Can't Sleep? Understand why and learn some tips to improve it

Difficulty sleeping (insomnia) is a symptom of an underlying problem or a signal that something is bothering you that you might need to talk through. Often, problems with sleeping are the first sign to alert us that something is troubling us. It could also be an underlying physical health problem. Waking in the early morning and not being able to get back to sleep can be a sign of depression. Trouble getting off to sleep is often associated with worry and anxiety.

Read the following statements and consider if they are true or false:

1. It is good for your health to get eight hours of sleep a night.
2. Insomnia is the most commonly reported mental health complaint in the UK.
3. Hunger at bedtime can stop you sleeping.
4. Men have better sleep quality than women.
5. Quality of sleep decreases with age.
6. 20% of UK adults snore.
7. Alcohol decreases the quality of your sleep.
8. Dreams don’t have meaning, they are the contents of the day jumbled up.


1. It is good for your health to get eight hours of sleep a night

False - 
How much sleep you need varies from person to person. Some people can get by on six hours, others need eight. If you are finding that you still feel tired in the morning after eight hours of sleep, it is worth checking with your GP if there is an underlying medical problem, such as anaemia.

The feeling of tiredness may also relate to an emotional weariness that needs addressing, such as stress or depression. Too much REM (dream) sleep can increase vulnerability to depression.

2. Insomnia is the most commonly reported mental health complaint in the UK

True - 
It is very common, and often the first sign that something is bothering you. It is not a mental health diagnosis in itself, but a pointer that you are feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed. It can affect your mood, wakefulness, concentration, and a general feeling of wellbeing.

3. Hunger at bedtime can stop you sleeping

True - 
If you go to bed when you are hungry it can prevent sleep – a light snack can help. Eating a large amount before better can make it harder to sleep.

4. Men have better sleep quality than women

True - 
Men report that they have better sleep quality. Sleep quality is also affected by poor health.

5. Quality of sleep decreases with age

True - 
People need less sleep as they get older, generally. Often health affects sleep quality. Some chronic health conditions such as osteoporosis and diabetes can affect your sleep in the long term.

6. 20% of UK adults snore

False - 
It is closer to 37%, and twice as common in men, although more common in women with age. Snoring is caused by obstruction by the muscles in your throat relaxing. Nasal congestion also restricts airflow. People with short wide necks are more likely to snore, and alcohol also increases snoring.

7. Alcohol decreases the quality of your sleep

True - 
Alcohol can help people fall asleep but impairs the quality of sleep during the second half of the night.

8. Dreams don’t have meaning

Debatable - 
Some people believe that our dreams reveal our unconscious conflicts and our hidden feelings. Freud initially thought that we dreamt what we wished for. Most therapists believe they are the psyche trying to work out conflict and so can be enormously helpful in understanding the client. Other people believe they don’t have any meaning. This cannot be proved either way.


Top tips for improving sleep

The four main areas to address to improve your sleeping are your health, the sleeping environment, your attitude to sleep, and your lifestyle.


  • Large amounts of food especially if they are high in sugar can make it harder to sleep. Rice and oats contain melatonin which increases the desire to sleep. Dairy products contain tryptophan which is useful in the manufacture of melatonin.
  • Regular exercise helps but not just before bed as it will make you feel more awake.


  • Some people find it helps to restrict the bedroom for sleeping only. Too much light can inhibit sleep – try blackout curtains. Clearly, if it is noisy or the temperature is wrong you will be affected.
  • Don’t nap in the daytime even if you are sleep deprived – it just exacerbates the problem.
  • If you are having trouble getting to sleep and you’re not feeling sleepy, get up and try to go to bed a bit later when you are sleepy. 

Sleep restriction

  • Some people find that sleep restricting can really help reset their body clock. It is important to try to get up at the same time each day.
  • Medication such as sleeping pills can work in the short term but can lose their effect and leave you feeling tired the following day.


  • Wind down before going to bed. Don’t do anything that makes you feel alert.
  • If you are having trouble falling asleep, give up trying to fall asleep as the anxiety about whether you are going to get enough sleep can cause sleeplessness itself.
  • Smoking before bed can make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Alcohol may help you fall asleep but gives you a very restless wakeful sleep.
  • The menopause can cause wakefulness – discuss possible treatments with your GP.
  • Keep a sleep diary and see if you can identify patterns that affect it.
  • Talk to a friend or a professional about worries that you have.

Other sleeping problems

  • Sleep apnoea: Shallow or pauses in breathing that disrupts sleep. It is worse if you are overweight, or elderly. Smoking and alcohol make it worse.
  • Nightmares: Typically occur due to anxiety.
  • Sleepwalking: Most common in five to 12 year olds (15% of children in this age group). Exists in 2-5% of adults. It is more common if you are sleep deprived, stressed, or drink alcohol.
  • Sleeptalking: 4% of adults sleep talk, which is usually more of a problem for their partner.
  • Involuntary twitches and restless legs: Often occur when going off to sleep and occur in 3.9% of the population. Similarly, restless legs syndrome causes a feeling of wanting to move your legs especially in the evening and can make falling asleep more difficult. Regular exercise, decreasing alcohol and caffeine can help. Medication is available for more serious cases.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend

Find the right counsellor or therapist for you

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals