Sleep is essential to good mental health. You probably already know that when you sleep well you feel and work better.
In general, adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep but the exact amount varies from person to person. Different people need different amounts of sleep, and this depends on your age, your lifestyle, your genes and what you’re used to.
A good night’s sleep won’t rid your life of emotional problems, but it can mean that you’re able to deal with difficult or stressful situations more easily.
If you’re not getting enough sleep you tend to feel moody and irritable and lack focus. Obviously, this problem is likely to affect your relationships with people, your work and your mental wellbeing if ignored.
So how can you improve your sleep?
Here are ten steps for a better night’s sleep from Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare.
Getting regular exercise during the day will help you to feel tired at night. Being active increases your metabolism and helps against stress and anxiety, which in turn will improve your sleep. Try to exercise earlier in the day or, if you prefer late night workouts, give yourself time to wind down and relax afterwards.
Don’t have a heavy or spicy meal just before going to bed, as your body needs time to digest the food before sleep. Don’t go to bed hungry: a light snack before bedtime is ideal. Avoid caffeine – it can stay in your system for up to 6 hours and disrupt your sleep. A glass of wine may help you to fall asleep, but alcohol can affect the quality of your sleep, making you more likely to wake up during the night. Nicotine is a stimulant and studies suggest that non-smokers get better sleep than smokers.
Create a calm sleeping environment by turning your bedroom into a dark, quiet, clean and comfortable haven. A good temperature is between 18C and 24C. You may want to try black-out curtains, eye shades or ear plugs. Paint your room a calming colour. Remove any distractions that may keep you awake (including the family pets!) and keep your bedroom free from computers, TVs and phones. Is your mattress old? Is your pillow lumpy? Spoil yourself and invest in some new bedding.
Try to develop a relaxing night-time routine that prepares your body and mind for sleep. It could be taking a hot bath, reading a book, listening to calming music or having a milky drink – but try to stay away from bright lights and heated arguments just before bedtime.
Whether you need to stretch your muscles with yoga or calming your mind with meditation, there are numerous classes, apps, and books that can show you great methods to do both. Experiment and see what works for you. Some people find using a few drops of aromatherapy oil on the pillow, such as lavender, or a cup of chamomile tea to be soothing before bed time.
If you can’t fall asleep after half an hour, get up and do something else instead – try something relaxing like reading or listening to music. Only go back to bed when you feel tired. Similarly, if you find you’re dozing off on the sofa too early in the evening, get up and do a few jobs so that you save your snoozing for bedtime.
Keep a regular sleep schedule. If you go to sleep and get up at the same time every day (even if you’re not feeling tired) it can help you get into a good sleep routine. Resist having naps during the day and don’t sleep in at the weekend.
It can be difficult to work out why you have problems sleeping. Keeping a sleep diary (or using a wearable device that tracks your sleep) can help you monitor when you fall asleep and wake up, how many times you wake up during the night and how rested you feel in the morning. After a week, reflect on your notes and try to work out what helps you sleep and what makes it worse.
Life is often stressful and it can take time and some effort to learn what coping methods work for you. Try using a journal to jot down things that are worrying you and keeping you awake. Make a note of them and deal with them when you are refreshed.
If your sleep problems persist, don’t suffer in silence, and don’t be tempted to self-medicate with over-the-counter sleep aids. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can be very effective at helping people who have problems with insomnia.
For more information on sleep, visit AXA PPP healthcare’s sleep hub.