Research released last week by Professor Jane Falkingham OBE and a team from the ESRC Centre for Population Change and Centre for Research on Ageing at the University of Southampton found that more people are being affected by sleep loss and sleep disturbances through the Covid-19 pandemic than were experiencing these issues over the last several years. These findings reflecting the increased stress levels and anxieties about health, financial consequences, changes in social life and daily routine. Any change to routine or circumstances can affect sleep, and the resulting sleep deprivation can then have knock-on effects for physical and mental health.
You might be forgiven for assuming that as lockdown eased, the sleep disturbances that came with it would also be easing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In ‘normal’ times, insomnia is already considered one of Britain’s biggest health problems, affects millions of people annually.
The root causes of insomnia are the often stress, anxiety and depression related. Poor sleep begins because a person is worried, stressed or anxious, which then leads to them having feelings of heightened stress, anxiety or depression during the day, which then further compounds their sleeping problems.
Sleep is important. In 2019 a leaked government green paper stated that researchers who analysed 25 years’ worth of sleep studies found that under 7 hours a night of sleep was associated with “increased risk of obesity, strokes, heart attacks, depression and anxiety”. The link, they wrote, between insufficient sleep and premature death was “unequivocal”. While this is important to know, please don’t use it as another thing to worry about in those wee small hours of the morning while you’re awake!
Long term sleep disturbances can actually cause mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. There are things that you can do to break the cycle and improve your sleep. This article outlines my top 3 tips to help you start sleeping soundly.
Signal to Your Body that it’s Safe
When you’re underslept, stressed, and on edge, it’s important to take things back to the essentials. Did you know that most of us don’t breathe properly? It doesn’t matter whether you’ve spent too many years sucking in your stomach to look better in constrictive clothing, or you’ve learned to breath shallowly because you’re perpetually stressed; the end result is the same. Short, shallow breaths that only inflate part of our lungs send a signal to our body and mind that we need to be on edge. Taking some time and consciously breathing deeply, allowing our belly to expand and contract with each breath sends the reverse message; it’s okay to relax and rest. Anecdotally I’ve heard that most people breathe twice as fast as is optimal, so really allow yourself to slow your breath down.
Breathing through your nose, rather than your mouth is important, as again the different channels of breath have been found to send different signals to our bodies. Practise this often. Ideally multiple times a day for 2 – 5 minutes at a time, and especially before bed. Marvel at the increased feelings of relaxation and wellbeing without doing anything else.
Discharge the excess energy
When we get stressed or anxious, our bodied flood with chemicals designed to prime us to fight whatever the threat is, or to run away. The problem with most modern day stressors is that we can’t run away from them and we can’t fight them, so we end up trapped in a situation where our body is flooded with stress hormones which keep us alert and vigilant and no way to discharge them.
Take up a form of gentle exercise like walking, yoga or cycling that gets your muscles moving and allows blood to move around your body. If you’re very stressed or anxious it’s possibly better to avoid intense exercise like HIIT as it can also release adrenaline and cortisol into your body, as you push yourself to the edge of your performance limits.
Create a Bedtime Routine
I’ve written before extensively about the importance of creating a night time routine that signals to your brain that it’s sleep time. Often we fill our day with activity, stress and worry, and don’t give ourselves time to wind down and discharge some of those feelings before attempting to transition into sleep.
The routine doesn’t have to be protracted, or complicated (although it definitely can be if that’s what you like! The goal is to give yourself time and space to switch between being ‘on’ and focusing on those exiting, heart pounding true crime shows or wrapping up those pesky last bits of the work day, to being ‘off’ and in a state that’s receptive to sleep.
Breathing and yoga are particularly good to incorporate into your night time routine, but I’ve worked with clients who have created routines as diverse as spending 20 minutes taking off their makeup and pampering themselves with lotions and potions to spending time writing down reflections and thoughts about the day to listening to meditation or hypnosis recordings. The trick is to find activities that work for you, that you enjoy and that you’ll do regularly to create that sense of routine.
Implementing these tips is often enough for people to experience a significant improvement in their sleep. However, if the patterns of insomnia and broken sleep due to worry have become ingrained it can take a little more to unlearn them.
Helping people get more sleep is a bit of a passion of mine. I strongly believe that it’s the foundation upon which the rest of our lives are built. If we aren’t sleeping well, we don’t handle stress as well, our immune systems are lowered making us more susceptible to disease and illness, and we just generally aren’t our best selves.
If you’re struggling. Let me help.