Sleep Well, Be Well
Everyone knows that dreaded feeling when the alarm goes off in the morning. You press ‘snooze’ on the alarm clock for ‘Just five more minutes’ as if that will make all the difference when you finally get up.
Whether you’re a good sleeper or not, research suggests that, on average, we are not getting enough sleep at night.
Good sleep is imperative for our well-being, both physical and mental, and you can’t underestimate the impact that good, solid, regular sleep will have on your mood.
But it’s not always that easy to nod off.
If you’re anything like me, then you’ll relish that brief period that follows when the children are asleep, and before you go to bed. That beautiful silence! I love that time so much that I push back my bedtime, and in the same way that I delay getting up in the morning, I tell myself ‘Just five more minutes’ at bedtime too. ‘Just one more episode’, ‘Just one more chapter’ and all of this results in too little sleep; with a significant impact on our health.
Finally, once in bed, some of us then find it difficult to get off to sleep. Our minds buzz as they process the day’s events or, if we manage to get off to sleep, we might wake-up in the night and find we can’t get back to sleep again.
And a lack of sleep really takes its toll. If we are depressed or anxious, then we must look at our sleep health as a matter of absolute priority.
Matthew Walker writes, in his amazing book ‘Why We Sleep’, about the effects of routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night:
“Charlotte Bronte’s prophetic wisdom that “a ruffled mind makes a restless pillow,’ [reiterates that] sleep disruption contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality.”
Unfortunately, when we can’t sleep, a vicious circle begins that keeps us in a state of anxiety, depression and further sleepless nights. When we don’t sleep well, we spend more time in the primitive part of our brain. This primitive area can only operate within the parameters of depression, anxiety, anger, or a combination of all three. When we spend more time in the primitive part of our brains, we think more negatively, and we produce less serotonin.
Serotonin is a chemical produced by the body which is a major contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. It is also responsible for maintaining a proper sleep cycle. When we’re producing less serotonin, we feel less happy, and more anxious or depressed, and then the more likely sleep is to elude us.
Similarly, we already know that serotonin levels are affected when we are suffering with depression or anxiety. Low serotonin levels result in sleep disruption and sleep disorders including insomnia. Stress is a common cause of low serotonin levels, resulting in a negative cycle of disrupted sleep, depression, anxiety and fatigue during the day.
With depression and anxiety in mind, it’s worth understanding that every negative thought we have is converted to anxiety. This then accumulates and gets stored in what we like to call a ‘stress bucket’. Thankfully we have a way of naturally emptying that bucket, and that is done when we experience REM sleep. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement, and is a period of sleep where we dream, and process the worries of the day, effectively moving our thoughts from our primitive brains to our intellectual brains, and therefore from an emotional ‘primitive’ memory to one that’s properly processed.
The more we pile into our stress bucket, the more work our brain must undertake during REM sleep. Whilst experiencing REM sleep our brain is working harder than our beating heart, and since REM is restricted to approximately 20% of our sleep cycle, we can overdo it. If we overdo it then our brain will wake us up, and then it’s often difficult to get back to sleep. In the morning after a broken night’s sleep, we wake up with a stress bucket that is only partially empty, and so the cycle begins.
There’s also another part of our primitive brain that plays a part in this behaviour. The hippocampus is responsible for storing behavioural patterns. It likes routine, even if it’s unwanted, unhelpful or inappropriate. If what we did yesterday ensured our survival (went to bed late, woke up in the middle of the night etc) then it will actively encourage us to repeat that behaviour again today.
So, it makes sense that to improve our sleep quality, and our mood, we need to reduce our anxiety. With reduced anxiety, comes improved sleep and a rise in serotonin levels. With improved sleep, comes improved mood.
Boosting our serotonin level is key. Here are some strategies to get you started:
· Start to look out for the positives during your day. It could be something as simple as having a nice cup of tea, but just the act of noticing is what is important. When you get in to bed at night, recall at least three positive moments from your day. This will create serotonin and ensure that you’re going off to sleep in the intellectual, positive area of your brain.
· Eat foods high in Tryptophan. Tryptophan is one of nine essential amino acids that help your body produce serotonin. Tryptophan can be found in turkey, tuna, salmon, nuts and seeds amongst other things. For more information on how diet can improve your sleep and mental health, we like @nourishedlondon on Instagram and the Nourished London site.
· Practices such as mindfulness and yoga are linked to producing increased levels of serotonin.
· Clinical hypnotherapy can also be extremely effective in treating insomnia and/or depression/anxiety. Hypnosis helps to allow both the body and mind to let go of the anxiety that not falling asleep can create and is a great, natural alternative for those considering medication.
· When you finally turn out the lights, try to slowly relax all the muscles in your body, one-by-one, starting from the top of your scalp all the way down to the tips of your toes. The more we physically relax, the more we can mentally relax.
· Be aware of the messages you are feeding to yourself. ‘I can’t sleep’ or ‘I have insomnia’ are interpreted by your brain as a direct instruction not to sleep or to have insomnia. Instead, choose a positive mantra to replace this type of thinking. For example, ‘I choose to allow myself to sleep.’
· Remember the power of your pattern-matching hippocampus and its role in perpetuating sleeplessness. Understanding what is going on in your brain is recognising that you have the power to change it.
There are other steps you can take that you may have already read about. These include switching off all electronics (including the television) at least an hour before bed, taking a warm bath, using a pillow spray, keeping your bedroom at a temperature of between 65-72 degrees, implementing a routine, and reading a book. Your GP is also always available for support.
Above all remember that nothing changes if nothing changes. Identify one small step you can take towards better sleep and make that happen today.
Lucy Baxter DipSFH, AfSFH-reg, SFBT(Hyp), MNCP
and Emma Wilde DipSFH, AfSFH-reg, SFBT(Hyp), MNCP
Solution Focused Clinical Hypnotherapists