How often do you complain of feeling tired, or not sleeping well enough? Poor sleep sometimes feels like a common human experience. One we can bond over – and who doesn’t relate to a bad night’s sleep?
However it can be a symptom of many of the most common mental health disorders. Being stressed, too busy, or not taking good enough care of ourselves can all influence the quality of sleep we’re getting. As life gets busier for most people, maintaining good sleep habits becomes more important.
The serious part.
Most people would already be well aware of the short term effects of poor sleep. Tiredness, irritability and poor concentration are some of the consequences of one or two bad nights. These are not going to cause you any long-term damage, although may make life pretty unpleasant for you (and maybe those around you!).
But prolonged poor sleep can have some fairly serious consequences. It can contribute to low mood, poor decision-making, and increase the chances of accidents and injury. It also increases the risk of developing many chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
Sleep is a basic biological function. But how we think about sleep can also influence the quality and length of the sleep we are getting. Changing sleeping habits usually takes a little bit of time and persistence, and needs a consistent approach. However, once you have the good habits that work for you in place, then maintaining them usually isn’t too hard.
These 5 tips for better sleep address both the physical and psychological components of sleep to help you get better rest, and all the great things that go with it (long, happy, healthy lives!).
1. If you’re not getting to sleep, get up.
Don’t stay in bed any longer than 20 minutes at a time of you haven’t fallen asleep. Consistently taking a long time to get to sleep forms an association between bed and not sleeping (think Pavlov’s dog!).
To break this connection, get up and do something reasonably quiet and boring until you feel sleepy again, and then go back to bed. You should do this as many times in a night as you need to – it won’t be awful forever.
2. Schedule your sleep.
Most adults need 7-9 hours sleep a night. Think about what feels right for you, and then pick a bedtime that suits. Most of us need to get up at a certain time in the morning, so work backwards from that. Then stick to it. Your body, like children and dogs, loves a routine. It feels contained and secure knowing what it expected of it.
It will help at the beginning to maintain this schedule even over the weekend, if you can. If you can be consistent with the schedule you choose, then eventually your body will start to feel tired at the right time.
3. Make bedtime a ritual.
Your body, and your brain, also love signals that tell them what to do. We humans are lazy efficient creatures and will happily work on autopilot if given the opportunity. So think about small rituals that you can do each night before bed. In time this will also signal to your body that it’s bedtime, and it will start to feel sleepy.
It might be as simple as getting changed, cleaning your teeth and washing your face. It might be putting on pyjamas and having a warm drink (non-caffeinated, please). Perhaps it’s locking up the doors or switching off the lights. Or a short mindfulness exercise. Whatever it is, try to do it in the same order and right before bed each night.
4. Take away sleep’s power.
This is really where the psychological part comes in. Most of us will give a bad night’s sleep an awful lot of power over us. We lie awake in bed thinking over and over that we must sleep or tomorrow will be unbearable. We. Just. Will. Not. Cope. In fact, this could not be further from the truth. You are a living, breathing example that it is possible to survive a night of bad sleep. Multiple times!
So use this evidence to contradict those catastrophic night time thoughts, and try to be a bit more realistic. Sure, tomorrow will probably be more unpleasant than you’d like, but you’ve done it before and you can do it again. Many people find that if they don’t give such enormous power to the thought of not sleeping, then sleep will come all on its own.
5. Keep up the exercise.
And now for the physical. It’s a vicious cycle - the more tired we feel the less likely we feel like exercising. But regular exercise of moderate intensity helps with falling asleep faster, and sleeping longer. Not to mention all the other benefits of exercise for physical and mental health.
Like all habits, it will only work for you if you choose something that is enjoyable and achievable. Sometimes enthusiasm is the enemy of behaviour change! So start with an activity you like, at a frequency that feels realistic for your life. Once you’ve managed that, add a day or make it a longer session.
Give these things a try, share them with your friends and loved ones. Wouldn’t it be nice to start bonding over how well you’re sleeping for a change!?
In some cases fatigue or poor sleep can be due to underlying medical or psychological reasons, so if you are concerned about this it is worth discussing with your GP or psychologist.
Kate Willcox, Principal Clinical Psychologist
Birch Psychology www.birchpsychology.com.au