Sleep is so important when it comes to anxiety, mental health and just your overall outlook on life. A bad night’s sleep will result in raised cortisol, the stress hormone; a reduction in leptin, an apetite-supressing hormone; along with a rise in Ghrelin, with causes hunger. So basically, you wake up feeling stressed, starving and lacking in willpower. And we’re not even finished! Hormones aside, lack of sleep also causes lack of attention, focus, creativity, reason and slows those reaction times right down. It’s no wonder that insomnia and sleep deprivation seem to go hand-in-hand with poor mental health, negative thinking and general misery.
So what can we do?
As someone who went through years of insomnia, and accompanying anxiety, I now have a much more regular and positive sleep pattern. Here’s why:
- I changed jobs: In the years when I really struggled with sleep, I also happened to be working at a very demanding job. The more hours that I devoted to work and ignored my self, the worse my sleep habits became. I’d wake up at 2a.m. on a regular basis, and spend three plus hours, wildly spinning over everything I needed to do the next day, week or month. I know this is a very drastic point to start with, but I honestly believe that if I hadn’t changed my job, I still wouldn’t be sleeping. All of the tips and techniques that follow are useful, but they‘re meaningless if your job has taken over your life.
- I’ve addressed my anxiety: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are we more prone to negativity and overthinking because we’re sleep deprived? Or are we kept awake by our overactive brains and negativity? Whatever the answer is, I found that tackling my anxiety through CBT exercises, also indirectly improved my sleeping habits. Often, it’s the worry that wakes your brain up, so it only makes sense that if you begin to unpick your thinking process, and approach life more rationally, this leads to less worry and better sleep.
- I exercise regularly: This really helps, probably in part because of those anxiety-busting endorphins. It just makes me feel a lot more tired, mentally and physically, when I go to bed. I’ve found yoga particularly helps here, because it promotes mindfulness and calm: the perfect ingredients for sleep.I’ll just add one caveat: exercising too hard and too late at night, might mess up your sleep. My Jiu Jitsu obsession has me literally fighting for survival like a luncatic as late as 9.30pm on some nights; this has led to some very restless nights sleep. Realising that I needed to find a way to make this work, I tried pushing back bedtime by an hour on these nights, and I stopped chowing down on a load of food when I came in, opting for a healthy snack instead. Though there’s still the odd bad night, this has generally fixed the problem.
- I eat really well: Even at my greediest, I eat a lot of wholesome, unprocessed food. I love veg, I’m obsessed with nuts (ha!) and I eat my fair share of oily fish. Years ago, when my diet was beige, I’d often go to bed feeling over-full and under-healthy. If I’d really indulged, and had a salt-covered takeaway pizza, I’d wake up in the night craving water. Just no.
- I’ve cut down on caffeine: Though I’ve still got work to do here, as a self-confessed coffee addict, I have found that cutting down on coffee – I’m down to 2 cups daily, before 4pm – has allowed for better night’s sleep. I rarely drink fizzy drinks like Coke, finding it more and more difficult to willingly drink something that synthetic. Instead, quench your thirst with water and herbal teas. I really enjoy a chamomile tea with honey a hour before bedtime – otherwise you’re up needing the loo in the night!
- I’ve cut down on alcohol: While the occasional glass of red wine apparently has its benefits, I’ve had some of my worst night’s sleep after boozing. I’ll sink into a coma early on, but wake up feeling wired and just awful at 3am. Cut down on the drinking sessions if you want to wake up feeling fresh and awake.
- Watch that screen addiction: This is one thing that I still really struggle with, even now. Looking at your phone right before you drift off, will prevent your brain from releasing melatonin, a hormone will tells your body it’s bedtime. The experts recommend ‘switching off’ an hour before bed…but personally I’ve never managed this. While it’s something I continue to work on, I’ve had a lot of success by keeping my brightness down, and putting an end to mindless scrolling 20 minutes before sleep.
- I have a notepad by my bed: When my brain does wake up, and I have ideas or jobs in my head that I need to get out, I find that writing them down allows me to get back to sleep.
- I focus on my breath: If I’ve woken up and my brain is going into hyper-drive, I breathe deeply in and out: 5 seconds inhale…5 seconds exhale. I focus on my breath. If I’m pulled back into a thought, I acknowledge this and go back to my breath. This is great at first, but quickly becomes utterly boring – at which point, my brain gives up and goes back to sleep. Winner!
- I practise relaxation activities: If I’m feeling restless, I’ll do a relaxation activity in which I move up my body from the toes to the tip of my head, scrunching everything up and then releasing. Like wringing out a dishcloth. If that’s not enough, I’ll sometimes listen to an audio book or a guided mediation on my phone. Usually, I’m asleep 5 minutes in.I’ve shared what’s worked for me in the hope that it might work for you too. If it doesn’t, don’t beat yourself up – that certainly won’t help. Just keep trying new things and remember that even if you do have a bad night’s sleep, along with all the following side-effects, that doesn’t mean that you’re definitely going to have a bad day.Remember: Even if your sleep-deprived chemicals are working against you, you can still choose to up your game and work even harder to stay rational, unperturbed and even optimistic.Find any of these tips helpful? Anything to add? Thoughts welcome: