Sleep is linked to our mental health and wellbeing in so many ways: mental health concerns or challenging times can cause us to over- or under-sleep, and sleep issues can also exacerbate mental health conditions such as anxiety.
The good news is, with training and support, many people can develop good ‘sleep hygiene’ habits and enjoy restful, quality sleep on a regular basis.
If your sleeping patterns are causing you concern, you’re not alone. One in four people experience sleep difficulties. These difficulties are many and varied, and can include:
- Trouble falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Early morning waking
- Sleeping too much
- Unsatisfying sleep
Sleep difficulties can have a number of different causes, such as:
- Physical tension
- Mental tension: spending time thinking and worrying in bed
- Bed is not associated with ‘sleep’ (more used to not sleeping rather than sleeping in bed)
- Disturbances to the body clock (shift work, rotating shifts, jetlag, irregular hours)
- Environmental disturbances (temperature, air noise, light, mattress, bedding)
- Life events (divorce, bereavement, moving house, new child)
- Anxiety: those with insomnia are more likely to be worriers, and have more difficulty getting off to sleep
- Habit problem (poor routine)
- Depression (especially associated with middle insomnia and early morning waking)
During the sleep cycle, we go through a series of stages. There are a lot of activities taking place inside your head while you are sleeping, and it is these activities in your brain that marks these different sleep stages.
When we don’t get enough sleep, there can be many side effects affecting both the mind and body. Insufficient sleep can contribute to depression, irritability, loss of motivation and fatigue.
Sleep hygiene is a combination of thoughts, actions, and physical settings (such as your bedroom) that, when combined and used consistently, create healthy sleep habits.
Contributors to sleep hygiene include a regular bedtime and wake up time, reserving your bed for sleep only, and maintaining a calming, sleep-oriented bedroom space.
Like any healthy routine, good sleep hygiene is much easier when you know what to do – and what not to do.
The following rules will help you to maximise your chances at developing a pattern of good quality sleep.
- Lie down to go to sleep ONLY when you are feeling very sleepy. If you stay up until you are extremely sleepy, you give yourself the best chance of falling asleep quickly, staying asleep and sleeping more deeply.
- Do not use your bed for anything except sleeping and intimacy. Do not read, watch TV, listen to the radio, or eat in bed. This rule is about retraining your brain to see bed as a sleeping place. Consistency is key!
- If you are unable to sleep, do NOT stay in bed. If you don’t fall asleep within about 30 minutes of getting into bed, get up, go to another room, and do something you find boring such as reading a magazine or ironing. This allows you to reset and, when you become tired, you can get back into bed and try again.
- If you return to bed and are still unable to sleep after a further 30 minutes, repeat rule 3. Likewise, if you wake up during the night and cannot go back to sleep, follow rule 3 again. Stay up until you feel sleepy enough to return to bed.
- Practise relaxation (mindfulness, deep breathing, meditation) during the 30 minutes you are trying to go to sleep.
- Get up at about the same time every morning, seven days a week, regardless of how long you have slept. Again, consistency is key!
- Do NOT nap during the day or early in the evening. Most people need 16 hours of awake time between sleep sessions. A nap interrupts this and reduces the chances of a good night’s sleep.
- Avoid large meals, alcohol, tea, coffee, cola drinks, nicotine, and strenuous physical and mental activities in the evening.
- Develop a routine in the 30 minutes prior to bed. In this retraining stage you may benefit from developing a routine that prompts the body to expect sleep 30 minutes from now, similar to what parents do for babies. It’s up to you what routine is: it could be a gentle shower, brush teeth, warm milk, and 15 minutes of reading in the lounge room. Whatever the routine, you are cueing your body to wind down and expect to sleep soon.
- Understand that no sleeping medications produce normal sleep. While sleeping tablets have a useful role to play in acute and crisis situations, they are not effective answers to long-term insomnia. Medication is always something you should discuss with your doctor.
One of the most common causes of sleep disturbance is worrying. Many people find it difficult to wind down when they climb into bed at night after a hectic day. Often this is the first chance they have had to think about things that are concerning them.
People can find themselves lying in bed worrying about their problems when they would really rather be asleep. If you find yourself worrying at bedtime, refer back to the rules above: get out of bed and wait until you are sleepy again. Try a meditation or other relaxation technique that works for you. If you find worrying is significantly affecting your ability to get to sleep on a regular basis, speaking to a professional could help.
As the largest private provider of mental health care in Australia, Ramsay Mental Health is dedicated to making a real difference in the lives of those we treat.
Our clinics offer a range of services designed to support sleep disturbances. Whether you suffer from insomnia, or your sleep patterns have been affected by mood or other disorders, our expert staff can assist you in developing and completing a plan that will help get your sleep on track.