4 things to consider when you want to improve your sleep

When trying to improve your sleep you need to address 4 different areas – your physical health, your environment, your behaviour and your thinking.

Your physical health

  • While poor physical health can be caused by poor sleep, especially if it has been going on for a long time, your health can also impact on your sleep. It is important to consult with your GP just in case there is a medical/physical cause underlying your insomnia – this might include sleep apnea, asthma, diabetes, hormone imbalance or thyroid issues, allergies or pain.
  • Even if you are quite healthy, you still need to consider your physical state and how it could be contributing to sleep disruption. Are you hydrated enough? Are you trying to digest heavy evening meals during the night? Do you need to go to the bathroom more often rather than trying to hang on?

Your environment

Your sleep environment is very important.

  • You need to be at a comfortable temperature in a dark room with no light sources.
  • Clocks, televisions and mobile phones should be banished from the area, as they provide distractions in the middle of the night.
  • Fresh air or gently circulating air in the room can be helpful.
  • Obviously a quiet environment is best, but some people feel comforted by some white noise in the background, so that’s okay if it’s not distracting or engaging.
  • If you share a bed with a partner, children or pets, you may need to make other arrangements for a while to work on improving your sleep environment.

Your behaviour

This is a broad category that covers a lot of things you could change to help your sleep.

  • Firstly, routine is essential – aim to get up at the same time each morning and get into bed at the same time each night. And develop a bedtime routine where you do the same things (toilet, brush teeth, check on pets etc) in the same order each night. The importance of routine to sleep makes sleep especially tricky for many shift workers. If you are a chronic insomniac and also a shift worker, you may need to seriously consider a change in your work arrangements.
  • Do not engage in stimulating activities before bed such as exercise, vigorous household chores, doing work, checking emails, reading engrossing novels or other mentally challenging tasks. Instead, engage in quiet, slightly boring activities – like watching mindless tv, getting your bag ready for the next day etc.
  • Put your mobile phone down at least a half hour before bedtime – the light from mobile phones is highly stimulating. If you use the alarm on your phone to wake in the morning, put the phone on the other side of the room, and turn off the ringer.
  • Use your bed for sleep and intimacy, nothing else. You need to teach your brain to associate bed with sleep, not other activities like watching television, reading, eating or playing video games.
  • Don’t persist at lying in bed for too long. Before frustration starts to set in, get up out of bed and move to another space for a while – read a boring book, watch some late night tv on the sofa, do some knitting, or just sit quietly in a comfortable chair and listen to some relaxing music. By simply changing your position from lying down and moving to another space, you can often short circuit the loop of frustration and worry about your elusive sleep.
  • Regular exercise can improve your sleep. So if you are not currently exercising (perhaps because you feel too tired), build regular exercise into your daily routine. Even walking a few times a week can be beneficial for your sleep.
  • Most people know that drinking coffee or tea before bed could be stimulating and contribute to sleep problems. But pay close attention to what you consume during the day, and particularly the evening, in case hidden stimulants such as the sugar in fruit and alcohol or caffeine in chocolate could be adding to your insomnia.
  • Alcohol, cigarettes and drugs (prescription and otherwise) can impair our sleep. Often people use substances to help them get to sleep, and this can work at times. But they are often struck with insomnia in the middle of the night when their body starts to withdraw from the substance. Learning how to fall asleep and stay asleep using strategies that don’t include substances will be healthier and more effective in the long term.
  • Incorporate relaxation exercises or mindfulness meditations into your evening routine, to help you wind down, ground yourself and disengage from the stress and worries of the day before you attempt sleep. Most of us run flat chat all day, zooming from one task and responsibility to another, so it’s a big ask to expect our brains to suddenly and instantly switch off and go to sleep without some assistance.  The team here at Attuned Psychology have written a number of blogs about Mindfulness, so have a look at some past posts, or explore the many mindfulness apps on the App store.

Your thinking

This is another very broad area to cover, but basically, our brains can be our biggest obstacles to sleep. There are millions of ways our beliefs and thoughts can sabotage our sleep and here are some examples that might sound familiar:

  • You don’t necessarily feel stressed about work but it seems your mind wants to replay episodes of your workday over and over. Or maybe your stressed mind is trying to prepare for the upcoming budget meeting even though you know logically you are well prepared.
  • You are a problem solver who likes to have everything sorted out perfectly, so your problem solving mind (and maybe slightly anxious mind) tells you that if you just think about a problem over and over for long enough you will eventually solve it, even at 3am… Most people rarely solve anything at 3am – often because they are trying to solve an insoluble issue.
  • You lie awake looking at the ceiling growing increasingly frustrated or worried that you can’t sleep. These feelings are driven by thoughts – usually worry thoughts about how bad the following day will be if you don’t get enough sleep. This frustration/worry makes you feel tense, more alert and stimulated, and gives rise to many more thoughts that then occupy your mind. In turn, you feel even more frustrated and anxious– and so the vicious cycle of thinking, frustration and poor sleep develops.
  • You think it is important to have the house tidy and ordered before bed, even if it means you are racing around the house at 11pm getting over stimulated by activity and doing the complete opposite of winding down. Or perhaps you are a mum who puts everyone else first so you always end up doing your tasks (having a shower, checking personal emails, replying to text messages, getting your work clothes ready) well past bed time. These are examples of how the way we think (our priorities, values) can get in the way before we even get into bed.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of how our thinking can impact our sleep and contribute to insomnia – I would be up all night if I attempted to cover it all!

Fortunately though, there are two therapy approaches available that target your thinking and sleep, really well – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (which uses mindfulness). There is good evidence that CBT and ACT are helpful for people with insomnia.

The team at Attuned Psychology are trained and skilled in both approaches, so I would encourage you to seek support if you are struggling with your sleep (especially the ‘thinking’ bit of the problem). But there are also many online resources for you to consider – particularly the new SHUTi (Sleep Healthy Using the Internet) program, which has excellent research evidence to support it’s effectiveness and can be done entirely online.

If you would like any further information from Attuned Psychology, you can contact us on 8361 7008 or email [email protected].

All the best and sleep well.

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