How to get better sleep so you can start off 2021 as you mean to go on!

Sleep issues are highly prevalent, with an estimated 1/3 of UK women suffering from insomnia at some point in their lifetime, and an astonishing 60% of women having sleeping difficulties since the beginning of the pandemic.  

As we wind down 2020, disrupted schedules due to unexpected changes to work and home routines, short and dark winter days, and the added stress of the upcoming holiday season all add up to increasing the risk of experiencing sleeping troubles. The good news is that both short and long term sleeping issues can be helped using evidence-based approaches to help you get better sleep – so you can start 2021 off on the right foot.

Many of us are spending more time at home, whether due to home working arrangements, finding it challenging to go out during foul weather, or because we take a bit more time off during the holiday season. These circumstances foster a more sedentary lifestyle, and generally speaking we are not getting as much physical exercise as we might have otherwise.

This relatively lower level of activity has important near term consequences for our sleep quality. The more physically active we can be, the more sleep pressure we build during waking hours, which helps increase the depth and quality of our sleep. Being more physically active over a longer part of the day – even if indoors – can help improve our sleep quality as well as our daytime mood, productivity, lateral thinking and creativity. Increasing sleep pressure through physical activity is one way to improve sleep in the short term, even for those with longstanding sleeping problems. Longer-term, our physical activity level has other physical and mental health benefits as well.

An evening buffer zone before bed is very helpful, though sometimes challenging to achieve. A buffer zone a period in the evening set aside for relaxing before bed, and ideally during these periods we avoid work, future planning and the potential mental stimulation of activities like watching the news and scrolling on social media. All of these activities can increase our mental activity and stress levels, even if they are not obviously stressful or anxiety-provoking – and can make it challenging to wind down for sleep with a quiet mind.

Those who struggle to quiet their mind before sleep can employ many different strategies to aid in reducing their thoughts, ideas, worries and plans well before bedtime. Some include ending the working day with planning the next day or with writing down concerns and any next actionable steps to resolve them, and purposefully setting those notes and plans aside for the night and engaging in relaxing, low stimulation activities before bed.  Externalising your thoughts and feelings can help make them less likely to infringe into sleep time in the short term, and forming a habit of doing this can help with sleep in the long term as well.

Significant longer-term sleep improvements are frequently found by fostering a positive relationship with bed during sleepless spells and keeping a consistent schedule. Stressful periods affect us all, but both of these key factors can point short term sleeplessness back toward healthy sleep, or promote longer-term sleeping problems.

Keeping a reasonable sleeping schedule can be a challenge when we are out of our routines.  Increasingly dark and cold winter mornings, in combination with more flexible working schedules, have left many tempted to sleep in later than usual on occasion. If you have no general sleeping difficulties, this doesn’t tend to be a problem.  However, if you have ongoing sleep trouble, those lie-ins can create issues for nighttime sleep.  The longer people are in bed being physically inactive, the less sleep drive they are building for the next night – and this is especially true if you are in bed ‘trying to catch up’ on sleep.  This relative lack of sleep drive can make you more wakeful longer, resulting in falling asleep later in the evening, which in turn makes it more difficult to wake in the morning. Irregular wake up times resulting from these shifting sleep patterns can also create confusion with our built-in sleep-wake cycle, as it will no longer have strong cues tied to a regular wake up time.  The simple way to prevent both sleep drive deficits and sleep-wake cycle confusion is to ensure that you wake up and start your day consistently.

The most important factor associated with long term good sleep is the maintenance of a healthy relationship with our bed. Our bed becomes strongly associated with sleep as a result of years of reinforcing a physical and psychological association that ties sleepiness feelings to the bed. This is unconscious and happens simply because we typically only sleep in our bed.

We weaken our bed-sleep association when we bring other things into bed, for example, working on a laptop, or tossing and turning with worry. Our previously strong relationship that cues bed and sleeping together becomes one of occasionally sleeping and occasionally being awake doing stressful thinking, watching the news, and scrolling on social media.  This weakening of the bed-sleep relationship can create challenges with falling asleep and staying asleep, which creates a vicious circle of worrying about not sleeping and irregular ‘catching up’ sleeping behaviours. One very well evidenced piece of advice in the sleep world is that if you find yourself awake in the night tossing and turning, and it’s safe to do so, get up and bring your wakeful energy someplace else. The suggestion is to spend some time doing an enjoyable activity that helps you pass the time, and you can then go back to bed when you’re sleepy, thereby reinforcing that bed-sleep relationship.

Getting sleep back on track in the short and long term will see you into and through 2021 with improved mood, concentration and creativity.

Tracy HanniganAbout the author

Tracy Hannigan is the director of Tracy The Sleep Coach, and as a sleep specialist with a background in psychology and community mental health, she helps adults with insomnia enjoy sound sleep using proven and evidence-based strategies, so they can reclaim the active and vibrant lives they want and deserve.

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