It’s something we all need and impacts our day when we don’t get it. Sleep.
Not just sleep but the meaningful rest that gives our body the chance to recover and repair and our brain the chance to process and relax. Our bodies and minds are reliant on the process of sleep to hit the ‘reset’ switch and do this thing called life all over again the next day.
There are many ways in which our sleep can be disrupted. Whether it be difficulty in getting to sleep, difficulty in staying asleep or nightmares, all affect our energy levels, perceived ability to cope and mood and motivation the next day.
Why do we sleep and what does good sleep look like?
So, its important to understand what the purpose of sleep is and what good sleep looks like before we look at the problems with sleep.
It is recommended that adults get between 7-9 hours of sleep at a time. Whether you are at the lower or higher end of that scale is personal to you, but it is how much sleep you need to get up all set to face the day ahead.
During this 7-9 hour block we go through different stages of sleep which take us through where we are sleeping lightly and have some awareness of the world outside our eyelids into deep sleep where an alarm could go off and you wouldn’t know it.
Why do you need to know this? Well, these different stages of sleep do different things. At the deepest stages of sleep our body is recovering, recuperating and re-setting. Not getting enough deep sleep means you get up the next and it feels like your body has gone 10 rounds in the boxing ring. The germs and bugs you have been fighting off the last few days have taken up residency and your body feels sluggish and does not want to cooperate with simple daily tasks.
The lightest stage of sleep is known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep. Here, your mind processes the events of the day and attempts to put them in order and make sense of them so it can file it away. Without this stage of sleep, past events can roam freely in your mind, circling like a whirlpool of thoughts and worries so that your mind feels restless and noisy all the time.
Dreaming and nightmares
An important part of sleep is dreaming. Dreaming occurs in the REM part of sleep and is the way our mind processes events. Dreams can be vivid, wacky or often unmemorable. They may not make sense and seem completely unrelated to what has happened in the day.
Dreams are not necessarily an accurate portrayal of what has occurred, they are a collection of images and ideas that the brain puts together in an attempt for it to work through and process what has happened. Once the dream is complete and the event processed, the event can be put away neatly.
Or put another way, Sleep is like a washing machine with the events of the day acting as a pile of dirty laundry which is put into the washing machine. The Dream cycle is activated and once the dream cycle is completed, the events come out clean and ready to be put away in the appropriate wardrobe, shelf or drawer.
However, as dreaming occurs in the lightest part of sleep, heightened feelings or arousal during the dream can easily wake us up. This is most common in nightmares, where something happens which scares us and this heightened emotional response pulls us out of sleep.
The thing is, a nightmare is just a dream. It works the same way as dreams. It is an attempt to process something difficult, scary or painful. The problem is, that because it scares us, we wake up before the dream cycle has completed and so the ‘dirty laundry’ that went in the sleep washing machine, comes out still being dirty and unready to put away. This means it needs to go back in the washing machine until the dream cycle has completed and it is clean enough (processed) to be put away.
Nightmares can often feel very scary and real and can make us feel fearful of going back to sleep. Some things you can do to help you cope with nightmares are:
Remind yourself that it is a nightmare. It is a dream about something that happened in the past. It is not happening now and you are safe.
Bring yourself back to the here and now by grounding yourself – using your senses to bring your mind to where you are, for example identifying objects in the room that are blue, counting how many different textures you can feel, listening to different sounds and identifying them. For other grounding strategies look at the ‘grounding techniques’ resource in the takeaway tips section of www.sianclairecounselling.com .
Keep a notepad by your bed and write down your nightmares. This may seem like the last thing you want to do, but it may help identify patterns or triggers which you can then look to challenge with support.
Allow yourself some comfort, in the form of a warming drink, cuddling a soft toy or wrapping yourself in a blanket. This will enable you to soothe your nervous system, calm your breathing and reassure your brain that you are safe.
You may find doing something like a meditation, yoga or listening to calming music helps your body and mind to relax, making returning to sleep easier.
If you find that you wake up at a certain point in the nightmare, you may find Justin
Havens Dream Completion Technique useful. The idea behind this is to prepare your mind with an ending for the nightmare which will allow you to complete the dream cycle and process and put away the content within it. So, if you identify waking up at a point of being chased by something scary, you may choose for your dream to morph into you running for the finish line at an Olympic 400m final. If your nightmare is of you getting shot, maybe the guns can be turned into cameras and the shot is someone taking your photo for a magazine. Whatever the ending is, write it down and then read it before going to be. For more on this technique either click on the link above or see the resources section at the bottom of the blog.
