Edgar Watson Howe says, “there is only one thing people like that is good for them; a good night’s sleep.” Sleep plays a vital role in our health. We need it to survive – the same way we need water, oxygen, and food. Yet, about one-third of working adults struggle with chronic sleep difficulties.
Effects of a good (and bad) sleep
After a long and restful sleep, we wake up feeling energized. Our mood is positive, we’re focused and attentive, and we’re generally more resilient against day-to-day stressors. But when we are lacking in sleep, we’re more likely to feel irritable, annoyed, experience changes in appetite, and be much more distracted.
One of the most common sleep problems is insomnia, which is characterized by difficulty falling asleep, not being able to stay asleep, and/or early-morning awakenings. The most effective treatment for insomnia is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is an evidence-based treatment approach that focuses on changing behavioural patterns, thoughts, and worries – including worries about sleep.
Aside from scheduling an appointment with your therapist or learning a few CBT techniques on your own, what can we do to sleep better?
Discover the root cause of poor sleep
Before implementing tips to enhance your sleep hygiene, it’s important to consider if there are any confounding variables that may be contributing.
1. Are any physical conditions or factors, including medication side effects, playing a role?
If you aren’t sure about underlying health conditions or if your medication is affecting your sleep, book an appointment to speak with your medical doctor.
2. Do you find yourself excessively worrying or ruminating before bed?
A certain amount of stress and anxiety is a normal part of life, but also one of the strongest factors that influence sleep. If you find yourself excessively thinking or ruminating at night, and that’s preventing you from sleeping, it can be helpful to keep a worry log. To do this, write down all the potential worries that may keep you up at night. Recording these an hour or two before bed can serve a preventative role. If, once in bed, you still find yourself worrying, get out of bed, write down your concerns, and ask yourself three key questions:
- What’s the evidence for this
- worry? What’s the problem to be solved?
- What can I do right now?
Getting out of bed when you are having trouble sleeping may seem counterproductive. But it’s important to ensure that your bed remains a place where only sleep and sex happens. If anxious thoughts consistently occur when your head hits the pillow, over time, your bed and bedroom become associated with worrying; Simply getting into bed can serve as a stimulus for anxious thoughts to begin
3. Are you unsure of what is keeping you up at night?
If you are having trouble identifying the root of your sleep problems, keep a diary for one to two weeks. Track your diet, work, and leisure activities, and level of stress and sleep/wake times. This can help identify patterns and factors that are affecting sleep that you may not otherwise be aware of.
10 ways to improve your sleep hygiene
Once you have done the above, it’s time to implement good sleep hygiene principles. Here are 10 tips to help you sleep better, more often.
- Have a consistent, fixed wake-up time – even on weekends – to build a steady sleep pattern.
- Expose yourself to natural outside light upon waking: open your blinds and have your morning cup of coffee or tea while gazing out the window!
- Do not nap! Naps interfere with the restorative value of sleep later at night. If you’re tired, the best strategy is to get into bed earlier that evening.
- Do not have caffeine after noon! The half-life of caffeine is five hours – which means that five hours after having caffeine, 50 per cent is still left in your body; it takes another five hours for the caffeine to be reduced in half again to 25 per cent, and so on. So, by 10pm, 25% of the caffeine from your 12pm coffee will still be in your body.
- Don’t do intensive exercise 2-3 hours before bedtime. Exercise gets us physiologically aroused and activated, and this is incompatible with sleep.
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol use. Even one drink interferes with sleep quality and makes sleep less restorative.
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine. This can include drinking decaffeinated tea, warm milk or having a warm bath. Make a clear distinction between daytime (alert) activities and bedtime (relaxing) ones.
- Make your bedroom environment comfortable and conducive to sleep. Get comfortable pillows and bedding, darken the room, and keep the temperature moderate.
- Restrict your bed for two activities: sleep and sex. Do not watch TV, eat, talk on the phone, argue or use your computer while in bed.
- If you can’t fall asleep within 15-20 minutes, get out of bed and don’t go back to bed until you are sleepy – not just tired.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of a Globe and Mail “Ask the Psychologist” column authored by Dr. Samra, and has been edited and updated.
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