Sleepless in Sydney: How to Optimise Sleep – Part 2

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BY JESSICA INMAN-HISLOP

Following on from last week’s post (read it here), Jessica Inman-Hislop shares more tips to help you get the best possible sleep and eliminate any bad habits.

Pre-sleep Routine and Sleep Environment

Sleep is a bit like Goldilocks, and needs things to be ‘just right’. The things we do before and when we go to bed are important for helping us initiate sleep without tossing and turning for hours on end. Here are some tips for increasing our chances of success:

  1. Stop engaging in highly stimulating activities at least 2 hours before bed (e.g. intense exercise, dealing with work emails, having important discussions with partners or housemates).
  2. Stop consuming stimulants and alcohol at least 2 hours before bed (e.g. coffee, chocolate, tea). Stimulants impact our ability to fall asleep, and alcohol impacts our sleep quality.
  3. Reduce light exposure 1 hour before bed. This encourages the release of melatonin. Use dim lights, avoid electronic devices, or at the least eliminate blue light from devices by installing an app that reduces blue light.
  4. Engage in a gentle, soothing activity, such as gentle stretches or night time yoga routine, listen to soft music, or read a light novel.
  5. Make sure your bedroom is cool, quiet and dark. Noise will keep us amped up, light impacts melatonin production, and lower body temperature makes us sleepy. Wear light clothing and avoid hot showers just before bed.
  6. Only use your bed for sleep (and sex). This helps our brain develop a strong association between the bed and sleepiness.
  7. Reduce body discomfort (have a light snack so as to be not too hungry and not too full; wear pyjamas with non-scratch materials, find a pillow density that suits your sleep position, ensure hands and feet are worm, and use the toilet to avoid midnight awakenings).

 

Morning Routine

Our morning routine has important implications for our sleep quality too. Here are some things to try to optimise your sleep routine:

  1. Don’t hit that snooze button! Oversleeping reduces our sleep pressure for the next night, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Try putting your alarm clock or phone on the other side of the room to avoid the tendency to roll back over.
  2. Open the curtains. Getting sunlight exposure in the morning helps to reset our body clock and increase melatonin levels at night.
  3. Have breakfast. A good-sized meal ensures that we won’t experience a significant drop in energy and attention early in the day.
  4. Get active! Exercise reduces overall levels of daytime sleepiness and stress, and improves sleep quality in general, and morning exercise is a great way to wake the body up.

 

To Nap or Not to Nap?

It is common to experience dips in energy and body temperature during the day (around 2:30pm and 5pm), and napping is a common feature of people’s routines. However, napping reduces our sleep pressure, which increases our difficulties falling asleep. If you are extremely tired during the day, and this is impacting your functioning, limit your nap to 15-20 minutes. Napping for more than 30 minutes means we will likely enter a “deep sleep” phase, which takes away from our sleep at night. Similarly, avoid going to bed earlier after a bad night sleep. Even if our sleep pressure is high, our body clock may prevent us from falling asleep, and it messes with our routine. It’s important to engage in regular sleep habits to strengthen our body clock rhythm.

Troubleshooting Sleep

Unfortunately, try as we might, we can’t force sleep. If you’ve been awake in bed for more than 15 minutes, get up and engage in a relaxing activity until you start to feel sleepy. Repeat this procedure if needed. This reduces the likelihood that our brain will develop an association between our bed and feeling frustrated.

If worries or negative thoughts are keeping you up or waking you in the middle of the night, there are a few things you can try:

  1. Write down the thoughts, and “park” them for later (it’s must easier to problem solve or challenge our negative thoughts in the morning).
  2. Practice a simple relaxation exercise, such as focusing on slowing your breathing
  3. Try a simple distraction technique, such as counting down from 100, counting coloured sheep (something not too stimulating), or creating soothing imagery (e.g. remembering a pleasant holiday or memory, or imagining a future pleasant event).
  4. If your worries are about not getting to sleep, this makes us feel anxious, which makes it even harder to fall asleep, creating a vicious cycle. Try to replace your anxious thoughts with calmer thoughts (e.g. instead of “if I don’t fall asleep right now I’ll feel so tired that I won’t be able to function at all tomorrow”, say “It’s okay if I feel tired tomorrow, I’ve been tired before, it was hard but I was able to cope”).
  5. If you experience highly distressing negative thoughts at night, it is important to have a support plan in place (e.g. someone to call at night; crisis line numbers in your phone, such as Lifeline 13 11 14).

 
Finally, if you continue to experience significant difficulties falling asleep, or experience frequent nightmares, additional support may be required, such as psychological therapy or a sleep study. Speak to your GP about which option would be most appropriate for you.

Jessica is a clinical psychologist registrar with experience working in private practice, inpatient and outpatient mental health care, and university settings. She provides individual and group therapy for adults and adolescents presenting with a wide range of mental health difficulties including depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, and difficulties with emotion regulation, stress management, social skills, and school stress. Jessica completed her clinical psychology training at the University of Technology Sydney, and has presented research at national conferences.


 

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