If you are having difficulty sleeping, establishing a routine which you stick to can be a good way to cue your body that it is time to settle down and sleep. Even if you work shifts, sticking to the same actions and routine before settling for sleep is important. Some things you could think about using are:
Before going to bed
Keep your bed for sleeping so that your min associates your bed with sleep and so feels sleepy when you lie in it. If you wake up in the middle of the night and know you won’t go back to sleep, get up and do something for 20 minutes and then return to your bed when you are ready to settle down to sleep.
Create an ideal sleeping space by ensuring:
Your room is at a comfortable temperature for you (ensure there are blankets nearby in case you get cold in the night)
It is dark enough. If light bothers you, try a sleep mask
If noise bothers you, ensure doors and windows are closed or try white noise/sleep sounds (available free at some apps) or earplugs
Have something comforting near you in case you wake up in the night
Have a glass of water by your bed in case you get thirsty in the night
Relax before bedtime by
Avoid strenuous exercise just before bed as this will make you more alert and awake. Ensure you have done enough physical activity throughout the day so you are tired at bedtime
Avoiding screens or focussing on anything overly stimulating or upsetting. Try reading, taking a hot bath or having a warm caffeinated drink instead.
Avoid eating anything sugary or rich for at least a couple of hours before bed
Try mindfulness, meditation, yoga or deep breathing exercises before bed
Use lavender oil on your pillow
Going to sleep
Write down any ‘to do’ lists so your brain doesn’t keep actively trying to remember them and keeping a notepad by your bed so any thoughts that take residence in your head at bedtime can be written down and addressed in the morning.
Try listening to calming music, nature noises or a soothing audio book – nothing to exciting, possibly something you have already read.
Sleep visualisations can help us relax. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a relaxing place – maybe laying on the beach listening to the waves, or sitting under a tree in a meadow listening to the birds singing.
Repetitive thought exercises can help send you to sleep, for example, counting sheet or imagining drawing a circle writing 99 in it, then imagining wiping it out and writing 98 and so on.
If you find that you can’t fall asleep or get back to sleep, instead of laying in bed and getting frustrated (remember we want your brain to associate bed with calm and sleep), get up and do something else for 20 minutes and then restart your sleep routine.
Owls and larks
It is important to also remember that there is no one single perfect way to go to sleep that suit everyone. We are all unique and different things work for different people. We also all have our own sleep pattern, which does not settle until we are adults, and knowing what your sleep pattern is can help you prepare for sleep and organise your day.
Research by Knutson & Schantz in 2018 found that 27% of people could be categorised as ‘larks’ or morning types whereas 9% could be categorised as ‘owls’ or evening types, with the remaining 64% falling somewhere in the middle.
Larks tended to feel wide awake first thing in the morning, meaning they felt able to eat breakfast early and tackle complex situations before midday, often getting tired as they approached mid-afternoon with the potential to fall asleep in front of the TV in the evenings.
Owls on the other hand, tend to struggle to wake up in the morning, possibly not fancying breakfast until later. As the day goes on, they feel more energised and able to tackle complex tasks later in the day. They will be awake later into the evening.
With the Western world predominantly conforming to a 9-5 work structure, society seems to be orientated around the larks. This is encapsulated by the popular phrase “the early bird captures the worm”. However, this has consequences for the Owls among us trying to fit themselves into a larks world. In fact, an Owl type trying to eat and work in the same way as a lark will find themselves more deprived of sleep and in turn find their health impacted.
Although you cannot change your sleep pattern, you can tweak it to fit in with the demands society place on your routine. For example, if you are an owl who consistently goes to bed late and struggles to get up in the morning, you may want to set an alarm in your phone to remind you to go to sleep slightly earlier, thereby enabling you to get your 7-9 hours sleep block.
Similarly, it may be helpful to set morning alarms as an Owl to ensure you get up when you need to and avoid getting into the habit of oversleeping.
For larks and owls, planning complex tasks for when you are most alert and mundane tasks for when your energy levels are typically low will ensure you work efficiently and effectively.
Sleep is vital for us humans to maintain physical and metal wellbeing. Knowing your sleep patterns and establishing routines which work for you ensures you maximise your alertness during the day and can prepare your body for the state of sleep. Creating routines forms associations with your behaviours and your brain and cues it for calm and sleep so getting to sleep becomes a relaxing process instead of a source of frustration. Finally, understanding the dream machine and how it works empowers you to take control of unpleasant dreams and plan dream endings to ensure the dream cycle completes and that memories and events can be put away until you to choose to explore them again.
Sleep Hygiene tips: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/how-to-get-to-sleep/
Sleep hygiene and sleep meditations: https://www.headspace.com/sleep/sleep-hygiene
The Dream Completion Technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lv38dzpcxfA
Sleep noise apps - https://insighttimer.com/meditation-topics/sleep
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