East Anglian expert's 7 tips to help you get a good night's sleep
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“Sleep is very important for our overall wellbeing because it plays a really vital function in terms of processing information and feeling rested,” says Joe Embrey.
As a cognitive and EDMR (eye movement and desensitisation reprocessing) therapist at Wellbeing Suffolk, part of Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, he works with people who are experiencing sleep difficulties.
And since the pandemic began more of us than ever are struggling to drift off.
“A sleep difficulty for one person is going to be very different to another and they can arise for lots of different reasons,” says Joe.
“The amount of sleep we need will vary, depending on so many factors, so some people can do very well on three to four hours of sleep for a long period of time whereas others might need longer.
“And there are lots of other variables, including age, how you spend your day, what your job is like, the level of exercise you do.
“I think where sleep difficulty can arise is when people potentially become preoccupied with how much sleep they’re getting and that becomes a bit of a vicious cycle, or they maybe have their expectation about what their sleep should be, or what they would like to get, not actually matched to what they need to get by – imagine how anxiety provoking that is to think ‘I’m not getting the right sleep and it’s getting disrupted’.
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“So I think It's very important to think individually and on a personal level what particular thoughts and beliefs you have about your sleep and where in particular you’re noticing the problems arising.”
And there’s no doubt that the pandemic has exacerbated those sleep difficulties.
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“I think with the nature of the pandemic, we’ve had things to worry about which we’ve never been through before, lots of uncertainty, lots of unknowns and concerns about things like finances, future job security and health, of course,” says Joe.
“One of the big ingredients for a sleep difficulty can often be what’s going on before you’re trying to get off to sleep, so when you’ve got lots of worries about his big thing that we’re all going through, it’s understandable that sleep will be affected.”
As Joe also notes, the pandemic may also have upset our usual routines.
“The things we would normally doing in a certain order or a certain way has changed,” he says.
"Things like working from home, not socialising so much, changes in how we exercise – some people are exercising more and at different times of the day and these things, broadly speaking, are known to contribute to sleep difficulties.”
While everyone is unique and people need different amounts of sleep, not getting enough quality rest can have a negative effect on both physical and mental health.
“A lot of people notice that if they’ve had a poor night’s sleep their concentration is affected, the clarity of their thinking,” says Joe.
“Racing thoughts and worries, low mood, irritability and stress – these things can all come from a poor night’s sleep.
“When I’m working with people doing cognitive behavioural therapy, where we see people go through periods where their sleep is poor, often their difficulties with low mood and anxiety become worse during that period as well.”
If you’re experiencing sleep difficulties, there are a number of things you can do to help.
Joe recommends paying attention to what is referred to as your ‘sleep hygiene’ - your habits and routines around sleep.
“There’s a lot of research on this and one broad thought is that the two or sometimes four hours before you go to bed are quite important in determining how well you will sleep and the quality of sleep – how restful and restorative it is,” says Joe.
Here he shares seven things that you should and shouldn’t do.
1. Look at what you eat and drink – especially your caffeine intake
Avoid eating a heavy meal in the two to four hours before bedtime. The stimulant caffeine is a well-known culprit when it comes to disrupted sleep. And it’s not just in coffee, tea, fizzy drinks and chocolate. “Caffeine is in a lot of products that people sometimes don’t realise, such as processed foods and medications,” says Joe. “It’s very important to look at what the content is.”
2, Avoid overstimulating your mind
Hands up if you’ve been spending more time scrolling through the headlines on your phone late into the evening during the pandemic. Us too. But, says Joe, to get ready for sleep our brains need to relax before bedtime rather than being stimulated. “Working later or reading things that are quite taxing or stimulating can have an impact on your mind being busy before you go to bed,” says Joe. “This also applies to things like conversations with friends and family and use of smartphones and certain apps. Almost think of those two to four hours as a protected time that is going to be quite important in terms of how well you’re going off to sleep.”
3. Avoid alcohol
While alcohol might initially help you get off to sleep, a few hours later the effect will be quite the opposite. “Alcohol is a depressant substance,” says Joe. “It can be quite easy to drop off to sleep when you’ve drunk alcohol, but what we do know is that when that wears off your central nervous system is then very much awake and it can lead to frequent waking. People may be using the loo more in the night too, which can cause disruption.”
4. Exercise regularly – but not too near to bedtime
Getting regular cardiovascular exercise is recommended for a healthy lifestyle, but fit this in earlier in the day rather than in the evening.
5. Set your bedroom up for a good night’s sleep
“The sleeping environment is a very important thing and there are a few things that you can do to potentially make your sleeping environment slightly more conducive to a good night’s sleep,” says Joe. “Take an approach that the bedroom is for sleeping only, so remove things from that setting that are going to interrupt your sleep, like sources of white noise or devices,” he continues. “Even certain reading materials or books that when you get engaged with them they’re not very conducive to sleep. Keep your phone in another room and maybe your alarm clock.”
Temperature is also important – ideally, says Joe, it should be just below the usual room temperature of 21 degrees and, of course, it needs to be ask dark as possible. Blackout blinds or curtains might be the answer, especially during the summer when the sun rises early. “It’s a little bit like doing an audit of your sleeping environment – think about what could be in there to interrupt your sleep.”
6. Try not to get preoccupied if you haven’t got off to sleep
“Sometimes one of the things that can contribute to a difficulty with sleep can be a preoccupation with either getting off to sleep or waking, so often people are going to bed with that pressure or that concern that they may not get the sleep that they want,” says Joe.
“That can lead to a lot of anxiety, but something’s that shown to be helpful is, if you haven’t dropped off to sleep within around 30 minutes, get up and get out of the environment and go to another room. Do something lightly engaging like reading or watching something that isn’t going to stimulate you too much until you feel tired enough to go back to sleep. So you're only getting into bed when you're very tired and you're not sitting there clock watching.”
7. Learn some relaxation techniques
If you’re finding it hard to get your mind to switch into sleep mode, you could try learning some applied relaxation techniques. “Relaxation exercises like progressive muscle relaxation [a technique which involves tensing and relaxing muscles as you breathe in and out] is shown to be quite effective with helping somebody get off to sleep and that’s something we can teach people or point them in the right direction of how to learn once they get in touch with us,” says Joe.
How to access help
A variety of sleep specific resources from Suffolk Wellbeing Service and Norfolk and Waveney Wellbeing Service can be accessed via wellbeingnands.co.uk and clicking on the county you live in.
They include an Improving Sleep webinar, CBT techniques and the online and interactive Living Life to the Full self-help programme, which includes a module on getting a better night’s sleep.
You can self-refer without going through your GP and resources are available to over 16s on any device.