Weird dreams and disturbed sleep have been frequent complaints during lockdown, so now’s the time to consider your sleep hygiene writes Ruadhán Jones
We’ve all heard how important good hygiene is to combat the coronavirus. Even before that, no doubt, the practice of washing your hands after going outside and always brushing your teeth would have been ingrained by parents and teachers.
But have you ever considered that you need to look after your sleep hygiene? Or even that such a thing exists! I hadn’t until recently, but over the course of the lockdown I’ve become more aware of just how important it is if you want to sleep well.
Sleep hygiene is, quite simply, a set of habits or practices that can help maximise your sleep. In principle, it really isn’t much different from dental hygiene or taking care of your hair; in practice, it can be more complex.
Why sleep hygiene matters
There is a close relationship between our mental health and sleep. Poor sleep can be a symptom of poor mental health, and some believe it can be the cause as well. When we don’t get enough sleep, it can affect our mood and our concentration, causing irritability, tiredness and agitation.
We often don’t get as much sleep as we like, and this can be frustrating. However, this is quite normal, and we can quickly revert back to our usual sleep cycle. But if our sleep is continually disrupted, it may suggest that there is an underlying issue.
Stress and anxiety can both lead to sleeping issues, making it harder for us to relax and clear our minds. Given the nature of our present situation, it’s unsurprising that for many of us our sleep has been disturbed. The simple truth is we’re in a stressful situation and the less sleep we get the more susceptible we are to stress.
While we can’t change the fact of our stressful situation, by looking after our sleep hygiene we can at least give ourselves the best possible chance of responding well to it.
Most people need between 5-9 hours of sleep a night. The ideal amount is 8, but this varies from person to person. For example, a teenager is going to need more sleep than an adult, so letting them sleep in might not be a bad thing (nudge nudge, wink wink).
In order to get a regular amount of sleep, you need a regular sleep schedule. When we were working or going to school, this was facilitated by our daily routines. We got up and went to bed at roughly the same time each day because work and school started had consistent start times.
As with all our other routines, lockdown has upended what was normal, with mixed results. For some, it means the no endless commutes through rush hour and so extra time in bed. For others, it means late nights and long mornings, formless days that seem to blend into each other.
If you want a place to start, then, set yourself up with a regular sleep schedule. It will help set up a rhythm of sleep, one which your body clock can settle into. That doesn’t mean necessarily returning to your previous routine – for many of us, commutes, shift work and social lives often meant routines which didn’t suit us.
Perhaps now is the time to discover if you really are a night owl, or if you’ve secretly been a morning person in denial.
Avoid unnecessary stimulation
You all know what I’m going to say – staring at screens stimulates our eyes and brains and makes it harder to fall asleep. For many of us, checking the phone one last time or watching a bit of TV is the way we unwind.
Unfortunately, it can have the reverse of our intended effect, activating our minds and making it more difficult to calm them down. While this is not always the case, if you are finding yourself struggling to sleep, try avoiding screens for an hour before bedtime.
Other stimulants, in particular caffeine, should be avoided. Caffeine can be found in drinks like coffee, tea, fizzy drinks, and energy drinks. It can stay in the system for hours and it is advised to avoid it from 2pm onwards.
While not a stimulant, in fact the opposite in some ways, alcohol can affect your sleep negatively. If you are drinking, then it is advised to stop at least a few hours before going to bed. Similarly, eating late or at inconsistent times is not good for your sleep. Your digestive system takes time to process what you’ve eaten, and your body might not feel like it’s ready to sleep.
It’s often thought that naps are bad for you, but that’s not always the case. Much like snacking, if we overdo it, it will affect our sleep. But a good nap can help improve your mood; it can improve memory; it helps reduce feelings of tiredness; and it can reduce blood pressure.
But what does a “good” nap look like? The key is not to nap too long. Try to keep your nap to 20 minutes tops – anything more can leave you feeling groggy, but 20 minutes is enough to help you fevel reenergised.
You may wake up tired, or feel the day dragging on. A temptation can arise to sneak a quick nap in the morning or after dinner. But it’s best to avoid this if you can. The optimum nap window is between 2-3pm because it’s not so close to bedtime that it will affect your sleep and many people feel tired after lunch.
Process the day
The main thing to focus on before sleeping is to relax your mind so that it’s prepared to switch off, like cooling down after a run. Especially at this time, low-lying stresses can come to the surface and send our mind into overdrive.
Try to process the day’s thoughts and feelings and then let go of them. If it helps, write things down or talk about them with someone you trust. Reading in bed can also focus your mind and empty it of the day’s worries.
Equally deep breathing exercises or meditation can be a means of stilling the mind and relaxing the body. I like to pray before I go to sleep, whether it be a Rosary or night prayer, offering up my worries and reflecting on the happenings of the day.
In order to give your mind and body the best chance to relax, make sure your bedroom is a comfortable temperature – if it’s too hot or too cold, it may make it more difficult for you to sleep.
How our days affect our nights
If you’re into sports, playing that is, you’ll know how important all aspects of your life are to that one specific area. You’ll also know how important that one specific area is to all aspects of your life.
At the top level, you will scrutinise everything – your diet, your mental health, your fitness (strength, flexibility, mobility, etc.). Your commitment to excellence in one area of life leads you to excellence in others.
That’s how it is with sleep. A good night’s sleep offers so much to us, but it can be affected by many other areas of our life, from what we eat and when, to how active we are and how many naps we take.
Begin with your routines immediately before bed and then start branching out. The evening period is still the most important to your sleep hygiene, so it’s best to focus your attention here.
For everyone, the impacts will be different, but it’s important to take a holistic approach for the best results.
For more information, visit https://www2.hse.ie/healthy-you/shake-off-the-sleep-monster.html