Between a flock and a hard place

by Suffolk Mind Team | 14 Mar 2023

Between a flock and a hard place

Counting sheep really isn’t the answer when we have difficulty getting to sleep or back to sleep. So how can we help ourselves to sleep better and reap its wellbeing rewards? 

Around a third of us have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep. Perhaps we go to bed at a reasonable time and can’t switch off, or head to bed much later – despite knowing we have an early start – and still find ourselves struggling to sleep. Waking up in the night, then not nodding off again can make us feel frustrated and even quickly become a worry in itself.

So why is insomnia affecting a growing number of us since the pandemic? What does it mean for our health? And what can we do about it?

Rather than count sheep, it’s time to recognise both the baa-rriers (!) to sleep and the positive actions can we take to make a difference.

Sleep’s see-saw explained

Sleep’s purpose is to keep us mentally and physically well. And just like diet and exercise, we can act consciously to influence it and support our wellbeing.

When we’re emotionally healthy, our two kinds of vital sleep balance each other nicely. Deep sleep physically repairs body cells and REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) calms our brains down by discharging left-over emotions through dreaming. This protects us from the harmful build-up of the stress hormone (cortisol).

But if things around us change (as during the pandemic), our pattern-matching brains can’t predict how we can best meet our human needs and stress levels increase.

REM sleep responds, persevering to shift its increased workload regardless of the extra time and energy it uses. As a result, deep sleep has less time to repair the body’s cells, so we wake up tired, low and – ironically – less well-equipped to meet our needs the following day!

Left unchecked, things may spiral. There’s a proven correlation between poor/disrupted sleep and depression, dementia, and mental health disorders, including those marked by suicidal thoughts.

Learn to recognise the Big Bad Wolf

Stress is pretty good at disguising itself and can creep up seemingly out of nowhere – even when we’re asleep. But although it may take us by surprise, it’s never random. Stress follows patterns and is nature’s way of flagging up that something we innately need to function as a healthy human, is not being adequately provided.

Spotting the signal is our chance to protect ourselves by working things out creatively. To do that though, we need our imagination at the ready – not it being (mis)used, by conjuring up further expectations (worries) around the situation.

Keeping calm is key. If we experience insomnia, having a plan and an arsenal of tricks to hand can help us chase threats to our sleep into the woods, and banish them for the long term too. Think sheep in wolf’s clothing perhaps.

Did you know?

About 1 in 4 people will experience mild to moderate anxiety or depression during the course of any year. After Covid-19, our research shows that 3 in 5 people (61%) in Suffolk are currently not meeting their needs. However, 75% of those affected recover within 4-10 months, even without therapy.

Don’t be sheepish – Do what’s right for ewe

As everyone is different, one plan doesn’t fit all when it comes to getting better sleep in healthy ways. But we’re creatures of habit and can all help our pattern-matching brains work in our favour. Here are just a few things, recommended by experts, to set up and reach out for should we find ourselves awake and unable to sleep:

A notepad and pen.  Jotting down thoughts, worries or things to remember will help park them until the morning. Don’t use a phone or tablet – it might easily turn into a distraction.

An alarm clock. Need an alarm for the morning? Want to check the time at night? Resort to traditional methods – that light-emitting phone is full of tempting distractions!

Relaxation exercises. Swap sheep-counting for dragon-breathing. Learning breath control techniques like ‘in for 7, out for 11’ can instill calm. Practice regularly before bedtime and the brain will associate them with sleep too.

Twenty minutes of utter boredom. Woken up and can’t get back to sleep? Don’t lie awake in bed for more than 20 minutes. Get up. Do something excruciatingly dull for 20 minutes. Go back to bed. Still awake 20 minutes later? Get up and do it all again and repeat the cycle if necessary. Our brains would rather be sleep than bored.

The reassurance of instinct. Reframe expectations and have a fairly relaxed mindset around sleep. Accept that its ok just to relax, put things on pause and let our instinct to sleep do its thing. Have faith that our bodies are naturally tuned to promote recovery. Hmmm. Perhaps we have more in common with those sheep than we thought!

Help is at hand to get better sleep

For more information on how to meet your need for sleep, take a look at our resources hub for more blogs and support.

You can also sign up to become a Friend of Suffolk Mind, which gives you the opportunity to join our Sleep Well, Work Well workshop for free.

by Suffolk Mind Team
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