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  • Dr Georgina Barnett

ZZZZ... HOW TO GET RESTFUL, RESTORATIVE SLEEP

The blissful experience of descending into slumber should be one of life’s continual delights, but although falling asleep is a necessity it can be a source of frustration which permeates our every waking hour. I will not extol the benefits of sleep here, we know them well, but I do emphasise that sleep not only regenerates the body but is essential for processing the mass of stimuli and experiences we encounter throughout the day and is therefore imperative for cognitive functioning and emotional well-being.

We can all recount tips for sleeping; switch off screens, sip valerian tea, but while collectively the advice is favourable, what many need is a fast-acting strategy for restoring a stable and gratifying sleep pattern. Transforming sleep can be a difficult challenge to overcome because to some extent we are at the mercy of our internal drives – the body defies the mind and we cannot force sleep. However, particular behavioural strategies (these are CBT based) work swiftly if they are undertaken with determination and discipline.

Here’s how you re-set your sleep pattern in the fastest possible time:

  1. The key principle – anchor your sleep system by setting a time to rise which you adhere to without exception.

  2. Reduce the time you spend in bed, initially by two hours a night but always allowing a minimum of six. You can then gradually increase this time again when you start sleeping well (by 15-30 minutes at a time).

  3. Never nap. If you absolutely need to, set an alarm for 20 minutes only before you get into a deeper phase of sleep from which you’ll awaken feeling out of sorts.

The bedtime ritual

Your mind is conditioned by your behaviour and rituals so set up a predictable routine. Dim lighting begins the release of melatonin (the sleep hormone), whilst warm baths work because of the association ‘bath then bed’ which is often set in childhood and therefore lies deep in our unconscious. Do what it takes to get into a state of repose. Whatever your routine, make it a pleasure – you have to go to bed once every 24 hours so make this part of the day one you associate with comfort and peacefulness. Go through your ritual outside of the bedroom. This ensures that the bed is associated with sleep, not with net-browsing, Netflix, you name it.

Go to bed approximately six hours before your alarm, and put your alarm on the other side of the bedroom. If you don’t fall asleep within 20-30 minutes, get up and return to a mundane activity such as reading a dull-ish novel. Do not lie in bed ruminating or you will associate being in bed with frustration rather than sleep. When you feel sleepier go back to bed. Again if you cannot sleep repeat the above process of going to another room until sleepiness returns. You might need to tough it out the day after you start this system if you only have limited sleep, but if you follow the daytime ritual that follows you will greatly increase the probability of a better night the following night.

The daytime ritual

Your alarm is ringing, the worst thing you can do now is to give in and go back to sleep, if you do you will be low in spirits when you wake and will dread going to bed that night. As soon as you get up go to a window, balcony or garden and let the daylight flood over you to encourage the release of cortisol (the alert hormone). If you can get out for an early walk you won’t regret it – morning light is healing. Be active and physically tire the body during the day to promote sleep - think of the difference in your sleep experience when you’ve had a day of activity compared to a day of binge-watching television.

Finally, keep your self-dialogue optimistic – if you feel tired during the day remind yourself that this is exactly what you want as this is the fastest way to re-set your body-clock to return to the joy of regular deep sleep.

No one said it would be easy…

People logically grasp why this method will work so why do they often give up on it? Because to begin with it’s tough! Following advice such as sprinkling lavender on your pillow and taking a hot bath are pleasurable and easy, but forcing yourself out of a warm bed in the morning when you want to snooze is a wrench – this is the ultimate in delayed gratification. This is why, as with any change project, you must continually call to mind the life-changing benefits that a consistent and restorative sleep pattern will bring.

Zzzzzzz…….