While sleep can elude you at any time, COVID-19 is causing more people than ever to miss out on their kip. Research from Public Health England (PHE) has found that four in 10 adults are having more trouble than usual with their sleep during the outbreak.
As a result, PHE has added advice on how to look after your sleep to its Every Mind Matters platform, which aims to support people’s mental health during the pandemic and beyond. You can find that advice about your sleep here.
We spoke to sleep expert Colin Espie, who has contributed to the campaign, about the importance of sleep for your mental health and how you can improve it.
How important is sleep for your mental health?
Sleep is a fundamental deliverer of mental health and wellbeing. People who sleep well are protected to some degree from mental health problems, and people who have mental health problems have more difficulty with sleeping. It means if we can improve sleep there’s the potential to do a lot of good for mental health.
Why do events like the COVID-19 pandemic affect people’s sleep?
Sleep is a primary driver of emotional health. During our sleep our memories are consolidated, our emotion is regulated, the important is filtered out from the trivial, and the urgent is prioritised. All that is going on during sleep, and I think people are a little more aware of that fact at the moment. They notice they’ve been dreaming more, sleeping a bit different. They should see that as reassuring – the brain is working in your sleep to help sort stuff out.
What should you do to try to improve your sleep?
Sleep is not something we do to ourselves – it’s not an action like walking. It’s more like hearing or breathing. It’s something that’s largely involuntary. Good sleepers are not good at sleeping. They’ve not got a skillset. It’s more something that requires us to corral it, to find a good space in our life for it.
One of the calls to action I put in the Every Mind Matters campaign is to encourage people to use the opportunity the situation has provided, when our schedules can be more flexible, to experiment and find the best time period – start time, end time and total time – to be in bed. Maybe you’ve not got it exactly the way it should be for you.
Is there a certain amount of sleep that’s best?
There’s no value that’s right for all people – it’s whatever fits best. There’s a range, most requirements are between X and Y, but you still have to find out what’s best for you. If you’re somebody who naturally sleeps seven hours, let’s say, then if your seven-hour sleep is over a seven-hour period in bed, you’re going to have a better experience than if you spend nine hours in bed, because you’ll have two hours not sleeping. You might still get the same amount of sleep but it’s more broken.
It’s about quantity and quality of sleep. The quality is going to be at its best when you’re able to judge, “this is the amount of time I need in bed to get the sleep I need”. You want to adjust the sleep window to the right duration, so you can fill that period mostly with sleep.
Should you avoid things like watching TV in bed?
I think the problem arises where the environment that you’re in is strongly associated with wakefulness. The prelude to most things is associated with the thing you’re about to do. At night we get into our pyjamas, brush our teeth, turn the lights out. All of this triggers a natural progression into going to bed and sleeping. The problem arises if you have things in there that are more connected with other things. Replying to emails, uploading photos to Instagram – these things are not obviously connected with the destination point, which is sleep. If sleep has become a problem for you, then they may not be helpful.
However, what I’m trying to do is avoid being prescriptive, saying you need eight hours’ sleep, or shouldn’t watch TV in bed. What I’m saying is find out how much sleep you need, and I’m encouraging people to stand back from their current pattern and try some experiments.
Can keeping a sleep diary help?
The point of an experiment is to evaluate the results, so you need to have data. That could be from a diary, or simply from your own conclusions. There’s a balancing point between doing all these things. You should do them from the mental perspective that you don’t want to overthink sleep. You don’t want to try to engineer it. Remember, good sleepers are not good at sleeping – we’re doing these things to set up patterns, working out what the patterns might be, then we let sleep do its stuff. That happens naturally and spontaneously.
How can you calm a racing mind that’s stopping you from sleeping?
This is a time of uncertainty. Of course you could shy away from thinking things through, but maybe sometimes we need to think about them. The point is that when you’re tired and lying in bed it’s not the best time to figure stuff out.
Even if you have things you want to think through, don’t do that in your sleep period. Make a point of doing that during your waking day, rather than when you’re going to sleep. I call that putting the day to rest. Then if something crops up in the middle of the night, it’s likely to be something you’ve already thought about. You can say, “I’ve already thought about that”.
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What about people with kids that wake them up during the night?
Helping a child settle can break our sleep pattern – they're back to sleep and we’re not. We can get a bit frustrated and before we know it we’ve got ourselves hyped up and we can’t sleep.
If you really struggle to get back to sleep, I usually encourage people to follow what I call the quarter of an hour rule. Give yourself a quarter of an hour or so to fall back to sleep (don’t clock-watch, though), but if you’re not managing to fall asleep then it’s all right. Get up, have a drink, potter around, read a book, and soon enough you’ll feel sleepy. Go back to bed then. Don’t overthink it – if you can’t accept lying awake and trusting that sleep will come, and you need to break a building sense of frustration, then get up and break it.
One of your tips is to trust your sleep. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Sleep is a free gift. It’s a biological inevitability. Your dog, the birds, the insects, if they’re good sleepers it’s not because they avoid caffeine or don’t use devices. They’re sleeping well because this is the rhythm of life. What we need to understand is that we’re not in control of our sleep, and that’s a good thing. The people who sleep well don’t try to control it. They have no idea how they do it – they just go to bed and fall asleep.
So by trusting sleep I mean that we want to get into the position where sleep can work for us like that. What we do is manoeuvre it into that position. So we go to bed at a regular time, get up at a regular time, and the interval between these things is the right interval for us. People who struggle with their sleep often want to control it, which is admirable, but it’s a subtle thing – you do want to take action, but you want to take the position where the action leads you to trust that sleep is there for you.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.