Last year, as part of my treatment for a long term health condition, I was introduced to the concept of ‘sleep hygiene.’
At first, I was both confused and insulted! Was my doctor insinuating that I was getting poor sleep because my bed was somehow dirty or uninhabitable? How very dare he!
But no, he wasn’t. Sleep hygiene is actually the recommended set of behavioural and environmental practices intended to promote better quality sleep.
I have suffered with sleep issues for as long as I can remember. Some of that is due to my very complex (much longer post on this to come in the future) set of medical conditions – but of course a lot of it is also down to lifestyle and routine.
Some of my more common sleep issues include:
- Difficulty getting to sleep (particularly switching my brain off)
- Difficulty staying asleep (waking multiple times in the night)
- Sleeping for too long in the day / never really feeling alert.
Now as I said, a lot of this (for me at least) is medical. However I thought I would let you know the top 5 things I have done recently to change my sleep hygiene practices that have actually been really helpful, hopefully they might help you too.
I haven’t included anything in here about getting a regular sleep pattern because every time I read that it makes me want to punch something. I, like millions of others, work shifts. Whilst it would be lovely to get a ‘consistent’ bed time – that would mean losing my job, and as a result, probably losing A LOT more sleep! There are also millions of parents out there who would like a consistent bed time, but hey, as if children care about their mums and dad catching all the ZzzZs!
But here are some easy changes I have made with minimal upheaval:
Remove all clocks from the bedroom
As someone with an ‘active’ mind (to put it lightly!) if I am struggling to sleep, I tend to clock watch. I get myself into this horrible cycle of ‘oh I now only have X amount of hours left before I have to get up’ and it creates a very tense atmosphere. So, now my phone goes under the bed out of reach (where I can still hear it for my alarm in the morning) and I have taken the batteries out of all my bedroom clocks, so I know I can’t check the time even if I want to.
Create a ‘grounding’ and comforting space.
If you’ve ever suffered from night terrors, you’ll know how horrid it is to not know if you are awake or asleep, or if you are actually in your own bedroom or somewhere else entirely. This is a big problem for me, so I’ve created a couple of sensory ‘bases’ to ground me and remind me I am in a safe and secure place. The first is a smell. Thanks to my lovely best friend I now have a ‘sleep spray’ which not only helps me to relax and drift off to sleep, but also helps me associate with my surroundings if I wake in a panic. I’ve been using and would highly recommend this Lavender sleep mist (which comes as part of a sleep set) from Champneys. It’s currently half price in boots! I also have a faux fur bed throw which I sleep under if I am anxious. It sounds so childish but believe me, these small comforts can go a very long way in difficult times.
Limit screen half an hour before bed.
This is the hardest one for me by a mile. I’m a TV-aholic, I’m a social media addict, and I’m never far away from my phone. BUT, this is the one thing I know is impacting my sleep more than anything else. Watching intense programmes is stimulating my brain not helping it to relax, having stressful conversations with family and friends over WhatsApp or text message at midnight fills me with anxiety before trying to switch off, and we all know The blue light emitted by screens on phones, computers, tablets, and televisions restrain the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle or circadian rhythm. So, I am trying my best to cut out some if not all of these from my night time routine – the phone being the first thing to go. I asked for lots of poetry books for Christmas, and am currently reading Milk and Honey By Rupi Kaur. It puts me in a much more sedate and philosophical mood before bed!
Exercise at the right time.
This was a massive mistake that I was making. In my less than logical mind, I assumed, that if you work out before you go to bed – you’ll knacker yourself out, and hey presto it’s off to the land of nod! But alas no. While it is true that as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can drastically improve nighttime sleep quality, for the best night’s sleep, most people should avoid strenuous workouts close to bedtime. This does apparently vary massively from person to person, but jacking up your heart rate and raising your core body temperature (as well as stimulating hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline) CAN impact on your ability to wind down. I try to exercise as soon as I get home from work now, at least 4 hours before going to bed.
Try a sleep aid app.
While I appreciate that five seconds ago I advised limiting screen time before bed, I do believe that it is worth having a quick flick through your phone or tablet’s app Store to see if there are any new apps that could help you sleep.
The market for insomnia aids is growing all the time – and varies hugely from apps that collect data on your sleep, to those that offer wind down practices and guided meditations, to simple white noise and nature sound apps.
Here are a few of my fave free options:
- Nature Sounds By Android. What I love about this app is that the sounds are customisable, You can for example add a bit more birds song or sound of a crackling fire – you create your own soundscape.
- Headspace on Android and IOS. Not just great as a sleep aid, but for mindfulness practice in general. Takes 10 minutes of your day and is seriously addictive. The first 10 sessions are free.
- Breathe on Android and IOS. This is a really good app based around the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It asks you to check in each day (both physically and emotionally) and then recommends a guided meditation for you – before checking in again to see if you are in a better space after said meditation.
Aside from all these tips, most importantly, take it one sleep at a time. I got into a habit recently of having ‘bad’ nights on Sundays. My brain programmed itself to think that Sunday = bad sleep night, so I would often get into bed in a heightened state of anxiety on a Sunday. Be kind to yourself, if you’re struggling to sleep don’t feel chained to the bed, get up and walk around. I often stand outside for five minutes as I find the night sky very relaxing. Just know above anything that you’re not alone, and if your sleep pattern is really making you unhappy or unwell, go and see your GP as they can really help.
Let me know if you try any of these and if they work for you, as well as any other tips.