How to sleep better: A two-way approach
Do you know what a quarter of the adult UK population usually set as their health ambition for the new year? Sadly, it’s improving sleep. And that number doesn’t change much year on year.
As per NHS statistics, various sleeping difficulties affect up to 67% of adults in the UK and are 1.5-2 times more common among females. Sleep deprivation can be very distressing and it has a negative effect on our cognitive abilities and motor skills but, above all, on our emotional regulation i.e. our mental health.
How does sleep influence our mood?
Sleep influences our mood in two ways:
Our limbic system
Lack of sleep impacts our limbic system, responsible for emotional regulation. However, it impacts different parts of it in different ways. Amygdala, which is responsible for negative emotions, is impacted less than the hippocampus, responsible for neutral and positive emotions.
In an experiment by Dr Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley, sleep-deprived college students tried to memorise a list of words. They could remember 81% of the words with a negative connotation, like “cancer.” But they could remember only 31% of the words with a positive or neutral connotation, like “sunshine” or “basket”.
Rapid eye movements (REM)
REM is a mechanism used by nature to process events and emotions of the day and cope with them. Lack of sleep deprives us of that valuable stress management tool.
However you look at it, lack of sleep is quite detrimental to your mental, emotional and physical health. So why can’t you sleep as much (or as well) as you’d like to?
It may be that your lifestyle interferes with your natural sleep patterns. Your body is ready to fall asleep, but you may be blocking it from doing so with caffeine, poor routine, the need for digestion of heavy meals, etc. Or it may be that your lifestyle is healthy, but something worries you too much and keeps you awake at night. Or, as it sometimes happens, both.
Either way, you could benefit from the two-way approach:
- Taking care of your body, by maintaining good sleep hygiene.
- Taking care of your mind, by addressing your worries.
Below I’ll be giving you insights into both, so keep reading.
It’s quite easy to find lots of advice on how to maintain good sleep hygiene. The most important tips, backed by science, are as follows:
- Have a routine – wake up and go to bed at the same time every day.
- Expose yourself to natural light as much as you can – to support your natural circadian rhythms (i.e body’s internal clock).
- Only take caffeine in the morning (that includes strong tea, for some people). Even if you manage to fall asleep, your sleep will be fragmented and of different quality i.e. less restorative.
- No big heavy meals two to three hours before bed.
- Reduce alcohol to an absolute minimum (same effect as caffeine – fragmented and non-restorative sleep).
- No blue screens (i.e. smartphones, tablets, laptops, TVs) at least one hour before bed.
- Dark, cool bedroom.
Designing your environment will help you follow the rules almost automatically and without executing discipline. For example, if your phone is left charging outside of your bedroom, it will be much easier to avoid using it before bed.
By doing these consistently, not only are you training your body, but you’re also sending an important message to your brain: it’s important to me, so please do it. You are also engaging in self-care which is quite therapeutic in itself in our busy lives.
Going beyond hygiene
Sometimes you do everything you can, and even more, but you just can’t sleep the way you used to.
Our body is managed by our unconscious mind – primitive, archaic, aimed purely at biological survival and, for that reason, sometimes called the 'reptilian brain'. While it most certainly has our best interests at heart, sometimes the interpretations of “best” or “conditions for survival” could differ from what we would have decided consciously.
For example, if you worry about a certain situation at work, your primitive brain may decide there is a threat to survival (for example, a “scary enemy”), and will focus on finding a solution here and now – i.e. keeping you awake ruminating – rather than providing the refreshing sleep that you need most.
In order for you to sleep better, you need to understand your reptilian brain and agree with it. Reading these words, you may feel puzzled at the very least, but trust me, a skilled therapist can help you do that.
In my practice, I usually come across these three scenarios for sleep deprivation:
1. You believe that you’ve always been a poor sleeper
Sometimes I even hear my clients say “all women/men in our family have been poor sleepers”.
While you certainly have your natural/genetic level of “sleep-ness”, it’s usually a range of characteristics like length, depth and amount of REM time. Chances are, you can still move within that range and that will bring an improvement to the overall quality of your sleep.
Also, it’s worth noting that it’s not only genes that are passed down the generations, it’s also learned behaviours. You may have experienced in your household that stress should always cause sleep loss or that lack of sleep justifies a lack of emotional control from an adult.
It will be important for us to understand which underlying worries and beliefs you may have that prevent you from maximising your natural sleep ability and work on those.
2. You lost your sleep sometime in the past but you’re not sure why it happened
The good news is that you don’t need to know exactly why you lost your sleep in order to improve it. Together we’ll be able to uncover possible reasons and the emotions that those reasons generate. More often than not those emotions are fear-based, and your brain is trying to find an immediate “solution” to that fear-inducing situation by staying awake.
By working with those reasons and underlying emotions, we’ll be able to release excessive tension and worry from your mind, so you can relax and get your sleep back.
3. You know what causes you to lose sleep but you can’t resolve that initial situation
Insomnia can be very frustrating: not only do you worry about family/work/life, but you also now don’t have enough energy to resolve the issue at hand, and have to worry about your lack of sleep, too.
In that case, we’ll work on both sides of that coin:
- We’ll work on the initial issue that caused you stress. By removing excessive worry and the feeling of helplessness, we'll increase your confidence in your abilities, giving your logical mind the best chance of successfully resolving the issue.
- We’ll work on disconnecting the issue at hand from sleep patterns. We’ll do so by promoting confidence in your ability to manage whatever life throws at you and your ability to relax and let go.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s always easier to solve issues from several angles. By improving your sleep hygiene, reducing screen time before bed and working with your mind, you can achieve much more than by doing one thing at a time. Remember, working on your sleep is very rewarding – even a small improvement can help you feel better, be in a better mood and have more energy for your daily challenges.
If you'd like to find out more about how hypnotherapy can help you sleep better, visit Hypnotherapy Directory for more information and guidance. Or, if you’re ready to give it a go, you can get in touch to book an initial consultation with me, and I’ll be happy to help you get your sleep back.