Caroline Crotty B.Soc.Sc. MA (Counselling and Psychotherapy) works with adults and adolescents in Cork City and at Dr Denis Cotter and Dr Joan Lynch’s Surgery, Newtown, Bantry. Caroline also provides wellbeing talks and workshops to community, education and corporate sectors.
Over the years, having worked with people experiencing various sleep difficulties (including her own nights spent staring at the ceiling), Caroline has learned several techniques, which help with falling asleep and returning to sleep once woken.
One of the first and most important things to put into practice when trying to improve sleep is to set and stick to a bedtime routine. Go to bed and get up at the same time. Even on weekends or days off allow yourself only a one-hour lie-in. I know that this might not be possible if you work shifts or have small children but try to stick as closely as you can to a routine.
Do the same thing every night so you are sending signals to your body that you are preparing for sleep. Have a wind-down time, put on your bed clothes, brush your teeth, cleanse, moisturise, read a book but avoid your mobile, computer and all forms of screens before sleep time (I’ll explain why hereunder). Having a shower before going to bed can help you sleep. After a warm shower our core body temperature drops, which helps us feel sleepy.
Avoid caffeine if you are trying to get a good night’s sleep. Not only is it found in coffee and tea, but also in cola, chocolate and energy drinks. I love my morning coffee and I do know it is a stimulant but I’m addicted! If you also love an early morning coffee, simply have it but avoid all caffeine from midday onwards. Even if you easily fall asleep at night, caffeine affects the quality of your sleep. In fact, going without caffeine for just one day can improve your sleep.
It may seem like we get a great night’s sleep if we have been drinking alcohol but, in reality, the quality of our sleep is impaired. We fall straight into a deeper sleep if we have had alcohol but we miss out on our initial sleep phase. Never drink alcohol to unwind, relax or to help you sleep because alcohol disrupts dreams, diminishes sleep quality and is linked to anxiety and depression.
Is your bedroom conducive to a good night’s sleep? Is it a nice relaxed area? Try to keep bedroom temperatures cool – neither too warm nor too cold. Try to keep your bedroom clear of clutter so that it is comfortable and you need to access your bed without tripping over things! Bedrooms are easier to clean and keep tidy when they are de-cluttered.
At night, bedrooms should be free from technology and bright lights. This is important for sleep because light affects the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps you get a great night’s sleep. In fact, melatonin will not be produced (by the pineal gland) unless there is only dim or no light. If you watch television in bed, your brain will associate bed with the stimulus of TV (i.e. with being awake) and not with sleep therefore watching television in bed is a habit worth breaking.
Be kind to you
Beds are for adult fun and for sleep, but bed is not a place for worry or stress. If you are unable to fall asleep do not panic – there is no need to increase anxiety levels. Talk to yourself calmly; reassure yourself that your body will take care of sleep when it needs to. You will not stay awake forever. Do not start counting the hours until you have to get up. Do not start thinking, ‘If I get back to sleep now I’ll only get three hours sleep and I’ll be exhausted tomorrow!’ Soothe yourself with the idea (which is true) that you will catch up on sleep tomorrow night.
Learn relaxation skills
Calm breathing is a wonderful sleeping aid – there is a plethora of information available on line (or carolinecrotty.ie/calm-breathing/) Keeping a journal can also be a great way to relax especially keeping a daily gratitude journal wherein you write three positive things every evening for which you are grateful – these do not have to be earth-shattering and can be as simple as ‘I took time to enjoy the drive home from work today’ or ‘I had a lovely dinner this evening’. Learn to be grateful for the little things in your day because this fosters positivity (and who doesn’t want to be more positive?)
Busy your busy brain
When you are in bed, listen to and concentrate on your breathing by counting on inhalation, holding and exhaling. Often people feel tired but their minds keep on thinking of things that delay/stop sleep. Rather than thinking of worries while you lie in bed, try listing or counting.
Adding numbers to each other works for me – 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 …and so on until I make a mistake and must start again. The objective is that my mind gets tired and I fall asleep and it works. If numbers are not your thing, perhaps try listing every car or boy’s name that you know starting with the letter A and work your way through the alphabet through to Z. For example, Adam, Brian, Charlie, Dean and so on. If you go awry – start again. The idea is your mind is engaged, it gets tired and you fall asleep. Your mind also makes an association – this is what I do just before I sleep. After listing or counting night after night (in other words after patience and practice), your mind will associate adding or listing with sleep. Be consistent, try the same thing every night for at least a week before trying something new.
The jury is out on naps! Some experts say avoid naps at all costs and others say naps are awesome! If you have small children and they keep you awake at night, or you are up with animals birthing then you need to sleep when you get the opportunity because your nighttime sleep is broken. For others, if you really want to nap then do not do so for too long (i.e. no longer than half an hour) and not after 3.00pm because napping during the day may interfere with nighttime sleep. It is ideally best to get to bed early if you are so tired that you need to sleep during the day.
If your alarm is sounding every morning but you feel like you have only just climbed into your bed, then you may need more sleep. Instead of setting the alarm to go off even earlier to allow you time to adjust to getting up, simply go to bed earlier every night until you wake with a rediscovered zest for life.
Exercise is great for sleep but not too late in the day. The same can be said for eating late – give your body time to digest your food before heading to bed, however, do not go to bed hungry as that can also disturb sleep. Eat a snack if you are peckish before bedtime. In my experience, it is best to avoid phone calls at nighttime especially if they cause stress. Get out of the house/office/car and get some daylight, every day, because sun, even through the clouds, benefits both our mood and sleep.
Keep a pen and writing pad beside your bed – if you wake in the middle of the night because of a worry or because you need to remember something write it down and deal with it the following morning. Keep a note of the worries that are preventing you from falling asleep and over the following days make a plan to tackle them. Always attempt to be solution-focused – ask yourself what you can do to change your situation or seek the advice of others if you cannot think of a solution – I always say ‘start talking and keep talking’.
Keeping notes in your mobile is not the same as writing in a notebook/writing pad because accessing your mobile in bed may encourage you to stay awake reading online or to flick through social media sites. Try to remember that in order to get a good night’s sleep we are attempting to keep bedrooms free of screens and that includes mobiles!
Sleep is important because it helps our immune system, regulates our mood and helps to restore our bodies and brains. The results of poor sleep include increased blood pressure, higher stress, impaired memory and slower brain functioning; general forgetfulness; reduced ability to function in our day to day lives – in other words ‘Sleep Is Important’.
The above are some tips to help improve sleep. We each need differing amounts of sleep so it may be an idea, if you have difficulty sleeping for a prolonged period of time to speak with your doctor or medical advisor as this article is for information purposes only.
If you would like to speak to Caroline you can call her on 087 7107 032 or visit www.carolinecrotty.ie