs as they do it. While it doesn't work every time, there are many occasions when I don't make it past 50.
Practising good sleep hygiene
We've all heard about the importance of personal hygiene, like brushing your teeth twice a day and showering regularly. But did you know that sleep is a form of hygiene too?
Good sleep hygiene refers to healthy sleep habits, and not just at night. What you do, eat, and drink throughout the day can affect your sleep.
Multiple areas come under sleep hygiene. However, the main ones to think about are:
1. A sleep schedule is a must
Everyone should have a sleep schedule, including the times you go to bed and wake up. Those sound like obvious things, right? However, it also includes making sure you prioritise sleep. How often have we said, "Just one more TV episode," or "I'll just quickly answer this work email?"
Little things can throw our sleep schedules off for a few minutes to hours. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioural changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. They are also very sensitive to disturbances - especially from about two hours before bedtime to one after waking. Exposure to light, or too much light during this period, can easily throw them off.
Of course, we all live in a very lit-up world. Everything around us, like our house lights, TV, smartphones, laptops, etc., all emit constant light when we should be cocooned in darkness. Worse, modern electronics emit "blue light," which can cause blurry vision, eye strain, dry eyes, and, you guessed it, disturbed circadian rhythms.
While creeping around the house in darkness from 9 P.M. onwards isn't feasible - especially in winter - we need to reduce our light exposure.
So, instead of falling asleep in front of the telly or scrolling through our phones to "lull us to sleep," make sure electronics are away. Bedroom lights should be dimmed for at least an hour before a night's rest.
Most importantly, try to make "bedtime" and "rise time" the same every day - even at weekends. Making up for lost sleep over Saturday and Sunday will not make up for any "sleep debt" you accumulate over the week.
2. Prioritise your sleep routine
Directly attached to our sleep schedule is our sleep routine. It's all well and good to stick to an 11 P.M. bedtime. However, taking time to wind down from the stresses and strains of the day is a must. If it's 10:55 P.M. and you're still rushing around to get things done, that same chaotic energy will come with you to the bedroom.
The time you need to relax may change depending on the day. However, I recommend taking at least 30 minutes to an hour. As I said before, dim the lights, put the electronics away, and maybe try out some different relaxation or meditation forms.
3. Perfect your sleep space
Ever had a cold or particularly miserable day and decided to work from bed? It's comforting, right?
It's probably also disturbing your sleep. Our minds must associate the bedroom and bed with sleeping, not anything stimulating or stressful. Unless you have no choice (illness or limited space when working from home), try to keep away from your bed during the day.
Your bed itself is also hugely important. No one will get a good night's sleep with a lumpy mattress or pillow.
Then think about the room itself. Is your bedroom often too hot or too cold? Does it let in light and noise from another room/outside? Are there any signs of mould or dampness? If your brain is looking for an excuse not to sleep, it will latch onto anything to make shut-eye that much harder.
Don't let any distractions - conscious or subconscious - win. Blackout curtains, pillow sprays, fans, and heaters may help create the perfect sleep atmosphere.
4. Improve your sleep habits throughout the day
Good sleep hygiene isn't just limited to the area you sleep in and the time of day. You can also make changes through the daytime hours to make sleeping easier.
For instance, you could limit your caffeine intake during the day, eat your evening meal 3 hours before bed, and spend at least 30 minutes on physical activity.
With so many of us struggling, it seems crazy there isn't a quick fix for sorting out our sleeping habits.
However, you can still do plenty of things to help yourself.
Remember, when things get terrible - insomnia or hypersomnia for weeks at a time - it's always worth the time speaking to an expert. Healthy sleeping habits can honestly be life-changers. We just need to find what works for all of us.
NPS-IE-NP-00492 August 2022