What do you know about sleep?
Check your sleep knowledge with our Sleep Facts and Myths Quiz:
Why do we need good quality sleep?
A lack of quality sleep can cause:
- Low mood and depression
- Anxiety and stress
- Reduced motivation
- Reduced concentration and focus
- Impaired memory
- Difficulty with thinking flexibly
- More negative thinking
- Food cravings
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Compromised immune system
How do we get better sleep?
Poor sleep quality and sleep problems can have many causes such as stress, unhelpful sleep habits, lifestyle factors and medical issues.
Although there is no magic cure for sleep problems, there are several things you can do to increase the likelihood that you will have an adequate amount of good quality sleep.
Often a good place to start is improving sleep habits (also called sleep hygiene). Developing new sleep habits takes time so perseverance can be necessary to get back on track.
The next section introduces a range of habits that may be useful to try.
A sleep diary can also help identify sleep patterns, any unhelpful sleep habits and help you track which sleep hygiene strategies are helping.
- Get up at the same time each morning, regardless of whether you are still sleepy. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, sleeping in will only shift your sleep-wake cycle and exacerbate the problem. The only way to change such a sleep time routine is to start with waking at the required time.
- Put your alarm out of reach. Then you will have to get out of bed to turn it off. Alternatively, try a puzzle alarm app.
- Move around when you wake up. Go outside, get into daylight. Jump in the shower, have a glass of water, splash your face with water. All these signals prompt the brain to become alert.
- Once out of bed, it should feel easier to keep going.
- Try not to nap regularly during the day as this will reduce tiredness and impact your sleep that night. If you need to - keep the nap to 30 minutes or less.
- Be physically active during the day, but not close to bedtime.
- Minimise use of caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, stimulants and other medications, particularly in the evening.
- Get tasks done to free up more evening time to relax.
- Create a relaxing space. Make sure your bedroom is an uncluttered and soothing place that creates a restful mood. Try to use your bed for sleep and intimacy only (not study). Get the temperature right and make your bed comfy.
- Avoid heavy meals before bed. If you need a snack, a drink of milk may be helpful.
- Stop studying at least 1 hour before bed. Put your work out of sight.
- Keep lights low and switch off screens (e.g. phone, laptop) toward bedtime, as bright lights make it harder for your brain to produce melatonin, the natural sedative which helps us sleep.
- Have a calming routine before bed. This signals to your body and mind to prepare to sleep. Go to bed at a similar time each night and do something easy and relaxing for an hour or so before bed. You might read a book, listen to music, or have a bath.
- It is best not to go to bed too early. You might notice feeling tired in waves. Go to bed when you are tired and ready to sleep.
- If you are still awake after 20 minutes, get up again. Keep the lights low. Write some thoughts down or a to-do list and let yourself know you will return to those thoughts in the morning. Read, or have a hot or cold drink (non-caffeinated). Return to bed when you feel sleepy.
- If you find yourself waking in the night to use the bathroom, try and reduce fluid intake in the hours before going to bed.
- Minimise disruptions during the night. This might include negotiating with your partner or using earplugs to block noises. If you watch the time, turn your clock away.
Mind still not switching off?
Unfortunately, there is no magic switch to stop our thoughts. It is natural for our minds to feel busy at night and for worries to appear. Here is some further information about why our thoughts turn negative before bed. There are strategies that can help the mind start to slow down and get ready for sleep...
- Write a to-do list for the next day so tasks are safely recorded, and you can relax and sleep.
- Set aside ‘worry time’ earlier in the day. This involves setting aside 20 minutes each day where you allow yourself to think about the day’s events and what is happening tomorrow. You can write down what you are worried about, and what you might do to help resolve the problem. At the end of the time, tell yourself the worry time is up, that it is now time to rest and that you will have another chance to worry tomorrow. Record any outstanding issues for tomorrow’s worry time.
- Shift your focus. It can be frustrating to not be able to sleep, making you more stressed and then less likely to sleep. Plan on getting some rest and relaxing rather than ‘trying to get to sleep’.
- Concentrate your thoughts upon something simple but boring, such as counting backwards from 500. It’s important to make sure your breathing is slow and your body relaxed while you do this.
- Try mindfulness mediation or relaxation audio exercises before sleep.
- Accept that there will be nights when you cannot sleep as well as you would like. You will still be able to function the next day. The less anxious you are about sleep, the more easily sleep will come to you.
- If you wake through the night and feel unsettled after a bad dream, doing something a little different can help you switch back into a relaxed mode. For example, turning your pillow over to the cool side, or get up for a short time. Thinking of a positive ending to the dream’s story can help, especially with recurring dreams.
Let's Talk About Sleep Webinar
Click on the link to watch a session with the University Counselling Service on how to get better sleep. Select the purple button on the lower right to open up the chat box for the webinar.
Once you have established a good sleep routine and helpful sleep habits, if you are still experiencing sleep difficulties, consult your general medical practitioner. Your doctor can help investigate any medical causes of your sleep difficulties. In some cases, short-term use of medication may assist with re-establishing a normal sleep pattern. Alternatively, there are many herbal preparations which are readily available.
If stress, anxiety or other mental health difficulties are affecting sleep, consider speaking to a mental health professional such as the counsellors at the University Counselling Service.