Dealing with sleep difficulties

Amy offers advice and tools about how to sleep better.

Although often overlooked, sleep is the foundation of our wellbeing. Research shows that many of us are sleep deprived, and we may not realise that we have got used to a lower standard of well-being which has become our new normal. Improving our sleep quality and hours of sleep a night, therefore, creates the possibility to improve how we feel day-to-day.  According to The Sleep Foundation, sleep hygiene is “a variety of different practices and habits that are necessary to have good night-time sleep quality and full daytime alertness”.

Challenges with getting to sleep, staying asleep, waking too early and sleeping too much are all very common with mental health difficulties. Improved sleep hygiene can help us to overcome these challenges and, in turn, feel a little better.

Challenges with getting to sleep, staying asleep, waking too early and sleeping too much are all very common with mental health difficulties.

Amy's EXPERIENCE

My name is Amy, and I have just graduated from a degree in Psychology. I really enjoyed my degree and the vast range of psychology areas it exposed me to. I took a placement year after my second year and worked as an Assistant Psychologist for nine months. Here, I was able to work directly with individuals dealing with many different mental health difficulties, which really opened my eyes to just how many people are suffering silently. I was also struck by how alone individuals felt, despite many experiencing very similar challenges. I am therefore keen to normalise mental health difficulties as they are often a natural response to our experiences and, unfortunately, very prevalent in the modern world we live in. 

Before the very strange circumstances we find ourselves in currently, lack of sleep wasn’t often an issue for me. However, I’m sure many people can relate to an increase in sleepless nights that have come with the current lockdown restrictions. I have therefore put together a guide of some tips to increase sleep hygiene, which are a mix of key points from reliable resources and advice from my own experiences.

Tools to help you sleep

Avoiding caffeine after midday. Research shows that caffeine has a half-life of 6 or 7 hours, and a quarter-life of 12 hours, meaning that drinking a cup of coffee 12 hours before you go to bed is the equivalent to drinking a quarter of a cup of coffee right before bed! If drinking coffee is part of your daily routine, maybe try to switch to decaffeinated coffee after noon and herbal teas in the evening.

Get moving in the morning. This doesn’t have to be a workout – stretches, yoga, or a short walk in the morning are great, and even better if done outside.

If you are kept awake at night from thoughts and worries going around your head, it can help to set aside a few minutes in the evening to write down any thoughts that are on your mind which may prevent you from relaxing. It may help to write down a list of thoughts that you’re having, things you need to remember for the next day or anything on your mind that’s bothering you. In this way you can take them out of your head and onto the piece of paper, hopefully reducing these thoughts going around your head when trying to sleep.

When you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, avoid looking at the time or your phone and instead focus on relaxation. If you find yourself staying awake in the night for a long time, it can help to get out of bed and do a non-stimulating activity. This could be reading or meditation, and once feeling sleepy again it is often easier to fall back asleep after having done this.

Getting some natural light soon after waking up. This could be taking a short walk first thing, or having your breakfast or morning coffee in the garden. Natural light helps to reset our internal body clock, helping us feel more alert in the morning and ready for the day. 

Limiting daytime naps to 20-30 minutes. A short nap can be good for us – it can increase mood, alertness and performance. A long nap however may increase feelings of tiredness during the day and make it harder to sleep in the evening.

Try having a set pre-sleep routine. This could mean getting ready for bed in the same order each evening and dimming the lights early or putting some calming music on. I find that having herbal tea in the evening, having a set skincare routine and using a pillow mist or calming room spray just before bed helps me to fall asleep faster.

Putting away your phone at least an hour before bed and avoid looking at other screens after this. We have all heard this before, but it is a really important point: looking at blue light before bed can delay the release of the hormone melatonin, which is needed to induce sleep. I find that this alone can make all the difference, and after putting my phone away I can have a much more relaxing evening doing things like tidying my room or reading a book, which can also make me feel like I have more time in the evening and reduce stress in this way.

Useful resources

The Sleep Foundation 

  • https://www.sleepfoundation.org/
  • A national leading expert voice in the world of sleep science 
  • On this website you can find many articles relating to many different specific problems with sleep 

Why We Sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams 

  • This is a book by Mathew Walker, which explores twenty years of breakthrough research into why sleep is so important
  • For a short introduction, a few episodes of the Feel Better Live More podcast series (by Dr Rangan Chatterjee) discuss this book with Mathew Walker and highlight how sleep is fundamental for our wellbeing

The Sleep Book: How to Sleep Well Every Night 

  • This is a book by Dr Guy Meadows who uses a mixture of mindfulness are Acceptance and Commitment therapy techniques to share a five-week plan to help cure sleep difficulties 

Sleep Matters Insomnia Helpline

  • Tel: 020 8994 9874 (Monday to Friday, 6pm – 8pm)
  • This helpline provides advice and resources for sleep problems

The Sleep Council 

Headspace 

  • This is a meditation app that also has a whole section dedicated to sleep, which includes a library of soundscapes, sleepcasts and sleep music to fall asleep to, as well as guided exercises for waking up in the night and meditations to prepare for sleep 
  • (Worth noting that the premium version of headspace is free with Spotify for students!)

See our other resources

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Here, Quinn talks about ways in which a young person can seek mental health support. Quinn also offers personal coping mechanisms and distractions.
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