If you’ve been finding it harder to get to sleep – or to stay asleep – then you may have also noticed changes to your mood and productivity levels. Various factors, including stress, light, noise, and vivid dreams can disrupt sleep quality and cause people to feel tired when they wake up.
Although sleep issues can be frustrating and difficult to deal with, it’s important to remember that you are not alone. Statistics show that 36% of UK adults struggle to get to sleep at least on a weekly basis.
However, the good news is that there are a few things you can try, to increase your chances of getting some proper rest.
Why am I struggling to sleep?
The impact of stress hormones on sleep
Everyone has different sleep cycles, and different factors that may affect their sleep. However, a common culprit for disrupted sleep patterns is stress and anxiety. If you have a lot of things on your mind, this can lead to racing thoughts, a feeling of restlessness, and inability to relax enough to either fall asleep, or stay asleep.
If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, then you may also find that you’re able to get to sleep, but that when you do – you have long, intense dreams and still wake up tired. Currently, the question of ‘why we dream’ is still largely unanswered, but one common theory is that dreams are the body’s way of trying to work through difficult or complicated experiences of emotions.
So, if you’re feeling particularly worried or anxious, then these fears may manifest into disturbing or unsettling dreams – some of which may be recurring. The reason that we may wake up feeling tired when this happens is because during the dream phase of sleep (also known as REM sleep), our stress hormones remain elevated.
These stress hormones (such as cortisol) are involved in the fight or flight response that we feel when we’re afraid, and make it quite difficult to rest and relax.
The impact of cabin fever on sleep
“Cabin fever” is the term people use to describe how they feel when they are going stir crazy indoors and feel like they need to get out. We usually feel like this when we are no longer being stimulated by our surroundings, and/or when we feel trapped in them. This is usually when feelings of boredom and frustration set in, which can really affect our sleep if we take them to bed with us.
For example, if your working patterns or environment have changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it can be tricker to separate work and home life, and switch off properly.
When this happens, we can enter a new state of “alertness” at home, making it harder to relax when the time comes. You may also find that if you are doing less physical activity throughout the day, then you simply aren’t tired enough to get to sleep at night.
The impact of sleep on mental health
The quality of our sleep can affect our emotions and how alert we feel throughout the day. If your sleep is suffering then you may feel tearful, irritable and/or unable to cope with everyday activities. Some people also experience frustration and/or a low mood, when they cannot give their all to these activities because they are too tired.
Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation says, “Sleep is the unsung hero for our mental health. We want to start a national conversation about how we can all sleep better – and uncover the hidden mental health costs of the poor sleep that affects so many of us.”
8 tips for a better night’s sleep
1. Create a daily routine
Routines are important for maintaining your circadian rhythm (also known as your body clock). Your circadian rhythm is responsible for things like your sleep cycle, eating patterns, and hormone production.
If you stick to sleeping and waking up at the same time each day, you’ll help to keep your circadian rhythm on track, so sleep can become easier. Plus, by creating a daily and weekly schedule, you’ll hopefully be able to keep yourself busy enough that you’re distracted from any anxious thoughts.
Winding down before bed and creating a nighttime routine can also go a long way in promoting good quality sleep. These can include things like limiting exposure to blue light, and reading or journaling before bed. Overtime, your body will learn to associate these activities with rest and relaxation.
For more help, we’ve put together some tips on how to create the perfect bedroom for sleep that you might find useful.
2. Switch all electronic devices off 30 minutes before bed
Electronic devices like smartphones, TVs and laptops emit blue light; a short wavelength which stimulates sensors in the eyes to send signals to your brain’s internal clock. These signals suppress the natural production of melatonin – the hormone which helps you to feel sleepy.
During the day, blue light is actually very helpful as it can help you to feel more alert and boost your mood and reaction times. Sunlight is the strongest producer of blue light, which is why we feel more productive during daylight hours (usually), and much sleepier once it gets darker in the evenings. But, too much artificial blue light at the wrong times can play havoc with your body clock.
For this reason it’s a good idea to switch all electronic devices off at least 30 minutes before your head hits the pillow, to give your melatonin levels a chance to rise. If you can’t do this, then it’s worth looking into your device settings, as many now have a blue light filter, which can decrease the amount of blue light being emitted.
The other advantage of emitting less blue light, is that it can help make your phone less addictive – even during the day – as many of us are drawn to the blue light from their screens.
3. Try to move your body every day
Exercise can be beneficial for sleep in a few ways. Firstly, when we’re physically worn out, we’ll fall asleep much quicker and stay asleep for longer. Exercise also increases the production of endorphins (our happy hormones), which helps to boost our mood and reduce stress. It’s generally much easier to sleep if you aren’t contending with high levels of stress hormones at bedtime, such as cortisol and adrenaline.
Additionally, any sort of exercise that raises your body temperature, can also contribute towards a better night’s sleep (if done at the right time). This could include activities such as a brisk walk, a 10 minute aerobic workout, or giving your kitchen floor a good scrub. A good workout can keep your body temperature raised for about four to five hours. After this your core temperature starts to decrease and you may feel sleepy as a result.
