I love to sleep. Almost nothing makes me happier than being able to climb into bed after a really long day and get some rest. For me, sleep is a time to recover from the day and get ready for whatever will come next. Science also backs me up: sleeping plays a major role in learning and memory (Walker & Stickgold, 2004) as well as mood (Talbot et al, 2010). The quality and quantity of sleep have even been shown to affect everything from your chances of getting a cold (Cohen et al, 2009) to being obese (Beccutti & Pannain, 2011)! The better you sleep, the better your mood, your health and your performance on a wide variety of cognitive tasks.
Unfortunately, when life gets busy and there just aren’t enough hours in the day, sleep is often the first thing to go. Not only do we stay up later to get more things done, but the worries that we have about fitting everything in can also make it hard to get to sleep and to sleep well. If you are having trouble sleeping, you are not alone - a recent survey found that about 40% of the sample of Canadians studied reported trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early (Morin et al, 2011).
The best way to determine if you are having trouble sleeping is to check in on how you are feeling during the day. Do you feel rested when you wake up? Are you able to focus during the day? If you never feel like this, regardless of how much sleep you got the night before, then you should contact a medical professional to be assessed for a possible sleep disorder. However, if you feel like this more often than you would like, here are some things that you can do.
A) Track your sleep
The first thing to do is to keep track of your sleep, in order to figure out where the problems lie. You can use the National Sleep Foundation’s diary to look for any patterns in your sleep and any potential areas that you could address. For example, is there a link between how much physical activity you do during the day and when you fall asleep? Do you always hit the snooze button in the morning, or are there some mornings when you don’t need to?
B) Practice good sleep hygiene
Sleep hygiene refers to behaviours that promote good sleep. There are a number of things that you can do during the day as well as at bedtime to practice good sleep hygiene and have better sleep. Here are some tips from the Canadian Sleep Society that can help.
First of all, make sleep a priority! Establish a regular schedule for sleeping, and try to go to bed and wake up at about the same time each day.
Second, make sure your environment is set up to promote good sleep. Your bedroom is only for two things: sleeping and sex. You shouldn’t use it for watching TV, catching up on social media, or doing paperwork. And don’t take your cell phone, iPad or any other electronic devices to bed with you. In addition, your bedroom should be quiet, cool and dark, and you need a comfortable mattress. These things will help you to fall asleep and stay asleep. You need to create a space in which your brain knows that it’s time for bed.
Your diet also has a major impact on your sleep health. In general, you will want to avoid foods, drinks and medication that may contain stimulants, and minimise your caffeine intake (e.g. tea, coffee, cola), especially after 6pm. Alcohol and nicotine both interfere with your ability to sleep, making it difficult to stay asleep and have a restful sleep.
Finally, your behaviour during the day will affect your ability to sleep at night. No napping!! If you must take a nap, make it brief (less than 30 minutes) and not after 3 pm, otherwise you will not be tired enough to fall asleep that night. Regular exercise can help you sleep better, but try to exercise only during the morning and afternoon. Exercising just before bed can make it difficult to fall asleep. And establishing a bedtime routine is helpful for preparing your body for sleep - when you change into your pyjamas, brush your teeth etc, your brain and body know where you are headed!
C) Clear your mind of unhelpful beliefs about sleep
We’ve all had those nights when we lie awake watching the time go by while thinking “Well, now I can only sleep for 5 hours...now 4 hours and 59 minutes...now 4 hours and 58 minutes…”. It probably isn’t too surprising to you that this does not help you get to sleep! There are other unhelpful thoughts that we can have around and about sleep that can interfere.
It’s a widely held belief that everyone needs 8 hours of sleep every night. While we do have estimates about the ideal amount of sleep needed, on average, we also know that sleep needs vary from person to person. Rather than becoming stressed about how much sleep you should be getting, pay attention to how you are feeling during the day to figure out whether or not you have slept enough.
Everyone has nights where sleep just won’t happen, or is very poor. If you have a period of insomnia don’t assume that it means you are no longer able to sleep well - often transient periods of sleeplessness can be addressed relatively easily.
Finally, many people think that it’s okay if they skip out on sleeping during the week, they’ll just catch up on the weekend. Unfortunately, sleeping doesn’t work like a bank where you can deposit money until you need to withdraw it. It is better to maintain a consistent sleep and wake time, even on Saturday mornings.
If you need some help with sleep, here are some resources that can be very helpful!!
Canadian Sleep Society: https://css-scs.ca/
National Sleep Foundation: https://sleep.org/
Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School: http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/
I wish you sweet dreams :)
Ava-Ann Allman is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.
Beccutti, G. & Pannain, S. (2011). Sleep and obesity. Current Opinion in Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 14 (4), 402 - 412.
Cohen, S., Doyle, W.J., Alper, C.M., Janicki-Deverts, D. & Turner, R.B. (2009). Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169 (1), 62 - 67.
Morin, C.M., LeBlanc, M., Belanger, L., Ivers, H., Merette, C. & Savard, J. (2011). Prevalence of insomnia and its treatment in Canada. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56 (9), 540-548.
Talbot L. S., McGlinchey E. L., Kaplan K. A., Dahl R. E., Harvey A. G. (2010). Sleep deprivation in adolescents and adults: changes in affect. Emotion, 10, 831–841.
Walker, M.P., & Stickgold, R. (2004). Sleep-dependent learning and memory consolidation. Neuron, 44, 121–133.