Let’s talk about sleep…

Dr Rebecca Dodson
When feeling a bit stressed, it’s not unusual to notice changes to your sleep. Spending the night tossing and turning can be so frustrating and we all know how rubbish it feels to wake feeling unrefreshed. If this sounds like you, don’t worry, there are plenty of things to try that might help.

First, let’s talk about what’s “normal”. We all think we know how much sleep we need. 8 hours a night right? Wrong! Sleep isn’t a one size fits all kind of thing. Some people are fine with 6 hours, some people need 10. We often find that we need less sleep as we get older, so what was normal for you 10 years ago might not be what you need now. The more active you are in the day, the more sleep you might need to compensate. The key to knowing if you are getting enough sleep is to think about how you feel in the daytime. If you wake feeling refreshed and aren’t tired during the day, you’re getting the perfect amount of sleep for you.

Now let’s talk about what happens when we sleep. We call this the sleep cycle. You might have heard of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is the part of sleep where we dream. REM sleep only accounts for about 20% of our time asleep.

The rest of the time we are in non-REM sleep, which cycles between lighter and deeper sleep. The full cycle lasts about 90 minutes so we get through several cycles each night. It’s normal to wake up at the end of each cycle, roughly every 90 minutes. We sometimes remember this waking but sometimes it’s so quick that we don’t. If you find that you wake up briefly several times in the night but drift back off easily, this is probably normal.

If you are still worried about your sleep, what can you do? Here are some top tips that might help you out!

  • Establish a routine. Try to stick to consistent bedtimes and wake up times. Don’t nap during the day.
  • Have an active day and up your exercise so you’re more likely to feel tired at bedtime. However, avoid exercising too close to bedtime as this can have the opposite effect!
  • Develop a bedtime routine. It works for kids and it works for us too! Gear your brain up for sleep by doing something relaxing in the last hour before your head hits the pillow. Dim the lights and read a book, listen to calm music or have a warm bath. Avoid electronic devices as the blue light they emit wakes our brain up – the opposite of what we want!
  • Avoid other stimulants before bed. Cut out cigarettes – the nicotine will keep you up. Alcohol might make you feel sleepy initially but you’ll probably find yourself waking up more later in the night. Switch your drinks to decaf for the last 6 hours of the day. Say goodbye to your late-night chocolate fix – this contains caffeine too!
  • Make the bedroom a relaxing and appealing place to sleep. Cut out excess noise with ear plugs, especially if you share with a snorer! Make sure the room is dark enough – try a sleep mask or black out blinds. Check the temperature – do you need to strip off or add extra layers to feel comfy?
  • Make sure your brain knows what the bedroom is for – sleep and sex only please. Don’t be tempted to watch TV or crack open the laptop and start on your work emails.
  • Get up if you’ve not fallen asleep after 20 minutes of trying. It’s not your time yet! Listen to relaxing music or read a book for a bit longer then try again when you feel sleepy.
  • Try not to lie there worrying about sleep. This will just make things worse as your thoughts race and your muscles tense. Tell yourself you know you will sleep eventually. Stay calm, put sleep out of your mind and daydream about something happy. Take deep breaths in and out. You could also try mindfulness techniques to connect to the moment – what can you see, smell, hear, feel? There are lots of good apps that can help with this.
  • If you’re really struggling with lots of thoughts coming into your head, put a pad at the side of your bed and when they crop up, write them down. Tell yourself that you can forget about them now and know you can pick them up tomorrow if you need to.
  • Try to avoid sleeping tablets. They are occasionally OK as a quick fix but won’t help long term. Your body will get used to them very quickly and need stronger doses to get the desired effect. It’s very easy to get addicted to them and they generally aren’t recommended. Try the other tips above first, and if these aren’t working speak to your GP. Likewise, if something else is stopping you sleeping – for example, pain, hot flushes, frequent urination, breathing problems – speak to your GP so they can check for underlying health conditions.

Wedding top tip: On the night before your wedding you are bound to feel excited or maybe a little nervous. To try to stop this affecting your sleep, start your bedtime routine early with some extra relaxation time added in. A nice warm candlelit bath with soothing music and lavender scents would definitely do the trick for me! Don’t let yourself worry about things that might go wrong – remember you’ve spent all that time planning for a reason! Instead focus on the happiness that is about to come your way and you’ll be dreaming in no time!

Thank you to Dr. Rebecca Dodson for sharing her expertise and wise words about sleep with us at Weddings on the Mind. For more info around getting better sleep, check out the Headspace ‘Guide to Sleep’ on Netflix.

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