When it comes to establishing good health, one of your best options is to improve your sleep.
Sleep is, arguably, the foundation for physical and mental wellbeing. Yet, almost 1 in 5 adults in the UK report having sleep problems, and two-thirds of adolescents say that sleep issues negatively impact their mental health. Long-term sleep issues can lead to low mood, increased stress and anxiety, physical aches and pains, memory issues, and difficulty concentrating.
Once medical conditions have been ruled out as a cause of sleep problems, there’s plenty of advice available to help us improve our sleep. Much of this is centred on changing what we do during the day and at bedtime. Behaviour changes that are shown to help us get the quality rest we need include going to bed and waking up at regular times, getting more exercise in the day, eliminating high-sugar foods and caffeine in the hours before bedtime, creating a calming bedtime routine such as having a warm bath or reading a book. These are all excellent new habits to introduce to our lives.
However, there’s another factor which interferes with our ability to sleep well: the way we think about sleep. There are many unhelpful thoughts about sleep which can leave us feeling worried, and excessive worry about sleep leads to more poor sleep. It’s a vicious loop of anxiety and sleeplessness. Most unhelpful thoughts come under three different categories:
Worries about the consequences of poor sleep
Thoughts about being helpless to change the situation
Our expectations about sleep.
Below are some common unhelpful thoughts about sleep for each of the above categories and some ideas about how to change them:
1. Consequences: “If I don’t get enough sleep tonight, I won’t be able to function tomorrow.”
Is this a fact or a fear? How true is this belief? Think about another time in the past when you felt sleepy or tired but were able to get through your day and complete tasks. What helped you during those occasions? It’s possible to have a few restless nights, wake up feeling tired and still perform adequately during the day, even if you’re not at your best.
2. Helpless: “There’s nothing I can do to improve my sleep, I’ve tried everything, and nothing has worked”
This thought creates a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Try writing a list of all the things you’ve tried so far, and note how long you gave them a shot. Add to the list any techniques you know about but have not yet tried (there will be some). Now pick just one of the techniques you’ve listed and try it for at least a month, and do it consistently every day. Record your progress in a notebook so you can compare the first day to the last day of the month. Remember that change takes time, and not to expect huge shifts in your sleep at this point.
If, after a month, there’s no change at all, then try one of the other techniques listed. When this thought pops into your mind again, say to yourself, “I’m willing to believe I can improve my sleep and am taking steps to do this.”
There is no magic quick fix to changing sleep patterns – it takes experimentation, consistency, and repetition.
3. Expectations: “I must have 8 hours of sleep a night.”
Imagine it’s 2 am, and you’re still awake. Your alarm is set for 7.30 am, meaning that if you manage to fall asleep in the next few minutes, you’ll get less than 6 hours of sleep. You start to worry about not getting the magic 8 hours of sleep, and this leaves you even more unlikely to fall asleep.
Generally, adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night, with children and teenagers needing much more. However, we all have individual sleep needs depending on our age, lifestyle, overall health and typical sleep patterns. For example, if you have a particularly physical job that uses lots of energy, you may need more sleep. Or you may find you feel healthy and happy on 7 hours of sleep, and occasionally less. We’re all different, so consider how much sleep is enough and normal for you, and reduce the level of worry about having to get 8 hours every night.
A combination of behaviour changes and shifting unhelpful thoughts can help you sleep better. It will take a level of commitment to get the results you want, and there may be setbacks, but keep these in perspective and continue with your new practices. Over time, testing the accuracy of your thoughts and trying out new behaviours will promote a healthier outlook on sleep.
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