How you can improve your sleep in six simple yet effective steps
In part two of the three-part series of articles focusing on tools for your body and mind wellbeing, sleep treatment techniques are offered.
Most of us are struggling to get a good night’s sleep. Recent survey data shows that at least a third of adults experience sleep problems including insomnia at least once a week, with females more affected than males (NICE, 2022). Sleep difficulties are also very prevalent in young people with more than one third of 11 to 16-year olds having problems getting to sleep, waking in the night, or waking early (NHS Digital, 2021). Sleep problems that are ongoing and persistent can have a huge impact on our day-to-day functioning and mental wellbeing. If this sounds familiar to you, then continue reading to learn more about some simple psychology-informed techniques that help manage and reduce sleep problems.
Explore the main sections:
How well are you sleeping?
Before we consider the approaches that help to improve sleep, it is useful to be fully aware of the nature of your sleep problems. This helps to establish a baseline measure of your sleep so that you can keep track of the impact of the sleep problems you experience. It will also help you to notice what specific interventions improve your sleep.
You might begin by asking yourself these questions:
Do you have difficulty falling asleep?
Do you struggling with staying asleep?
Do you have problems with waking too early?
If you have answered yes to any of these questions, then it might be helpful to rate the level of the sleep problem. For example using a scale such as: mild, moderate, severe, or very severe. Or, you might use a 1-10 scale where 1=mild sleep problem, 10=intense sleep problem, and 5 is the mid-way point.
These are some pointers to assess your sleep problems. For more information, you might like to look at the Insomnia Severity Index (Bastien et al., 2001).
How to improve your sleep
Step 1: get the right light
We know that our internal body clock uses light levels to regulate itself. As mirrored in nature and with our pets: we sleep when its dark, and we’re more alert when there is sunlight. So the first step in supporting better sleep is regulating your exposure to artificial light, especially during the evenings. Are you able to limit use of screens (television, computer, phones) before going to bed? Can you increase your exposure to natural light, for example by getting out in the daylight in the morning and during the day?
Step 2: get some movement
You might be wondering what exercise has to do with our sleep! Well, we know that being more physically active has a really good impact on being more able to settle off to sleep (and then stay asleep!). How can you incorporate more physical activity into your day? This doesn’t have to be a sports or fitness activity (although those definitely help), instead it might be taking a brisk walk, getting off the bus a few stops earlier, doing physically demanding activities like gardening or housework. If you are increasing your levels of physical activity, then it is a good idea to build these into the daytime (rather than late in the evenings).
Step 3: eat regular meals
This is another important element of our daily routines that has a strong link to our sleep quality, biological rhythms, and body clock. Eating regular meals throughout the day can support better sleep, as well as avoiding big meals later in the evenings. Eating regularly helps build a healthy and predictable daily rhythm and routine for our body.
Step 4: reduce substances
Consider your overall intake of stimulating substances: caffeine and nicotine. Due to the very stimulating effect of them, they will contribute to your level of alertness which in turn has an impact on our ability to sleep. How might you limit these substances, especially in the evenings? Whilst we’re talking about substances, we also need to think about alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant substance so has a very different effect on our body and mind. It can have negative consequences for our sleep cycle and quality of sleep.
Step 5: develop a sleep-enhancing evening routine
Our evenings will support our sleep if we are doing things that help us feel calmer before we go to bed. What’s more, we need to establish regularity and repetition with our restful evening routine so that our body and mind learns these signals for settling off to sleep. We are learning to associate our evenings with restfulness. What helps you feel calm? What will help you to wind-down in the evenings?
Step 6: teach yourself to associate bed with sleep
Consider exploring these areas to build a pro-sleep routine:
Keep regular sleep hours: decide on appropriate times that work for you for going to bed and waking up in the mornings, and stick to them!
The 15-minute rule to confront sleeplessness: if you’ve not fallen asleep within around 15 minutes, then get out of bed. Do something calm, be somewhere warm, and when you start to feel sleepy again, return to bed.
Only use your bed for sleep (and sex!): this means putting down the phone, avoiding doom scrolling or watching TV in bed.
Avoid day-time naps: if we are experiencing sleep problems, then sleeping during the day will have a negative consequence on our night-time sleep.
So, why not try these 6 steps to find out if they help you have a better night’s sleep. A trial and error approach might be needed whilst you find what works best for you. And lastly, consistency is crucial as we regulate our internal body clock and build new psychological and physical patterns for better sleep.
If you are continuing to struggle with sleep and it's becoming a bigger problem, then there might be underlying psychological root causes and other issues to explore and work on. Kayleigh offers psychological therapy online and can offer you more support to improve your sleep, feel more rested, and help you feel ready for the day. Contact Kayleigh to discuss availability and options.
NHS Better Health: https://www.nhs.uk/every-mind-matters/mental-health-issues/sleep/
NHS Digital, 2021: https://files.digital.nhs.uk/97/B09EF8/mhcyp_2021_rep.pdf