A lot more of us are experiencing anxiety-related sleep problems than ever before – and most of us are far more stressed than we have ever been. ‘Coronasomnia’ is rife, with experts citing disrupted routines, grief and chronic uncertainty as responsible for this eruption of sleeplessness. According to the Sleep Foundation, around 4 in 10 people have reported struggling to sleep throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sleep specialist and chartered psychologist Dr Lindsay Browning shared the surprising reason why stress can be so problematic when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep – and some simple things you might want to try to get your sleeping habits back under control.
WHAT IS THE QUALITY OF YOUR SLEEP REALLY LIKE?
According to Dr Browning, a lot of people sleep far better than they think they do, especially due to the phenomena of “orthosomnia” – the quest for perfect sleep – which is exacerbated by sleep tracking devices and tech. So the first step is actually to figure out what the quality of your sleep is really like, and whether it truly constitutes ‘bad’ sleep. It might just be a case of reframing how you view sleep, rather than needing to fix a deeper problem.
To start with, consider these three things when you think about your over all sleep quality:
- How you feel the moment you first wake up has much more to do with the stage of sleep you are directly woken from than how long you slept for, or the quality of your sleep. Sleep is cyclical; we go through various stages, and some are deeper than others. If you wake from a deeper sleep stage, then you will feel tired, groggy and disorientated when you wake up, however well you slept.
- It’s not necessarily a problem if you wake up in the night. Most people do, but they don’t remember anything about it because they were awake for such a short period of time; they went straight back to sleep. When people do remember waking up, they may believe that their sleep has been disrupted and is of a poorer quality than if they had “slept through without waking”. This is simply not true. Waking up the odd time during the night is perfectly normal – to be expected, even.
- Waking up needing to go to the toilet is normal, too. If you have been asleep for two to three hours in the night and you wake up enough to realize that you are awake, you will simply become aware of your bladder and find that it is a bit full (in the same way that it would have filled up during the day in a comparable period of time). The best thing to do is to get up and go to the toilet, then go back to bed.
HOW DOES TEMPORARY BAD SLEEP DIFFER FROM INSOMNIA?
If you’re certain that the quality of your sleep is not very good, it’s time to look at why that might be. When people go through a stressful life event, such as a bereavement, a relationship breakdown or significant job stress, their sleep will be affected. Even a very good sleeper will struggle to fall asleep or may wake in the early hours with their mind racing at times like this. Other things that can affect your sleep in the short term are jet lag or an unexpected period of broken sleep – due to looking after a sick child during the night, for example.
Each of these understandable disruptions to your sleep should start to have less and less impact as time goes by and circumstances change. However, what often happens is that what should have been a temporary sleeping problem caused by the initial stress or sleep disruption, continues long after the cause – or “trigger” – has gone.
The main reason people may find that they are still sleeping poorly when the trigger is no longer there is because they start to worry about their lack of sleep. They may become anxious about how little they have slept, and start to change their behaviour when it comes to sleep. This unhealthy focus on sleeplessness causes the problem to get worse and worse.
Sleep is the one thing in life you cannot do better at by trying harder. In fact, in general, the harder you try to sleep better, the worse your sleep will get. This is how a temporary sleeping problem can morph into a longer-term issue. All of the behaviours, thoughts and actions you have initiated in an attempt to fix your sleeping problem have ended up making the sleeping problem much worse. Even when the initial cause of your temporary sleeping problem is resolved, these thoughts and anxieties about sleep and the changes you have made to your behaviour will still be there, and they will only serve to perpetuate your sleeping problem.
TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR STRESS LEVELS
Stress is one of the main causes of temporary sleep problems. You have likely experienced a poor night’s sleep right before an important exam or a critical business presentation, when you really needed to be at your best. This happens because when you are stressed, anxious or worried about something, your cortisol levels increase. Cortisol, a hormone produced in your adrenal gland, is part of your “fight-or-flight” mechanism. It affects the body in a number of ways, giving you more energy, regulating your blood pressure and increasing your blood sugar level. It also has a role to play in your sleep/wake cycle. In essence, increased cortisol will make it much harder to fall asleep.
The main reason people may find that they are still sleeping poorly when the trigger is no longer there is because they start to worry about their lack of sleep.
In addition to the physiological effects of stress on the body, it also affects your mental processing. If there is something worrying or stressful on your mind, you are likely to ruminate on the problem at night. In today’s busy world, when everyone is too busy during the day with work, family, friends and chores, there is often very little time to stop and think. When you lie down in bed at night, it might be the first moment of the day that you have had to reflect on what is really on your mind or in your heart. This is when you might find your mind racing with all the worries and thoughts you haven’t had time to ruminate on during the day. Sleep will be easier when the stress and worry reduce, if you make time to deal with your thoughts and anxieties during the day, or if you use some relaxation techniques to help calm your mind at bedtime.
There are plenty of ways to relax; you just need to find the one that works for you, then stick at it. You could try:
- Downloading a relaxation/guided meditation app such as Calm or Headspace
- Getting a massage during the day
- A yoga or pilates class
- Essential oils
- Listening to relaxing music before bed
- Reading a book
- Reducing screen-time in the hours leading up to bedtime
- Getting outside during the day (if you can combine that with exercise – not too close to bedtime! – then great.)
When you find something that makes you feel calmer, make it a daily practice while you get through this patch of bad sleep. This is much more helpful than trying hard to get to sleep, which will just make you more stressed.
WHAT IF I STILL CAN’T SLEEP?
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the cause of your sleeping problems is more complex than stress and worry. In which case, we’d advise contacting your doctor and/or a therapist who specialises in sleep problems. They will be able to work with you using cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and advise other ways they might be able to help … as well as talking to you to rule out or diagnose a sleep disorder or health problem that could be at the root of your struggles.
You can also search ‘sleep’ in our online bookshop to find the books that we recommend. This article was based on an extract from Navigating Sleeplessness: How to Sleep Deeper and Better for Longer by Dr Lindsay Browning. It’s available to buy from the Trigger bookshop.
Dr Lindsay Browning is a sleep expert, chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Since 2006, she has been working with individuals and organisations to improve people’s sleep and wellbeing, and runs her own sleep clinic, Trouble Sleeping.
She studied psychology at university, and was awarded the Wellcome Trust four-year scholarship at the University of Oxford to study a masters in neuroscience and a doctorate in insomnia. Her doctoral thesis looked at the relationship between worry, rumination and insomnia. She spends her time helping individual clients improve their sleep with cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), and working with companies to offer employee wellbeing programmes. She offers sleep and shift work advice and consultancy to companies and the public sector, including working with the NHS and the police, as well as charities and other organisations.