Sleep is incredibly important for our health and sense of well-being. It’s not just a time out from our busy lives, but a key part of the bodies’ recover and repair process. Lack of it can result in us feeling anxious and irritable, with poor concentration that can lead to accidents and may even contribute to long term conditions such as heart disease.
Tell that to our racing brain at 3am.
The Sleep Council found that almost a third of us find it difficult to sleep most nights, with almost half stating that worry was the main reason. Some degree of anxiety at night is understandable because your brain and subconscious mind continue to process whatever you have experienced during the day. But sometimes it can be so intense that sleep becomes elusive, you might even experience night terrors or find yourself woken by panic attacks.
It can happen the other way too. Anxiety in the morning can cut your sleeping time even shorter. Cortisol (the fight or flight hormone) levels in stressed people are kicked up a notch early in the morning as our body prepares for another day, leaving us to wake up with that horrible shaky, buzzy feeling and burning our candle at both ends.
At the moment, it feels like the whole world is constantly living at a minimum of a 6 on the anxiety scale. Add that to our own daily stressors, it’s easy to see why sleep isn’t working for many of us. To help, here are a few tips about creating more space in our heads for rest, allowing us find the tools we need to get through this unusual period.
Find a routine
Remember having a routine?! In a time where everything is so up in the air, the idea of sticking to a set routine seems pointless. Why bother getting up at 7 when you don’t have to get ready to go to work or school? Why go to bed before midnight when there’s no reason to? However, trying to stick to similar wake/sleep times, where you can, can be really helpful for maintaining a sense of structure. We might think ourselves more sophisticated, but we are essentially still big babies. We need to tell our bodies when to rest and when to be active.
Exposure to daylight is a really important factor in doing this, especially now we are stuck inside all the time. Studies have shown that workers who experience more natural light during their work hours feel more alert during the day and sleep almost 50% better at night. This is because our bodies are sensitive to the way the light quality and colour changes from morning to night, signalling when we should wake and sleep. So, make sure you are opening those curtains up during the day!
Create the right space
Environment is a key factor, especially as we are all stuck inside most of the time at the moment. Try and make your bedroom as relaxing as possible. Keep it uncluttered. Refresh the air by opening a window. If you can, try to never work in it, only use it for sleep, sex and other restful activities. If you must work in there, make sure you tidy all your papers and laptop at the end of the day. This also make you feel more prepared the next morning.
If you find that you are feeling anxious or panicky either at night or in the morning, try changing location until you feel calmer. Go and sit on a chair or sofa in another room, lie on the floor, listen to some quiet music, meditate or write down the things that are going round your mind. When you feel calmer, you can either return to bed and try for sleep again or get up and get ready for the day. By doing this, you take the negative thought patterns out of your sleep space, keeping it a calm and positive place to be, which should hopefully help you feel more relaxed when you return to it and make sleep come a little easier.
Eat and drink wisely
It’s well known that what we eat and drink can have a huge impact on how we feel and our sleep. Avoiding caffeine is an obvious one, especially later in the day. Stimulants before bed are the last thing a buzzing brain needs. Instead you could try herbal tea, hot water with lemon, or even a hot (low-sugar) cordial – that way you get the comfort but not the caffeine.
But, after a rubbish night’s sleep, the temptation to reach straight for the coffee granules is strong. However, even in the morning, caffeine can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety. If you know this is a problem, try and steer away from highly-caffeinated drinks first thing in the morning. If you really can’t imagine your day without the taste of that bitter goodness, get yourself the decaf version of your favourite brand or even switching to a black tea can reduce your morning intake.
Food is another balancing act. Heavy, rich or sugary foods can keep us up at night. But, when we haven’t had enough sleep, our body craves sugar and fat to keep us going. I’m not a big believer in denying yourself what you are craving, but understanding what your body is calling out for can help you to make better choices. For example, after bad sleep, I want sugar and lots of it. But, I’ve learnt that if I have something decent and healthy for breakfast, like porridge or a banana instead of a cake, I feel boosted and satisfied without the horrible sugar crash at about 11 o’clock. Of course, food is personal and you have to do what works for you but making sure you have something in the morning can help to set the tone of your day and is a nice little act of self care to kick off with!
Limit screen time
Being able to keep in touch with the world through our phones has been a blessing recently. But there’s some things that just shouldn’t be done first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Scrolling through your social media feeds, browsing the news, reading emails are all things that can set anxious thoughts racing. These things can wait until you’re ready to deal with them. The notifications aren’t going anywhere.
The physical act of using our phones can have an impact too. At night, light throws the body’s biological clock—the circadian rhythm—out of whack. Exposure to light suppresses the secretion of a hormone called melatonin, which influences circadian rhythms. Although light of any kind can suppress melatonin, blue light at night does so more powerfully. Exposure to this kind of light a night is a huge contributing factor to why so many people don’t get enough sleep and can contribute to both mental and physical health problems.
Difficult though it might be, we need to spend less time with those screens to give ourselves the best chance possible at that good night’s sleep. Obviously, for many people, actually switching off their phone is pretty impossible. It’s often your alarm clock for one and sometimes it’s reassuring to give it a quick glance over in the morning to check what the weather is doing or that no one important has tried to contact you. In these cases, I’d recommend either turning off notifications for non-essential apps or set it to ‘Do Not Disturb’ (or equivalent) to a time you know you’ll be up and about. Try and get into the habit of putting away your devices at least an hour before you go to bed and don’t have your phone on your bedside table to reduce the temptation of reaching for it.
Let it go
Are you singing the song too? Elsa had a point. Sometimes, you just have to make peace with the fact you’re going to have a shitty night’s sleep. And that’s okay! Don’t be hard on yourself, it is only going to rile you up further. Don’t watch the clock, it’ll only make you more anxious. Don’t fear not sleeping, your body is hard-wired to sleep at some point. The fact you’re resting, even if you aren’t asleep, will do your mind and body some good.
Try not to worry too much about the next day either. You can, and will, cope feeling a little bit more tired than usual. Taking the pressure off yourself will help to switch off your stress response, helping you to relax and hopefully wake up in a better place. And if not, let that go too! A shit morning does not need to equal a shit day. Some people say one day at a time, I think one moment at a time is better. You might have woken up badly, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the day the world will be out to get you. Try to just take every moment as it comes.
Look at the underlying issue
This is a tricky one, especially at the moment where a lot of our stress is likely to be coming from external sources we can do nothing about. However, just recognising that there is an issue and speaking about it with friends, family, therapists or others, or even journalling our thoughts, can really help us to process how we are feeling. They might be going through something similar, and might not only have some different strategies you can try, but also appreciate the support from you.
Take care of yourselves