We all need sleep, and it is a natural part of our life. On average, most adults need around 8 hours of sleep per night although this can vary from person to person. While no one is entirely sure why we need to sleep, we do know that it is significant for brain development, and maintains normal levels of cognitive skills such as memory, speech and flexible thinking. Indeed, if have as little as 15 minutes less than our normal level of sleep this can have measurable effects on our cognitive functioning.
While sleep is a very natural and important part of our lives, many people can struggle with sleep and this can have a serious impact on their mental health. A lack of sleep can lead to daytime tiredness and this lowers our resilience and ability to cope with everyday life. This, in turn, can lead to a lowering of self-esteem and we can start to feel more worried or stressed about life. This leads to more difficulties getting to sleep or staying asleep and the cycle continues. When we have problems sleeping, we are more likely to feel irritable, anxious or depressed. In more extreme cases, it can lead to psychosis or paranoia.
There are many types of sleep disturbances – difficulties getting to sleep, difficulties staying asleep, night-time panic attacks, waking up too early etc. To the opposite of these can also be sleeping too much which might be the case with someone who is depressed. There are also sleep disorders such as Narcolepsy or Sleep Apnoea which can have a significant effect on sleep and physical health. If you think you have a sleep disorder, it is important to get this checked out by your GP.
So what can we do if we can’t sleep?
There are some obvious and easy changes that we can make to help our sleep habits:
- Establish a sleep routine – going to be at the same time every night and waking up at the same time. Setting a habit can help your body get into a routine and make sleep come easier.
- Make your bedroom a relaxing environment, and if you can, only use your bedroom for sleep and not for watching movies or working.
- Establish a bedtime routine that allows you to wind down gently.
- Avoid any caffeine before bedtime, and of course avoid electronic devices an hour or so before bedtime – so switch that mobile phone off!
- Get regular exercise, but try not to exercise just before bedtime.
If you find you are waking up in the night and unable to sleep try not to worry about it. Laying in bed worrying about not sleeping and how you will function the next day can be torturous. It is better to get out of bed and if you have lots of thoughts, then write these down until your mind is a bit clearer. You could also read for a while to help you relax a little more, and keep a compassionate focus on yourself – getting annoyed with yourself for not sleeping will only make it worse!
Of course, if your sleep problems persist, you should consult your GP as they may be able to offer some medical help. You could also consider psychotherapy if you are finding that worries, stress and anxiety is keeping you awake.
During these challenging times that we are all in, it is vital to get a good night’s sleep, so look after your night-time routine so you are better equipped to face the days ahead.
Dr Simon Cassar is an integrative existential therapist, trained in Person-Centred Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), and Existential Psychotherapy. He is available in our Hove and Lewes clinics and also works online.
Further reading by Dr Simon Cassar
Spirituality and mental health
Living with borderline personality disorder
Student mental health – how to stay healthy at university
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