Do you struggle to get to sleep or wake in the night?
Sleep is important to maintain our physical and mental well-being. On average adults need seven to nine hours sleep a night. I’m sure you have an understanding of how much sleep you need to feel rested, and how little can make you feel sluggish, irritable, lacking in concentration, anxious or stressed out. But do you know what may be causing your sleeping difficulties? My aim for this article is to outline some of the common and not so common culprits for sleeping difficulties and to help you learn ways of dealing with them.
My top tip is to keep a sleeping diary, this can become your support to firstly help you to identify the types of culprits, then formulate a plan to address them, then to review your progress.
I break culprits down into four types. Which of these ring true for you?
1) Emotional culprits
- Worrying about not getting enough sleep which can cause negative associations with the bed and bedroom.
- Emotional difficulties e.g. depression and anxiety.
- Difficult life events e.g. bereavement, redundancy.
2) Physical culprits
- Physical ill health/pain.
- Recreational drugs.
- Legal drugs:
- Alcohol (even small amounts), you may feel the alcohol helps you to get to sleep but the quality of the sleep will be poor.
- Caffeine - did you know it can take 6 hours for caffeine to leave your body? Anything over 300mg per day can have a negative impact.
- Eating a heavy meal a few hours before bed can affect sleep as your digestion is working hard.
3) Physiological culprits
- Unwanted side effect of medication / withdrawing from medication.
4) Environmental culprits
- Changes in sleeping patterns e.g. shift work/jet lag.
- Environmental factors e.g. too hot, too noisy.
- Blue light emitted from the screen disrupts the natural sleep cycle.
Now you have identified what culprits may be behind your sleeping difficulties, you have to formulate a plan of action to address them. Below are some things to consider against each of the culprit types. Try a few and see what works for you.
For emotional culprits:
- Try relaxation exercises – five mins a day can make a huge difference.
- Tackle the cause of the stress - examine what is within your control and what isn’t.
- Journaling – can help to acknowledge the thoughts and externalise the thoughts that cycle around your mind at night.
- Seek counselling to tackle the causes.
- Make good associations with your bedroom, e.g. as a place to read calmly.
For physical culprits:
- Drinking water can help to ease you off caffeine and try to avoid drinking caffeine after 4pm.
- Avoid heavy meals late in the evening.
- Reduce alcohol intake.
- Increase in exercise during the day (but not too close to bedtime).
- Instead of a nap try a brisk walk – sunlight stops the body from producing the sleep hormone melatonin.
For physiological culprits:
- Speak to GP for advice and support
For environmental culprits:
- Buy blackout curtains.
- Ensure bed is supportive.
Having established which areas you wish to address, you can incorporate these into a good sleep routine, this can help to calm the mind and set good habits. For example, a good routine could look something like this:
- Turn off laptop/phone/tablet screens an hour before bed.
- Take a warm bath with essential oils (e.g. lavender).
- Read a book.
- Do a meditation relaxation exercise or yoga stretches.
- Have a non-caffeinated drink e.g. herbal tea/hot water and lemon.
- Go to bed at the same time each night.
- Get up at the same time each morning.
After a week, revisit your sleep diary to review and monitor your new sleep routine. Consider, did I make the changes I planned? Did the changes improve my sleep? If not, what were my barriers? what could I do differently? Again journaling can help here.
I hope this article has given you some ideas of things to consider when trying to understand what may be causing your sleeping difficulties. You may also feel like talking to a counsellor to assist with this process and to look at some underlying issues.
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