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Over half of people living in the UK lose sleep at one time or another due to stress and anxiety, and up to 90% of people who suffer with depression also have poor sleep. In this guest blog, sleep and insomnia specialist Kathryn Pinkham shares some tips on improving your sleep.
Sleep and mental health issues come very much hand in hand. Often, we find that when we are under stress our sleep is the first thing to suffer. If we can't sleep well this will inevitably lead to increased worry about what might happen if we don't get much sleep. If we don't sleep we may feel low in energy and motivation which are also the symptoms of low mood or depression.
Over the past ten years of working in the field of mental health and sleep I have worked with hundreds of people and I often see that if we can help either the mental health concern or the sleep then it will have a positive impact upon the other.
Making a connection between bed and anxiety
One of the most common complaints people have when they can't sleep is they feel they can't switch off their minds. The more time we spend in bed thinking and ruminating, the more we connect our beds to these negative feelings.
Essentially, we teach ourselves to feel stressed and anxious in bed by continuing to reinforce the habit. We then spend more and more time awake in bed which disrupts our body clock and leads to further poor sleep.
The chatterbox in your mind
Most of us have found ourselves at some point lying in bed at night, wide awake worrying about something that happened during the day or might happen the following day. Those worries can trigger your adrenalin response which is an actual physical reaction to what you're thinking – and it can keep you awake.
A busy mind is one of the most common culprits in keeping us awake at night and there is something you can do straight away to help quieten your chattering mind.
It sounds simple but is honestly the most effective technique I've found to help people reduce their anxiety.
Write things down: it's really that simple
Make time to list daily everything that is on your mind. This can be a really effective way of getting some clarity around your thoughts. Start by allocating a short period of time each day to write down what you are worried about. Spend no longer than 20 minutes writing down everything that comes to mind. These can then be separated out into categories of 'real problems' and 'hypothetical problems'.
For example, a real problem would be 'I have made a mistake and lost my job and need a new one', whereas a hypothetical worry is 'what if I sleep badly and make a mistake, lose my job and can't find a new one?' Can you see how the second one is catastrophic and will lead to further sleeplessness as you try to avoid it happening?
For the real problems, problem solve and make plans; for the hypothetical, just learn to acknowledge them, write them down and let them go. Get into the habit of questioning and challenging your unhelpful thoughts. What is the evidence for them, how likely are they to happen and what is the most likely outcome. For example, how often have you lost a job as a direct result of poor sleep?
Ask yourself, "how is worrying about lack of sleep helping me?" We know it makes sleep harder to come by so try to replace worry with more helpful strategies to improve sleep. There are some quick changes you can make which will have a positive impact upon your sleep and in turn, help keep your mind healthy to.
Overcoming poor sleep
Don't spend too long in bed. When we are feeling low and tired the first thing we do is start going to bed earlier to try and increase our opportunity for sleeping. Instead, reduce the amount of time you spend in bed, go to bed later and get up earlier, this will encourage your body's natural sleep drive to kick in. By getting up early and getting the day started you will find you can improve your mood as staying in bed often makes us feel even worse.
Stop clock-watching. It very tempting to look at the clock every time we wake up to monitor how little sleep we are getting however, this increases the pressure to fall back to sleep and makes it less likely. Set your alarm for the morning then avoid looking at the time again.
Don't lie in bed awake. If you can't get to sleep or have woken up in the middle of night, get out of bed. The longer we lie in bed trying to fall back to sleep the more frustrated and anxious we become. This, in turn, means we begin to subconsciously relate bed to feeling stressed and being awake rather than asleep. Leave the bedroom and do something relaxing like read a book downstairs, then when you are tired go back to bed.
Being mindful means learning to disengage with your thoughts and treat them as visitors in your mind rather than being who you are. It sounds strange, but it does work. As your thoughts around sleep arrive in your head, notice them, acknowledge them, even write them down if you need to but then let them drift away and re-focus your attention on either your breathing or your surroundings, for example, smells or sounds.
You are not ignoring your worries but we have established that worrying is only making things worse so instead see them as separate to yourself and make the decision not to engage with them.
A little bit about Kathryn Pinkham
*Kathryn Pinkham is the founder of The Insomnia Clinic, the UK’s largest insomnia service which provide 1:1 treatment and a Sleep Well, Live Better Online Course. The Insomnia Clinic are experts at working with people who suffer with poor sleep to help them understand and improve their poor sleep, which in turn improves daytime functioning, physical and mental health. *
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