So, if you aim to do an afternoon workout each day, then you could help to set yourself up for that sleepy feeling around the time that you’re thinking about winding down for the evening and going to bed.
Generally speaking, it’s better to avoid an evening workout, as you’ll be heating yourself up very close to the time when you should be starting to cool down in preparation for sleep. However, if you find that the evening time is the only time you can work out, then try having a cool shower afterwards to help bring your body temperature back down faster.
You’ll find various different exercise ideas, including running, pilates, pickleball, dance, and Tai Chi, in the fitness and exercise section of our site.
4. Set yourself “worry time” and stick to it
In our busy lives, many of us may be dealing with things that cause us worry. However, it can help to take charge of that worry by limiting the amount of time you attribute to it. It can be tricky to get rid of worry altogether, especially if it’s unclear when or how a problem will resolve itself.
By setting yourself allocated “worry time” each day you can start to control how much of your day is affected by it – and hopefully lessen the burden of some of those worries at bedtime.
Try to set yourself two 15-minute worry slots each day where you can set out all your worries and/or anxious thoughts. Some people find that it helps to write them down. Use this time to allow yourself to acknowledge all the things that are bothering you, and identify which of these you can control and which you can’t.
It’s important that outside of worry time, you’re able to put any worries that you can’t control out of your mind and focus only on the things that you can control. When the time’s up, close your journal if you’ve used one. Or, if you haven’t – imagine yourself putting a lid on your worries and placing them on a shelf, somewhere high up where you can no longer see them.
If you find any worries sneaking back in after this point, then picture yourself forcing that lid back down and remind yourself that you can get them out later – during your second worry slot of the day.
Often, we keep ourselves busy during the day and then when we stop and lie down to sleep at night, our minds fill with worry – and suddenly we’re wide awake. It’s unreasonable to expect that we can just banish all worries altogether in one fell swoop. However, by using this set worry time, we can hopefully control when and how we worry, and avoid going to bed with a mind full of racing thoughts.
5. Get some fresh air and sunlight everyday
Sunlight plays an important role in making sure that our circadian rhythm (or our body clock) is working well. Sensors in our eyes detect light and dark in our environments and adjust our body clock accordingly. It can be difficult to spend all day in a dark room and then expect your body to instinctively know when it’s time to wake up and when it’s time to sleep.
Even if you’re not able to get outside as much as you’d like, you can still help yourself to get as much sunlight as possible by opening your curtains and blinds fully and spending more time in the lighter rooms of your home. This will all help to make the distinction between light and dark much clearer, giving your body clearer signals about when it’s time to wake and sleep.
Scientists also say that sleeping with a window open can help you to sleep deeper and longer, by lowering carbon dioxide levels in the room. This will also prevent you from becoming too warm, as we tend to sleep better when our core temperature is able to drop by a degree or two at night. Though, we understand that opening a window at night might not always be as appealing or possible in autumn and winter once the temperature drops.
6. Try not to work or exercise in the same room that you sleep in
If you do the majority of your daily tasks at home, it can be helpful to create some boundaries so that you don’t begin to associate your sleep space with work. Otherwise, this can make relaxing in it difficult at bedtime.
Try to make sure that you are doing activities such as work and exercise away from your bedroom if you can, as this will help your brain to maintain the association of your bed and your bedroom with sleep. You can read more about this, as well as other tips on how to keep your home and work life separate in our article How can I achieve a healthy work-life balance?
7. Consider listening to some guided sleep meditation
If the reason that you’re struggling to sleep at night is because you’ve got a lot on your mind and you find your thoughts racing when your head hits the pillow, then you could try listening to some guided sleep meditation.
This can help you to stay mindful and is a powerful process that can help you to relax. A soothing voice will often help you to bring your mind to the present moment by focusing on your breathing and visualising being somewhere you feel relaxed – for example, on a beach, where you can focus on nothing other than the waves rolling in.
This may not work for everyone and you may need to experiment with different types of sleep meditation to see which works best for you. Some people have a preference over the type of voice leading the meditation, and the type of visualizations you’ll be asked to do.
If you want to test the waters, then YouTube is a great place to find a whole range of guided sleep meditation videos. Alternatively, you might be interested in our article 10 of the best sleeping apps.
8. Keep an eye on your caffeine intake
Whilst you don’t necessarily need to cut caffeine out altogether to get a good night’s sleep, it’s still important to be aware of how much you’re drinking – and to avoid drinking it too close to bedtime.
It might help to give yourself a cut off point. For example, you could test a rule of no caffeine after 4pm, to see whether this makes a difference to your quality of sleep. Everyone is different and some people are affected by caffeine more than others, so it’s up to you to find out what works best for you.
We hope that some of the tips in this article will help you to get a better night’s sleep. If you’re currently not sleeping as well as usual and it’s having an impact on your productivity, don’t beat yourself up about it.
Be kind to yourself and do what you can. Different things work for different people, so hopefully after a bit of patient trial and error, you’ll soon be back on track to having a good night’s sleep.
Can you recommend any other tips for a better night’s sleep? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.