Everything about our day impacts our sleep. How many minutes we spend outside, what and when we eat, what’s happening with our hormones, our habits, emotions, stress and thoughts – all this feeds into the sleep we end up with at night. All of which I was completely oblivious to when battling chronic insomnia for years on end.
Sleep anxiety can create a very real and vicious circle. I would spend hours lying in bed, increasingly wired, anxious and exhausted as time ticked by, with prescription sleeping pills within reach for those 3am nights when I had to be up first thing. The problem is that the more we worry about sleep, the higher our stress hormones go – and too much of the stress hormone cortisol, whatever the trigger, disturbs our sleep. We’re left in a state of fight or flight, when we need to be in the opposite state of rest and digest. When my insomnia was at its worst, I’d start my day exhausted, running on empty, and have recurring burn-out days, where an overwhelming fatigue would stop me in my tracks, forcing me to lie down and recharge.
I realise now that the various sleep tips I tried over the years were like sticking plasters on a broken leg – there’s only so much that lavender, earplugs or herbal teas can do when your sleep is disrupted and out of control. Fortunately a eureka moment came along, when I was reading a book by my great great uncle, Richard Waters, a pioneer in cognitive therapy and clinical hypnosis and a protégé of the French pharmacist and self-help guru Emile Coué. Waters wrote just a couple of pages about insomnia – how the words we use and having an understanding of sleep biology affects our mind, body and our sleep – but they were intriguing enough to set me thinking, researching and experimenting. I interviewed various experts and tried out all the sleep science and tactics I came across, while considering sleep in a much wider context than usual.
Waters also wrote a short, first-person sleep script, about what should be going on in the mind and body in the countdown to sleep. And I recorded myself reading this one-minute sleep script on my phone, which I listened to every day, when fixing my own insomnia and researching my book Teach Yourself to Sleep. Listening to a sleep script allows us to harness the power of suggestion, using self-talk and clinical hypnosis to change our habitual thoughts, physiology and behaviour. I discussed this at length with clinical hypnosis expert Professor Peter Whorwell, whose hospital department at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust creates bespoke scripts to help treat a wide range of disorders, including insomnia, phobias, pain and debilitating IBS symptoms, with a 75-80% success rate, where other treatments have failed.
Following the thread from Waters and Coué to now, and exploring the fascinating world of sleep, light and habit science, experimental psychology and more, it became clear that it pays to have a basic grasp of the biology and science of sleep and to appreciate the extraordinary power of the mind-body loop. Getting results that last makes life easier on so many levels – quality sleep not only improves our physical and mental health but also our energy levels, cognitive function and overall wellbeing. I now instinctively remove obstacles that will get in the way of my sleep and set up sleep habit cues throughout my day. This means I can go to sleep without being up half the night, and wake up refreshed and able to get the most out of the following day. Here are seven sleep tips I used to dismantle my insomnia.
1) Stop calling yourself a bad sleeper!
Our words have an immediate effect on us physically and mentally – and you can see this in action if you consciously choose diametrically opposed words to describe the same situation. The words we choose alter our feelings, perceptions, hormones and behaviour, including our sleep. There are some astounding studies on this and the mind-body loop, and how this can be manipulated to improve our health. As Professor Brooks of the Harvard Business School told me: “Our words codify and solidify our thoughts” – and, in turn, they change how we feel.
2) Embrace the biological fact that your body responds to too much light
Our body is hard-wired to line itself up with the light and dark of nature’s 24-hour clock. As with everything that influences your sleep, it makes all the difference if you’re aware of the simple biology taking place. In this instance, it’s understanding that the extremely light-sensitive cells in your eyes help keep your sleep-wake cycle turning as it should. I use a light box on certain mornings, to give my office light some extra clout. At the other end of the day, a screen break before bed, moving away from bright, stay-wake signals and towards the darkness of night, helps boost sleep-inducing melatonin levels.
3) Weaken the negative fallout from stress
Stress is a huge sleep disrupter with nearly 50% of sleep issues blamed on stress. To help balance the body’s chemical cocktail in favour of sleep, it’s invaluable if we lean on science-based stress busters, to bring down our cortisol levels, which the pace, anxiety and overstimulation of modern life is forever increasing. Effective stress busters I’ve found include “forest bathing”, aka walking among trees, as well as reframing my emotions and changing my perception of stress to weaken its hold. I regularly make use of these tactics among others if I feel my stress levels spiking during the day.
4) Know your DIY sleep habit science
Bad sleep habits, like any other, can be systematically intercepted and replaced with good ones, once you know how they take shape in the brain. Our bedroom is our sleep habit context, and making certain changes here, behavioural and content-wise, helps to break automatic sleep behaviour. Displacing negative rumination by listing the things you’re grateful for gets measurable results. Another thing you can do is remove sleep-sabotaging cues from your bedroom (eg, work and screens), while loading in sleep-promoting cues (eg, sleep-inducing scents), to help new, desirable sleep habits stick.
5) Listen to a sleep script
Habitual thoughts set off a chain reaction that changes your emotions, body chemicals, behaviour, expectations and your sleep. A sleep script, which is a positive affirmation of how well your mind and body are preparing you for sleep, helps with this by gradually shifting your habitual sleep-related thoughts. This taps into the power of self-talk and clinical hypnosis, which are increasingly being explored by scientists, neuroscientists and medics. Also, by listening to a sleep script during the day, you give yourself a moment to pause, creating a window for any stress to subside. I listened to myself reading a short sleep script daily, when sorting out my chronic insomnia and still rely on one as a very potent sleep habit cue.
6) Have an armchair offload
If your mind is full of worries, or all the jobs you need to do tomorrow/this week, have an armchair offload some time before bed, to let your mind think about it all and perhaps write it down. Ideally this would involve sitting in a relaxed space that isn’t your bedroom, giving you time to reflect before heading to bed, once the rush of the day, and/or TV shows are over. Once again, it’s more impactful if you have an inkling of the biology and science going on. By giving yourself this time to think, or jot down any notes, what you’re really doing is moving worries or preoccupations from your brain’s emotional HQ, the amygdala, to your problem-solving pre-frontal cortex. What’s more, your brain will look for solutions while you dream.
7) Stare into the darkness of a pitch-black bedroom
Staring into the darkness last thing, while lying in bed, will help to increase your sleep-promoting melatonin levels, as the “hormone of sleep” is released at night when those light-sensitive photoreceptors in your eyes see that it’s dark out there. Among other things, melatonin is also an immune system booster, so allowing your body to release as much of it as possible throughout your evening by avoiding too much bright light the closer you get to bed, is a plus in more ways than just enjoying easier, more restorative sleep.
Teach Yourself to Sleep: an Ex-Insomniac’s Guide, by Kate Mikhail, is published by Little, Brown at £14.99. Buy it for £13.04 from guardianbookshop.com