“Make sure you get a good night’s sleep!”
You’re probably familiar with hearing this advice before an important event the next day, be it an exam or a job interview. The recommendation is that the average adult should get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. But putting pressure on the importance of getting a ‘good’ or ‘normal’ amount of sleep can cause serious and long-term sleep problems. By subscribing to this false belief that I needed a certain number of hours’ rest to succeed the following day, I suffered from chronic insomnia for over two years.
Insomnia is defined as ‘the difficulty falling asleep’ (known as sleep-onset insomnia) or ‘staying asleep’ (sleep maintenance insomnia). In my case, I found it difficult to fall asleep in the first place. For two years, I regularly went multiple nights in a row without sleeping a wink; I lost hope that this would ever improve.
Insomnia itself is a strange experience, even when you’re used to it. The night feels incredibly long when you’re awake and worrying about how to cope the next day without any sleep. Another aspect of the condition is losing the natural bridge between days, usually gained through sleep. I, along with many others, would constantly feel like I was on the previous day’s time, which was disorientating and exacerbated my sense of exhaustion.
If you’ve been struggling with insomnia during lockdown, you won’t be alone. At any given time, 10% of people are estimated to suffer from long-term sleep problems. This has only increased during the lockdowns over the past year. A study carried out by researchers at KCL during May 2020 showed that half the population thought that their sleep had been more disturbed than usual. Even this is an important realisation: insomnia can be a very lonely experience and it’s common to feel anxious when the rest of the world seems to be asleep.
Before suffering from insomnia, I’d always taken it for granted that I could easily fall asleep. Now, I found myself overthinking how to get to sleep in the first place.
How do you actually go about improving your sleep?
Most professionals recommend making a combination of physical and mental changes to help get a good night’s sleep. Many people find that improving their ‘sleep hygiene’ helps them to sleep better. Practical adjustments you can make include not having caffeine before bed, changing the room temperature and creating a healthy separation between work and sleep (for example, by not working in your bedroom).
Also read: our guide to falling asleep.
If you’re finding that your mind just won’t shut off when you’re trying to get to sleep, then a more psychological approach may suit you better. There are many free meditations available on YouTube and Headspace, which can help you to relax. The latter even has a short Netflix series featuring mindfulness activities and meditations. Sleepio is a free online 6-week course based on CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). It includes a sleep tracker, tips to improve your sleep hygiene and attitude towards sleep, as well as a discussion forum.
One step towards improving my sleep was ceasing to set myself high standards when it came to sleep. Of course, it would be nice to get the recommended average of seven to nine hours of sleep a night, but the world won’t end if you don’t. It is just an average and, sleep needs vary from person to person and across lifetimes. Some people may only feel refreshed after ten hours of sleep a night, while others can get by on just six. During the nightly sleep cycle, each person goes through periods of deeper and lighter sleep. Research shows that the early part of the cycle is also the deepest, so if you feel like you’ve only slept for a short time, the chances are that you will still be refreshed and ready for the day ahead.
People who sleep well tend not to think about sleep the whole time, which is easier said than done. I would get out of bed in the morning and be worried about remaining awake the following night. But the body is designed to cope with a certain amount of sleeplessness. It’s easy to assume that feeling tired or lethargic is due to the night of broken sleep when it could be down to many reasons. You and your body can cope with sleeplessness better than you think, even for a considerable time.
Long-term sleep problems can arise from seeing a pattern of future sleeplessness after one poor night’s sleep. Yet even the ‘best’ sleepers do not sleep well every night for reasons such as stress, a poor sleep environment (if there is too much noise or light), or an overactive mind. When recovering from insomnia, one or two poor nights of sleep is not a setback. Instead, it is just a natural part of sleep rhythms which vary from night to night in their length and depth.
Words by Eleanor Dye
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