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According to Paul McCartney, the melody for Yesterday came to him while he was sleeping. He woke up, rushed to his piano, and the rest is history. While most of us will never write an all-time classic pop song in our dreams, we’ve probably all woken after a good night’s sleep to find we have a fresh perspective on a problem, or clarity on a tough decision.
This is the power of quality sleep – and it’s being celebrated on World Sleep Day (18 March 2022) with the slogan Quality Sleep, Sound Mind, Happy World. The organisers’ aim is to highlight how sleeping well helps people to maintain good mental health, as well as physical health.
We grow up believing we need ‘eight hours a night’, but while it’s important to get enough rest the quality of the sleep we get also matters. A good sleep makes us feel refreshed, and improves our mood, concentration, and productivity. It’s restorative, helping us to recover both physically and mentally if we’re going through stress. If there are things in our life we need to process, sleep helps us to make sense of them.
So how can we improve the quality of our sleep? We need to look at both external and internal factors.
Make your environment conducive to sleep
This is often referred to as ‘good sleep hygiene’. The temperature in your bedroom shouldn’t be too hot or too cold, and if there are any noises that tend to disturb you think about using earplugs. If the light wakes you too early, try fitting blackout curtains or a blind, or wear an eye mask.
Keep your pets out of the bedroom (if they’ll let you!), and avoid watching TV or exercising close to bedtime, as this will stimulate you. The blue light from smartphones and tablets can also affect your sleep, by suppressing the release of melatonin.
Your mind should associate your bed with sleep, so it’s a good idea to limit the use of exercise or work equipment to another room, to prevent your brain associating the bedroom with being awake and alert instead. Of course, with many of us working from home now, this isn’t always practical.
Having a specific routine that you always follow before bed will help you wind down and get your mind and body ready for sleep.
Calming a restless mind
Ironically, we need a rested mind and body to be able to sleep well! If our mind is still active when it’s time to turn out the light, this makes our body restless too. This in turn can keep the brain buzzing, and we might even start worrying about the fact that we’re not getting enough sleep! This can create a vicious cycle.
Become aware of the worries, thoughts and problems that pop into your mind, and ask yourself whether you can do anything about them. If you forgot to email your boss, for example, or you have an idea for the perfect birthday gift for your partner, make a note and tell yourself you’ll give it your attention tomorrow. The idea is to get it out of your head and on to paper (or into your phone if you prefer).
Worry leads to anxiety, which pumps adrenaline into our system. If you’re worrying about something that hasn’t happened, or something you can’t control, try and let the thought go. This is easier said than done! Shifting our focus to something external and neutral can help, such as a sound like a ticking clock, a fan, or even a white noise app.
Some people find that progressive muscle relaxation works for them. Tense each part of your body in turn and then relax it, starting with your toes, and moving upwards. Pay attention to how it feels. This gets the brain focused on the body, which can help the mind to switch off.
Meditation apps could also help clear your head. You might need to practice using these to get the full benefit – and don’t judge yourself for not doing it ‘well’ if your mind wanders; this is normal. Focusing on a particular memory or daydream can also encourage your brain to let unwanted thoughts drift away.
Put the day to rest
If your day has been hectic, or involved lots of problems, get it out of your mind. You could offload to friends or family or try journaling on paper or your phone – anything that helps you to process and ‘put away’ what’s happened. You don’t have to keep what you write or record but reviewing it could allow you to understand what’s bothering you, and whether there’s any action you can take to resolve it.
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