Thursday 3 March 2016
Many students experience difficulties with their sleep patterns, especially if they’re feeling down, stressed, or are going through a difficult time due to things such as family problems, bereavement, the end of a relationship, or academic struggles. At such times, it’s completely ‘normal’ to feel down and to find your thinking going round in circles or dwelling on the problem you’re facing which, in turn, can interfere with getting a good night’s rest.
Very often people get into habits that inadvertently maintain poor sleep patterns, these include studying or working until late at night, napping during the day and drinking caffeinated drinks (that includes fizzy drinks and tea) in the afternoon and evening. If you’re having trouble sleeping then there are some simple changes you can make to these patterns that can really help. If you find it difficult to switch off and fall asleep or find yourself waking up in the early hours worrying, then improving your ‘sleep hygiene’ is the first step in dealing with the problem.
So what can I do?
• Work out how much sleep you need to feel rested. Most adults need somewhere between six and nine hours, but there is considerable variance. One way to do this is to see how many hours you sleep when you can allow yourself to ‘sleep in’.
• Work out a bedtime that will allow you to get the hours of sleep you need to wake up at the earliest time you usually need to get up- so if you have to get up at 7.30am and you need eight hours sleep you need to go to sleep at 11.30pm to feel rested the next day.
• For the first week or so, set your alarm for the earliest time you need to get up, whether you need to get up then or not. Even on weekends. If you feel exhausted and have only had a few hours sleep by this time, it’s still really important to get up and leave you bed!
• Resist the temptation to nap during the day at all costs!
• If you don’t already do so, start getting some physical exercise. We tend to find it easier to relax and sleep when we’re physically tired. Brain work doesn’t give our muscles a chance to work much, and exercise has the added benefit of releasing endorphins (happy hormones). These hormones can help improve mood and aid relaxation. It’s best not to exercise later in the evening when tackling sleep difficulties, and it should definitely be avoided in the two-three hours before sleep.
• Don’t have any caffeinated drinks after mid-afternoon. Caffeine takes roughly six hours to leave your body, and if you’re struggling with sleep problems it may be worth cutting it out altogether. Obviously, if you’re used to drinking a lot cut down gradually.
• As you start sleeping better you probably won’t feel the need for caffeinated drinks so much. It is also not a good idea to eat a large meal an hour or two before bed, however a small snack can help.
• Avoid screen time, whether for recreation or work, in the last two hours of your day. Looking at TV screens, computers, laptops, smart phones or tablets stimulates your brain. Research suggests that the ‘blue’ light emitted by these devices encourages wakefulness, and irrespective of this, screens stimulate your brain. This is the opposite of what you need when you’re trying to improve sleep patterns.
• A couple of hours before bedtime, begin to allow yourself to wind down. A regular evening ritual, like taking a bath or shower, laying your clothes or books out for the next day or packing your bag can help you relax and will signal to your body that it's time to prepare for sleep.
• If you feel tense, try chamomile tea, or a hot milky drink, soft music, scented candles, a hot bath or a massage. You could also try herbal remedies or lavender oil, but be sure to read any guidelines on the packet and consider consulting your GP before trying these, especially if you’re taking any other medication.
• Avoid using alcohol to help you get to sleep. Although you may fall asleep quickly, your rest will not be as refreshing, and you’re likely to wake up in the early hours. Feeling hung over or groggy in the morning also makes you want to stay in bed, which again will impact on your ‘body clock’.
• If you are troubled by racing thoughts that just won't stop, get up and do something to keep yourself occupied (but not stimulated) until the thoughts subside. They'll pass much more quickly this way.
• Get up at your predetermined time, no matter how tired you may feel.
• Repeat the steps above until you are able to fall asleep on time and wake up rested. This will generally take two to five days, but can take a couple of weeks for some people.
1. Don't despair if you have to be tired in the day for a couple of days to get back on track. For most people, these steps will work if followed carefully.
2. Keep a regular schedule, even on weekends. If you do, every day will feel as glorious as ‘sleeping in’ on the weekends.
3. If keeping a regular sleep schedule is not working for you, consult your GP for further support. Certain difficulties such as depression, anxiety or physical problems such as sleep apnoea have been associated with disturbed sleep, but your doctor is the only person who can diagnose such difficulties.