Tips for sleeping well if you're stressed

How to get better sleep: Myths and practical tips

There’s nothing worse than lying awake in the middle of the night with your mind racing. And sometimes, the harder you try to get to sleep, the more elusive it becomes.

The juggle of everyday life results in many of us reviewing our mental to-do lists in the middle of the night. And while you’d think the demands and stresses of our busy days should have us sleeping like babies, the reality is, many of us find it hard to wind down and  “switch off” and it’s often our sleep that suffers.

But fear not, according to the experts, sleep is just a few easy steps away.

We’ve talked to health psychologist and Sleep Health Foundation board member Dr Moira Junge to discover some of the most common myths about sleep and to get some practical tips on how to get better sleep.

First, the truth about sleep myths

There are plenty of myths about how to sleep well, says Dr Junge, it’s just a matter of separating fact from fiction.

Myth 1: We all need 8 hours of sleep a night

Did you know not everyone needs to get eight hours of sleep every night?

“We do need to make sleep a priority for our overall health, but some people only need six to seven hours, while others need nine to 10,” Dr Junge says.

Apparently, it’s quality over quantity. So if you’re only getting seven hours of sleep a night, don’t panic.

At the Sleep Health Foundation, we say that most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night, while kids need more to support their growing bodies and brain, she said.

Myth 2: Siestas sabotage sleep patterns

Another common myth is having a daytime sleep will make it hard to go to sleep at night.

“It’s simply not true,” Dr Junge says.

“What is true is that sleeping for a large portion of the day is likely to prevent you from sleeping well at night, however short naps of 10 to 20 minutes are harmless.

“In fact, short naps help to improve alertness which can help to take the edge off exhaustion, helping us to settle at night as we are less ‘wired’,” she said.

Second, some simple facts about sleep

Fact 1: Poor sleep affects everyone differently

The fact is, everyone is different in how much sleep they need and how they manage with and without it. For some people, despite a bad night’s sleep, they can still bounce out of bed in the morning without too much ill effect. Whereas for others, a poor night’s sleep might result in hitting snooze, one, two maybe three times before dragging themselves out of bed.

It turns out that we all handle a lack of sleep differently.

“What’s interesting is that we don’t all react to poor sleep or suffer in the same way,” Dr Junge says.

“Even within families, you can see from a young age that some kids just seem to be more resilient in terms of sleep loss. While others can get emotional and find it hard to concentrate when they haven’t had enough sleep.

“While we all have different tolerances and thresholds with how we’re affected by sleep loss, it’s really important for people to know their own sleep needs, and factor adequate sleep into their daily lives in order to support better health.”

Fact 2: Sleep is important for good mental health

One thing that most of us have in common, however, is that chronic sleep deprivation can negatively impact our mental health.

“People with anxiety and depression can experience a worsening of their symptoms when they’re not sleeping well,” Dr Junge says.

And it can work the other way too – in that mental health conditions or symptoms can also cause poor sleep, she says.

A report published in 2017 by Deloitte Access Economics for The Sleep Health Foundation found that nearly 40% of Australian adults experienced some form of inadequate sleep. Apart from it not feeling great, poor sleep can also hinder our productivity, alertness and performance at school or work.

Third, here are some tips for getting better sleep

So what can we do about it? If you want to get better sleep, Dr Junge offers the following practical tips:

Listen to your body clock

You get the best sleep when it’s aligned with our circadian rhythms, she said. For instance, if you’re a night owl, don’t jump into bed at 9pm thinking that it will help you get more sleep. Instead, wait until you start to feel sleepy before putting your head on the pillow.

Manage any anxiety

We get our best sleep when we’re not worried, or focused on what’s coming up in coming days.

Try to keep stress and anxiety at manageable levels by unwinding before bed, turning off screens and taking time to read or meditate before bed, she said.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and sleep continues to be a struggle, it’s important to talk to your GP or a psychologist to get help to manage both your anxiety and the lack of sleep.

Try not to worry about sleep

It’s a cruel irony that the harder you try to sleep, the more elusive it can become, Dr Junge says.

“The best sleepers in the world don’t plan for it, think about it, count it, or fret about it,” she said. “Try to remember back to a time when you slept well and note that it was most likely when you didn’t try to line everything up so perfectly to protect or guard your sleep,” Dr Junge says.

Still need help? Talk to your doctor or access more sleep resources

Of course, it’s not always easy to unwind and stress less. If you need support, don’t hesitate to talk to your GP or a psychologist.

The Sleep Health Foundation has a range of tips and information sheets on getting better sleep. These include tips on getting enough sleep if you’re stressed about the COVID-19, and how to stop chronic insomnia from developing. You can also check the recommended hours of sleep for each age group.

Dr Moira Junge is a health psychologist and board member of the Sleep Health Foundation.

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