Sleeping better

by Kat Zwielich, MSc

Sleep fulfils crucial functions for our body and brain. While we sleep we heal, grow, learn and organise. We all differ in how much sleep we need and when we need to sleep. Our need for sleep also changes throughout the lifespan. Usually the older we get the less sleep we need. Some of us are early bird chronotypes, some are night owls, and most are somewhere in-between the two extremes. This means  some function better in the mornings and some better in the evenings. It is common that we sometimes experience some disruptions in our sleep often related to stress or changes in our body. While we all differ in our sleeping patterns, there are some more or less universal habits that support our sleep quality. Most people have an idea of what good sleep hygiene looks like. However, there are some overlooked aspects that are often particularly impactful that we’ll have a look at below. Please note that if you are struggling with a clinical sleep disorder then improving sleep hygiene is not sufficient treatment. In that case make sure that you seek help from a sleep specialist.

Starting with the basics, here are some pillars of a healthy sleep hygiene most people have heard of:

  • Limiting the intake of stimulants. Excessive caffeine consumption is an infamous culprit in poor sleep quality. 
  • Keeping your sleeping space dark or using an eye mask to help your body produce the sleep hormone melatonin. 
  • Using your sleeping space just for sleep and sexual activity so your brain doesn’t connect it with any other activities.
  • Creating a wind-down routine that helps you relax and ideally keeps you away from screens before getting to sleep. 

We often hear from clients that are not getting enough sleep that they try to go to bed early more consistently. However, this often doesn’t end up being helpful and many stay in bed awake for prolonged periods and notice how their anxiety and frustration increase.

Get up at a consistent time every morning

In order to sleep well, consistency is key. Instead of adjusting bedtime in the evening it has proven to be more effective to adjust your wake-up time. Sticking to a consistent wake-up time even on the weekends helps your body to adjust in the evenings, too. Ideally your wake-up time varies by no more than half an hour. Your body will then tell you when it’s time to head to bed. You will get sleepy at that point. This way you find out how many hours of sleep you need. Sleepy is different from being tired in a way that you can be tired for many reasons but feeling sleepy is an indicator for needing sleep. When you are sleepy your eyes get heavy and it becomes difficult to stay awake. When we start this new routine it may mean a couple of tired days ahead before we adjust. This is to be expected and will improve as you keep up that new consistency. 

It’s normal to wake up at night

Certain beliefs around sleep can have a detrimental effect on sleep quality. The belief that good sleep means sleeping through the night without waking up can make us feel anxious when we do wake up. Adults between 35 and 65 actually wake up 10-16 times every night. Often we don’t remember these brief awakenings. But when we do this can cause anxiety for some due to the belief that we are missing out on sleep. However, we usually wake up at the transition points between sleep phases and aren’t missing out on any sleep because of it. It can be helpful to keep that in mind when we tend to experience anxiety based on our beliefs around sleep.

Relax not just right before sleep

As mentioned earlier a relaxing wind-down routine can have a positive effect on our sleep quality. But if we have a stressful lifestyle there is only so much we can do with our wind-down routine. It is useful to not just start thinking about relaxation when we get to the evening but think about how our lifestyle is generally allowing us to be more calm and relaxed. Your therapist can help you address stressors in your life and work on the factors that you can influence while trying out strategies for more relaxation that fit with your needs and preferences.

Again, if you have a clinical sleep disorder then improving your sleep hygiene will not cure it and you should seek out tailored treatment. If your sleep is impaired make sure to tell your psychologist as poor sleep affects our mood and functioning. 

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Boulos, M. I., Jairam, T., Kendzerska, T., Im, J., Mekhael, A., & Murray, B. J. (2019). Normal polysomnography parameters in healthy adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, 7(6), 533-543.

Burman, D., & Muzumdar, H. (2020). Sleep Architecture and Physiology. Management of Sleep Disorders in Psychiatry, 12.

Lee-Chiong, T. L. (Ed.). (2005). Sleep: a comprehensive handbook. John Wiley & Sons.

Posted in Psychologist musings and education.

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