The current pandemic has surrounded us with worry and uncertainty and many of us with mental health issues will be finding ourselves battling with increased anxiety and heightened stress levels. This, coupled with changes to our daily routines, can have a huge impact on our sleep such as struggling to fall asleep and waking in the night. This then impacts on us the next day as we feel lethargic, unhappy and irritable and sometimes barely able to function due to being so tired. Although I’ve had huge issues with insomnia in the past (and chronic restless leg syndrome), I’m actually sleeping really well right now due to a few different things that I’ve put in place. So, although I’m no sleep doctor or expert, I thought I would share my 5 best tips on how to get a good night’s sleep that have worked for me.
Journal writing as a way of putting the day to rest
This is a technique that I’ve been using off and on since I learnt about it in my CBT sessions. It’s particularly useful when you feel like your mind is overloaded and if anxious thoughts usually start for you as soon as you get into bed.
Choose a time when you feel it’s best for you to reflect on your day. This should be late enough that you have done any household chores and finished any sort of homework or studying but early enough that you can spend some time relaxing afterwards before heading up to bed.
Using a notebook or paper and pen rather than a laptop, begin by reflecting on your day and how you feel about how it went. Jot down a few of your thoughts, focusing on the main points, including what went well and what, if anything, is troubling you.
Next, write a to do list of things that you maybe planned on doing but didn’t get done or tasks that you might like to complete tomorrow or later on in the week. Getting it down on paper will mean it’s there for you tomorrow if you need to revisit it.
Now think about tomorrow – what are you looking forward to and what may cause you anxiety. Write down your schedule for the next day (looking back and your list from the above task). Also, make a note of anything in your planner that you need to enquire about or check out.
Now put your journal or paper to one side and focus on doing relaxing and unwinding activities of your choosing for the rest of the evening e.g. reading for pleasure, a craft activity, some yoga or meditation.
If any worries pop into your head when you get into bed, remind yourself that you’ve already dealt with them or have scheduled a time to focus on them tomorrow.
Avoid any type of stimulant later in the evening
We all know that coffee and regular teas contain caffeine and that you are best off avoiding them in the hours before bed, but have you ever thought about other drinks and foods that have a stimulating effect? Any drinks that contain a high level of sugar, for example hot chocolate, fizzy soft drinks such as coca cola or lemonade, and (unfortunately) many of my favourite liquors such as Archer’s, Baileys, Kahlua and Amaretto, will increase your energy levels – and that’s the last thing you need if you want a good night’s sleep. Also, alcohol of any kind will make you feel drowsy straight after drinking (making you think it’s perfect for making you tired) but also often causes night time waking e.g. with an urge to visit the bathroom, and changes to your sleep pattern such as to vivid dreams as a result of abrupt transitions between sleep stages.
High sugar desserts such as cookies, cakes and ice cream should also be avoided if you are eating quite late – in fact, eating late in the evening should really be avoided as, if you do, your body will still be processing your food when you lie down in bed and this can cause indigestion, reflux and other digestion problems which are certainly not going to help your sleep situation.
Another stimulant which commonly affects people is the use of electronic devices last thing before bed. The bright blue light being emitted from tablets, televisions and mobile phones is known to stop the production of melatonin which is the hormone responsible for your circadian rhythm AKA your body’s internal clock. Some phones and tablets have an option to put on a blue light filter and you can even create a schedule so that it is turned on between set hours. I still try to avoid using devices for at least an hour before bed and instead do some relaxing activities such as meditation, reading a paperback or doing some restorative yoga.
Use of social media shortly before retiring for the evening can also be a source of heightened stress levels. I’m sure we’ve all read something online which has incensed us or wound us up and made it very difficult for us to relax as a result. I try to avoid going on platforms like Facebook and Twitter after a certain time for this very reason.
Create an evening relaxation routine
Last week, I made a spread in my bullet journal that detailed an evening routine of relaxation techniques that I feel will help promote a feeling of restfulness in preparation for going to bed. I started by thinking about what my evenings have looked like in the past which have lead to a terrible night’s sleep and jotted down my ideas e.g. eat late and drink wine or cider after 9pm, get into a debate on a social media platform e.g. Facebook or Twitter, or read something controversial online, tackle chores just before bed, work on projects late into the evening etc. Then I thought about the complete opposite of this e.g. eating at a reasonable time, limiting alcohol intake and not drinking after 8pm (2 hours before bedtime), finishing chores by 8.30pm, journaling and putting the day to rest, doing a gentle yoga routine, completing a breathing meditation, silencing my phone, doing meditative activities such as colouring on, cross stitching or a jigsaw puzzle etc.
Obviously it takes weeks to establish a new routine but by writing it down, I think it reinforces your intention and makes you more likely to stick to it. You can also reflect on it as part of your evening journalling, for example, writing down that you woke up with a headache and detailing reasons why this might have happened, recording that you woke up feeling refreshed because you had a wonderful night’s sleep and why this might be the case.
Get some exercise but avoid anything aerobic for at least 2 hours before bed
I’ve found that I’m able to sleep so much better since developing a daily exercise routine. You don’t have to do something intense each day but a nice, brisk walk for around 30 minutes should help you feel less stressed and more relaxed by the time evening comes. Make sure, however, that you don’t do any exercises that get your heart rate up for a couple of hours before bed as this will leave you feeling energised and stimulated and actually delay your transition into sleep.
Get your bedroom environment just right
If there’s one piece of bedroom furniture worth investing some money on, it’s a decent mattress. We’ve tried various types over the years and at one point had a memory foam topped one but we found it made us too hot and this wasn’t conducive to sleep. We now have a ‘Posturepedic’ which provides amazing support, helps maintain good spinal alignment and is super comfortable. You should also think carefully about your pillows too as the kind you choose depends on your regular sleeping position i.e. if you are a back sleeper or side sleeper.
Another consideration is the temperature in your room. It’s suggested that the ideal is around 16-18 degrees Celsius (between 60 and 67 degrees farenheit) and that if your bedroom is too hot or too cold it may affect the drop in your body’s internal temperature and cause you to have disrupted sleep. During the warmer months, we get the sun coming in through the window on an afternoon so I often close the blinds and make sure the door is wide open to avoid it getting too hot in there. We also have different togs of duvet and a cotton sheet for different times of the year to ensure we’re cosy in the winter and not too hot in the summer.
Having your room nice and dark also helps you to sleep better and many people like to use blackout curtains or blinds for this reason. However, we prefer just to use dark and thick, well-lined curtains as we find that some natural light first thing (during the spring and summer months) helps you to wake up gradually – think about how difficult it is to drag yourself out of bed when it’s still pitch black in the winter months!
I hope this tips help you to get a restful night’s sleep. I know at the moment, with the lockdown restrictions, it might be hard to maintain a good bedtime routine but your body will thank you for it if you do.