Tips for getting to sleep or back to sleep
Updated: Jun 17
I have had periods in my life when I struggled to get to sleep, and over the years have developed a variety of strategies. As a child I used to imagine a gentle bulldozer would slide across my bed and gently push my thoughts onto the floor, for me to pick up the next morning; or that whenever I noticed a tingling in any part of my body, this was a sign that that part was going to sleep as long as I stayed still. Looking back, I was actually practising awareness of thoughts meditation and a body scan without knowing it!
Most of us know that having a good sleep helps us feel more resilient and energised, is beneficial for things such as memory function and reduces our risk of dementia. Feeling tired in the day leads to irritability, strained relationships and can affect our physical health too. But this knowledge does not help us actually fall asleep. In fact, sleep problems can be made worse when we imagine how tired we’ll be the next day if we don’t get to sleep, and this just adds to our stress which makes it harder for us to drift off. It can be helpful to experiment with different strategies to help us find quality sleep, or get back to sleep if we wake in the night.
Harvard Medical School research into sleep
Harvard Medical School have undertaken various research studies into sleep and I’d like to share some of their findings. I have summarised the findings below if you don’t have time to read the full Harvard article about how to get to sleep.
Apart from the impact that lack of good sleep has on our days, Harvard researchers found that people who sleep less than five hours a night were twice as likely to go on to develop dementia compared to those who slept six to eight hours. Researchers in Europe found that people aged between 50 and 70 who regularly slept less than six hours a night had a 30% higher chance of dementia in later life. Nearly 20% of American adults report using a sleep medication to help them sleep, despite known side effects, and some people turn to alcohol.
Many factors that disrupt our sleep cannot be avoided, such as anxiety, work deadlines, shift work, caring responsibilities, illness or aspects of our sleep environment; however there are many things we can do to help us get to sleep, such as finding effective ways to deal with intrusive thoughts and to relax when feeling emotional. I’ve included a range of mindfulness techniques in a sleep blog which focuses on meditation exercises.
Meditation compared with changing habits to improve sleep
A few years ago JAMA Internal Medicine published an interesting study, based on people aged 49 and over, divided into two groups. Over a period of six weeks, both groups met weekly for two hours. One group learned meditation and other mindfulness exercises, and the other group were taught new habits to improve sleep, such as outlined below. After the trial, the group who had learned meditation reported less fatigue, insomnia and depression than the other group. According to Dr Herbert Benson, “Mindfulness meditation is a technique that can evoke the relaxation response.” Being able to notice and let go of intrusive thoughts that can disturb our sleep greatly helps us relax. Training our minds was found to be more beneficial than controlling our environment or daily routine.
So I recommend exploring mindfulness meditation to help you get to sleep, but you might also like to consider adjusting daily habits that could help. Many of these will be things you already know, but it can be useful to hear them again to encourage us to address habits that can lead to sleep difficulties.
What behaviours might you experiment with to promote sleep, and which might you reduce?
Tips for sleep – for evenings
1. Get up at a similar time each day.
2. Being caught up in overthinking does not help us drift off to sleep; so if you feel sleepy but your brain is consumed by thoughts, it can be helpful to write them down before trying to sleep. Or try one of our sleep meditations, a Body Scan or mindful breathing exercise.
3. Harvard Medical School suggest putting all electronic devices away two hours before bedtime.
4. Create a nurturing environment for sleep, somewhere dark and quiet if possible.
Tips for sleep – for during the day
1. Avoid or limit drinks with caffeine. Even a few cups at the start of the day disrupt some people’s sleep at night.
2. Avoid or limit alcohol. Although alcohol can help you fall asleep, it might lead to more sleep difficulties during the night, such as needing the bathroom, and then make it hard to get back to sleep.
3. Smoking also makes it hard for us to unwind and fell asleep naturally. There are many resources than can help people give up smoking, and I recommend Jud Brewer’s Craving to Quit 21 day programme.
4. A regular daily schedule in terms of meals and exercise all help our body learn a rhythm which includes when we go to sleep.
5. If you’re struggling with chronic pain, or a mental health difficulty, do seek help rather than battle on alone.
Sleep problems are extremely common and there is a lot of help available.
If you’re struggling with insomnia and would like a conversation to see how mindfulness training might help, please send me a message.