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  • Writer's pictureDominique du Pré

Nighty Night

March is National Bed Month (who knew!). But for many of us, a comfy bed doesn't always equate with a good night's sleep.

Nikola Tesla existed on 1.5-2 hours sleep a night and Donald Trump gets by on 3-4 hours (that may explain a lot). Einstein reportedly slept for 10 hours unless he was onto something big when he extended it to 11 hours. Winston Churchill was a big fan of the nap: “Nature has not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without that refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts twenty minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”. Remarkably, Leonardo Da Vinci only slept for twenty minutes after every four hours so that he had more time to work.

How much sleep do we need? According to the Sleep Council, adults need 7-9 hours sleep a day. Why? It seems that while we sleep, our brains are hives of activity, processing and consolidating information acquired through our day. Meanwhile the rest of our body is restoring, repairing, rejuvenating, producing hormones and recharging.

Without sleep our memory is impaired, our mood is low, we become irritable, productivity and creativity levels drop, our problem solving capacity decreases and our coordination suffers.

How can we make sure we have a good night's sleep? The Sleep Council have an excellent guide to getting a better night's sleep. These include:

  • Make sure your room is comfortable, restful and non-distracting.

  • Make sure your bed is comfortable. John Wildsmith wisely said "You are either in your bed or in your shoes, so it pays to invest in both".

  • Make sure your lifestyle increases your chances of sleep e.g. avoiding caffeine before bed, emptying your bladder before bed. Get into a good bedtime routine.

  • Diet - avoid heavy meals, alcohol and caffeine just before bed, include 'sleepy' foods like warm milk.

  • Exercise - regular exercise can help with sleep.

  • Relax before you go to bed. Meditation, mindfulness, a warm bath and soothing music can all help.

  • Avoid stress and worry (I know, easier said than done).

However, does this scenario sound familiar: "Poor sleep leads to worrying. Worrying leads to poor sleep. Worrying about sleep is like your mind trying to fight itself. That's a horrible place to be." (Mind). Worry and stress can affect our sleep and lack of sleep can make us irrational and unable to cope. Then we start to worry about our lack of sleep.

Persistent insomnia, either difficulty in going to sleep or difficulty in staying asleep, affects about a third of UK adults and is a core symptom of depression. Sleep deprivation also contributes to depression and other mental health issues. PTSD can result in night terrors which severely disturb sleep. The links between good sleep and and good mental health are undeniable. It follows that looking after your mind and body can allow you to have a sound night's sleep.

Dr Guy Meadows (Podcast no.11, Feel Better Live More) uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy with insomniacs. Acceptance is realising that trying to get rid of the anxious feelings will make them worse. Instead try to sit with those feelings. For example, when you wake up at night and look at the clock and see it's 3am, what do you do? Start calculating sleep time left? Start worrying that you won't be able to do your work tomorrow? Instead of trying to stop or change these thoughts (the thoughts will win), just notice and accept them. Recognise them simply as unhelpful thoughts. In accepting and recognising the thoughts, they have less power over you. Give these thoughts less attention and they will affect you less. It is perfectly normal to wake up during the night and your body does know how to go back to sleep - let it do its job. Don't overthink the sleeping - rituals, sleep aids, bedtime habits become unhelpful when we rely too heavily on them.

Research also suggests that believing you are an insomniac can do as much harm as actually being one, a phenomenon known as insomnia identity. How can you stop self sabotaging your sleep by worrying about it? I know it sounds odd but try to recognise the anxious sabotaging thoughts for what they are - thoughts (not truths). Like so many things in life, this isn't a quick fix - practice makes perfect. Have a go, it might work for you. Sweet dreams.

If worrying is keeping you awake, counselling might help. Why not get in touch.

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