In this FAQ series, I asked clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher how we can sleep better. Winding down and switching off at night looks different for all of us. There’s not a one size fits all model when it comes to achieving a good night’s sleep, so what works for one person, may not necessarily work for the next. It’s important to pay attention to what works best for you, and let your body know that it can turn its built-in alarm system off and it’s safe enough to sleep. While there seems to be a number of different ways to help encourage a good night’s sleep, experts all agree that there are some simple cues that can help. Ultimately these cues are designed to help us unwind and relax, for if our alarm systems are revved up, then our bodies are revved up which makes it much harder to settle for a good night’s rest. Check out some of these tips and tricks below, and if you haven’t already, give them a go.
Physical Exercise and Relaxation Techniques
When it comes to relaxing and winding down for the night, many of us don’t instantly jump to the idea of exercise. However gentle exercise such as going for a walk after dinner or some light stretching half an hour before bed can be a great way to help release some of the stresses we’ve been carrying throughout the day and unwind. Depending on the type of movement, low-intensity exercise can help to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest response), as well as release feel-good endorphins throughout our body. Physical relaxation techniques can be another good tool to help encourage a restful night’s sleep. Next time you find yourself tossing and turning in bed, try diaphragmatic breathing (from deep in your belly, rather than shallow through your mouth), or a progressive muscle contraction/ relaxation scan (squeezing each individual muscle group, then relaxing each in order from head to toe) throughout your body. Both of these techniques help promote a message of relaxation back to our brain, letting our systems know that they are safe now, safe to go to sleep.
During sleep, our bodies use this time to rest and digest. Our systems kick into gear to help repair and restore our bodies, as well as break down our dietary intake consumed throughout the day. Eating spicy food, or a large meal before bed can be a hindrance to this process as it puts extra pressure on our digestive system and makes it work even harder. If you are planning to call it a night soon, try to limit yourself to smaller, blander snacks or a light meal within the last hour before bedtime. Certain beverages can also play a helping hand in supporting you to drift off for a better night's sleep. A glass of warm milk before bed helps to encourage the build-up of the hormone serotonin, which is a precursor to melatonin. These hormones help to regulate your sleep and wake cycle and can help to induce sleep. Camomile tea can also be another beneficial beverage, as chamomile contains antioxidants that can help to promote sleepiness.
Nightly Routines – Relaxing vs Stimulating
We all have our morning and nightly routines, and often we design these based on convenience. But one such nightly routine that could help promote a better night’s sleep is a quick bath or shower before bedtime. Apart from helping to relax our muscles and wash away the worries of the day, bathing helps to heat up your skin and your core temperature. As a result, when you remove yourself from the hot water, the evaporation of moisture on your skin as you pat yourself dry leads to a natural cooling of the body. When the body is cool and relaxed, it helps to facilitate the onset of sleep, hence may be more beneficial than your quick morning wash. Other nighttime routines that we can all be guilty of are checking our phones or watching Netflix in bed before we sleep. While we can often convince ourselves that this is to help us unwind and relax, the blue light emitted from our phone, laptop, or tablet screen actually stimulates our brain, making drifting off to sleep that little bit harder. If you’re looking for an alternative, try picking up a book instead, or listen to a podcast or the radio.
Got Busy Brain?
Why is it that when our head finally hits the pillow our brain seems to go into overdrive, replaying old situations, asking multiple questions, or formatting list after list of everything we need to do that week? Good news; none of these problems have to be solved then and there. If your brain is full of busy thoughts or running over what’s occurring tomorrow, pop a small notebook beside your bed so you can write it all down. This can be a good outlet as our brain says ‘Oh, I don’t want to forget this’, so allowing yourself to jot down your thoughts can help to organise your mind clearly, and more importantly, allow yourself to deal with it tomorrow.
So now that you’re armed with some new tips and tricks, give them a try to make the most out of your night’s sleep. If you're looking to learn more about these sleep skills try out our free 7-day challenge.