Stress and sleep are not good bedfellows! Some of us know that far too well as we toss and turn desperately trying to stop the whir in our brains as the night ticks by.
If this is your experience, I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear that one sleepless night can increase our anxiety levels by up to 30%. In turn though, sleep is indeed “nature’s soft nurse” as Shakespeare described it 500 years ago. A recent study by UC Berkeley has confirmed that deep sleep is a natural anxiety inhibitor – regulating our emotions and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of stress. With sleep comes perspective and calm.
But what if sleep eludes us? What if we want to sleep – but we just can’t?
What do we do if we struggle hour after hour to get sleep as our thoughts and worries rage through our minds? Or if we do manage to drop off, we wake with a jerk just two or three hours later, our heart pounding, our body sweating, our mind racing, in the middle of a hard-core stress response?
Interestingly it’s not just the hour before bedtime which affects the quality of our sleep. What we do throughout the day can impact our night-time experiences.
Think about sleep differently – take the pressure off
2. Count your sleep in cycles of 90 minutes rather than the traditional hour, recommends sleep expert and author Nick Littlehales. 90 minutes is the average time we take to cycle once through the different stages of sleep. When we are aiming for an average of 35 cycles a week, rather than fixating on getting the right amount every night, it takes the pressure off.
Design your Day for a Good Night
3. Wake up at the same time each morning, so that you can plan the best time to go to bed in order to achieve the number of sleep cycles you need. Your body and brain love this consistency: stick with it and your body will fall in step, helping you to wake up bright-eyed and raring to go.
4. Power naps are a great way to supercharge your energy and focus, but keep them to 30 minutes or less to avoid dropping into deep sleep and then wake up groggy and exhausted. Allow yourself five minutes when you wake from your nap to re-orientate yourself to the room, drink some water, and if possible, get a wake-up dose of natural daylight.
5. Plan daylight into your day. Daylight stimulates the production of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, which in turn promotes our sleep hormone melatonin. So, to feel alert during the day, don’t eat lunch at your desk – go out and enjoy the natural daylight, even in winter. Daylight lamps in the morning, and as a top up in the early evening can help boost our energy and mood too.
6. Allow plenty of recovery time after strenuous exercise before bed, to enable your body to calm down from the adrenaline surge and raised heart rate.
7. Eat supper three hours before bedtime, and keep snacks to at least 90 minutes before you turn off the light so your body has plenty of time to digest the food, before you want to rest.
8. Keep the hour before bedtime calm, relaxing and uneventful… boring is best. Don’t flood yourself with stress hormones by sneaking in a couple of episodes of East Enders or Breaking Bad! The National Sleep Foundation recommends turning off all media at least 30 minutes before bed, as any media – positive or negative – wakes your brain back up. Research shows it can reduce your sleep by an hour on average.
9. Create a consistent bedtime routine, perhaps including a hot (not caffeinated) drink and warm bath to relax you. At the very least, change your clothes before you get into bed, clearly signalling to yourself it is time to sleep.
Enjoy a Sleep-Happy Diet
10. Eat regular meals to keep your blood sugar stable and help regulate your mood. The science isn’t conclusive, but a possible link has been spotted between skipping breakfast and poor sleep.
11. Enjoy a healthy balanced diet, including tryptophan rich foods such as chicken, turkey, cheese, fish, bananas, milk and nuts. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid used by our bodies in the production of mood-regulator serotonin, which in turn helps makes melatonin, the hormone responsible for the duration and quality of our sleep.
12. Limit your caffeine and therefore energy drinks too. High amounts of caffeine cause anxiety and agitation, and affects your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep. Did you know that in healthy adults, it takes five to six hours for only one-half of the caffeine to be eliminated from the body?
13. Careful with your alcohol intake too. Whilst it can make you feel sleepy, it reduces the quality of your sleep, and hangovers can make us feel anxious.
Create Bedroom Bliss
14. Make your bedroom an oasis of calm. If you can, don’t work in here – keep it for sleep, sex and relaxation. Keep it tidy, uncluttered, and promote the associations of calm, peace and sleep.
15. Remove the television, computer, tablet and phone from your sleep space. The blue light from devices inhibits the production of your sleep hormone, melatonin.
16. Ensure your curtains black out the light, to help promote the production of sleep-inducing melatonin.
Calm your Mind
17. If you tend to find you’re particularly anxious in the evening, spend a few minutes just before bed writing down three good things from the past 24 hours. This will help turn your thoughts to good times, and if you keep the habit up, it will build your capacity to think and feel more positive in general.
18. As you lie in bed, practice deep, soft belly breaths, breathing in for longer than you breathe out – try breathing in for a count of four, and out for eight.
19. Try pressing play on a relaxation track as you turn out the light. A favourite, familiar trance track guiding physical relaxation and giving gentle, positive imagery and affirmations can be a valuable tool if you suffer from racing thoughts as you lie awake at night. Apps that can help include Headspace, Calm, Breethe and Smiling Mind.
20. If you find yourself still awake, teach your thoughts to be calm and kind. Accept rest is of immense value even if you aren’t able to sleep. You are the film director of your dreams. As your mind drifts, direct it to where you would like to go, what you would like to feel, who you would like to be. Take the precious time of slumber to create yourself a world of dreams not nightmares.