Are you amongst those who are sleeping less than before?
A recent study by the Policy Institute and Kings College London (link in the sidebar) suggests that half the population of the UK is experiencing worse sleep during lockdown. Why is this, what does it mean, and what are the implications for us as lockdown eases?
Why is sleep important?
Sleep as a function is as important as any other – eating, exercise, interaction. It allows our body to rest and perhaps more importantly, our brain to reset and make sense of the world.
I like to think of the sleep process as being something like doing a reset or a ‘defrag’ on the computer. All the files are reorganised and become easier to find, the computer runs faster, and it’s more enjoyable to be with!
When we have slept well, the problems of yesterday seem to have solutions, decisions are easier to make, and we can get on better with the people we live and work with.
So why are we sleeping worse now?
When we experience stress, especially in a prolonged way, there is more information for us to process during sleep. We may find that we are lying awake unable to get to sleep, or being woken in the night with a rush of thought.
Our brain has to work very hard to process all of the extra ‘stuff’. Believe it or not, our brain works harder during sleep than it does when it’s awake! This work creates the thought storms we are familiar with at 2am – waking us up and making it difficult to get back to sleep.
If we are experiencing normal levels of stress, and are also sleeping well, we don’t notice the work going on. However, add in a pandemic, homeschooling, financial difficulties and the prospect of being indoors for months, and BOOM! the brain is suddenly very busy indeed!
Sleep deprivation adds up
It’s a rather annoying fact that if you continuously sleep badly, or less than you need to, that it’s impossible to catch up on that lost sleep. This is because of the way that our sleep pattern works. It means that the best ‘reorganising’ sleep (which happens to be REM- rapid eye moment – or dream sleep) happens at the end of the night. Therefore if you are consistently sleeping less hours than usual, you will be chopping off the most useful hours, and that all adds up.
If you’d like to read more about this, I can highly recommend ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker. It’s available from Waterstones here.
How do we make things better?
If it’s too much stress that is creating the overload, then it makes sense, that sleep will improve if the stress decreases, right? Right.
Whilst the problems of lockdown and beyond will not disappear, you can take steps to minimise the stress that you experience in relation to those difficulties.
- Take time out to exercise. However that feels best for you. A walk in nature where the only purpose is to be relaxed is perfect. A bike ride, a run. Whatever suits you. Use this time as time OUT. You may find your mind wandering to the problems. That’s fine. Let that happen, but aim to bring your thoughts back to the feelings in your body, and the sights and sounds of the natural world.
- Develop a good ‘sleep hygiene’ routine. The most important part of this is having a regular bedtime and getting up time. Your sleep hygiene can also include things like switching off your phone an hour before bedtime, having a routine for washing and brushing your teeth, taking a warm bath an hour before sleep. Ensure that your room is set up for a good night – dark, and uncluttered.
- Listen to a relaxation track or story as you fall asleep
- Learn one or two breathing techniques to lower anxiety. Our breath helps to control the stress response in our body, and can be a very useful tool in managing overthinking. Here’s the one I use, and teach my clients –
When you feel stress levels rising, look around and find a rectangle. There are lots! Windows, doors, paper, books. It doesn’t matter which you choose. Even the act of looking and choosing will have distracted you momentarily. Once you have your rectangle, take a breath IN whilst following the short side of the rectangle, and then breathe OUT following the long side. Do this a couple of times. The more you practice when you are feeling calm, the easier it will be to remember to do it when you feel stressed.
You’ll soon notice things improving as you begin to sleep better. If you’d like more help, a few sessions of hypnotherapy can be very useful indeed. If you’d like to explore that more, you can use the contact form to get in touch.