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Seven steps to snooze the night away

From ditching your sleep tracker, to building a ‘sleep drive’, sleep specialist Kathryn Pinkham shares her expert tips

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Evening Standard 

We are increasingly aware of the importance of sleep, and the impact getting enough of it can have on our overall wellbeing – and yet it’s something many of us are guilty of not prioritising. 

We spoke to insomnia specialist Kathryn Pinkham, founder of The Insomnia Clinic; she says she has witnessed a rise in people seeking help for poor sleep in the last few years. “As our stress levels increase, and we find ourselves on technology 24 hours a day, it’s understandable that our sleep has become a luxury.”

If you are struggling with shut eye, help is at hand. Here, Kathryn shares some of her top tips for getting a good night’s kip.

Why you need to build your ‘sleep drive’

In order to fall asleep quickly, and get good quality sleep, we need to build up a strong ’sleep drive’. This is basically like an appetite for sleep; the longer we have been out of bed, the bigger our appetite for sleep is. We are designed to build up a sleep drive during the daytime and then, when the drive is highest, we go to sleep and take back the debt we have been building.

If you get into a habit of going to bed early and waking later then you find that you either struggle to fall asleep, or wake throughout the night – or both – as your sleep drive is simply not strong enough. In order to combat this, try going to bed later and setting your alarm earlier, even if this is only 30 minutesat each end of your sleep window. What you are doing is creating a much stronger sleep drive which results in better quality of sleep.

The best way to create a stronger drive to sleep well is by shortening the amount of time you actually spend in bed. Most poor sleepers tend to go to bed early, or lie in, in an attempt to get more sleep; however, this results in a weak sleep drive. 

So, if you go to bed a little later, and set your alarm earlier, you will have more time awake and out of bed which will not only help you to fall asleep quicker, but also increase the quality of your sleep.

The 20-minute rule

As a general rule you should try and avoid being in bed for longer than 20 minutes if you are wide awake – staying in bed when you are wide awake, tossing and turning, can create an association between your bed and these negative feelings and, over time, you may find that just going to bed will start to make you feel awake and anxious. Instead, leave the room and watch TV, or read, until sleepy and then return to bed. You will find you are more likely to drop off more quickly than if you stay in bed.

Get some ‘brain rest’ 

In today’s 24-hour society we often don’t make time to just slow down and rest our minds; this leads to us spending a lot of time in fight or flight mode as we rush from meeting to meeting and obsessively check our ‘phones. The problem is, we are not designed to be in fight or flight mode for this long, or this often, so the result is we feel tired and exhausted. We tend to think that we can rely on sleep to give us all the energy we need but, actually, sleep cannot overcome a stressful or busy lifestyle.

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If you are feeling tired a lot of the time, make time to just ground yourself in the present moment. Use mindfulness to take time to notice what is around you, and slow down your breathing, even if just for a couple of minutes. This can help you boost energy levels naturally.

Quiet a racing mind at night with journaling in the day 

If you struggle with a racing mind, and wake during the night, then a really effective step you can take is to get into the habit of emptying your mind during the day. Often, when we have a lot on our mind, we try to ignore our thoughts or dismiss our worries, but this only makes them more persistent and leads to disrupted sleep. 

Allocate a short, 20-minute window of time each day – early evening, perhaps – and write down everything which is on your mind – including all of the things that distract you during the day and keep you awake at night.

Writing down your thoughts is a really therapeutic way to ‘empty’ your mind. You can spend some time problem-solving, or challenging your thoughts, or even crossing them off if you realise they are ‘what if’ worries and out of your control. This will help you to remain more focused during the day, and also reduces the chances of these thoughts popping up when you are trying to sleep.

Ditch the sleep tracker 

My experience is that trackers can create a lot of anxiety as people will wake up and check the tracker and, if they see they didn’t get enough deep sleep, they feel despondent. They then make decisions for the day based on what the trackers tell them. I have worked with patients who cancel meetings if their tracker says they didn’t sleep well as they believe they won’t be able to perform – but the data is not always accurate.

The only way to really track sleep is via a sleep study in a hospital, where sensors are connected in order to measure eye and brain activity, among other variables. Simply measuring heart rate and movement is generally not precise enough to accurately measure different sleep stages.

Ultimately, tracking your sleep is not going to help you to sleep any better, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that it can make your sleep worse by increasing hyper-vigilance around sleep.

Swap your ‘phone for an alarm clock 

The first thing most of us do when we can’t sleep is to check the time; however, each time you check the clock you are creating a routine and habit to keep on waking at the same time. It also makes you more likely to start thinking/worrying once you have seen the time and this leads to worries about being tired the next day, creating pressure to get back to sleep. I advise people to go back to a good old-fashioned alarm clock. Set the alarm and then turn it to the wall. Keep your ‘phone out of the room to avoid the temptation to check when you are awake.

Create a simple, relaxing routine

A good bedtime routine is important in creating good, quality sleep; however this doesn’t need to be long-winded or complex. If you enjoy lighting a candle, or having a herbal tea in the evening, this can become part of a bedtime routine as long as you relate these things to feeling relaxed.

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