While the importance of a restful slumber – 8 hours worth being commonly cited – probably does not evade us, there is still plenty to lose sleep over. One third of UK adults where found to suffer some form of sleep loss, with a quarter of them attributing it to stress, in a survey measuring the pandemic’s impact on sleep. Though it may not be entirely clear to us what is impacting our quality of rest, it can be useful, and illuminating to interrogate various different avenues.
A whittling down of the boundaries between work and rest has undoubtedly contributed to sleep, let alone mental health, issues with a disturbing rise in compulsively email-checking in bed, and generally out of work hours, being reported among millennials. Practices like this are unhealthy for a number of reasons. The obvious culprit is the blue light from screens which disrupts our circadian rhythms, meaning our wakefulness is artificially prolonged. More on that later.
Less conspicuous is the communications medium itself. Email, despite being the most central mechanism in the running of an organisation, is often a key driver of stress in employees, who can feel trapped in a cycle of endless dictation by it – in part because they feel pressured to always be available. This derives from workplace culture and the inevitability that emails, internal and from customers, will be sent outside working hours. Of course, this can equally apply to any other conferencing networks or apps (Slack, Zoom, even Messenger) in which you are accustomed to a constant stream of notifications and invitations. Consequently, a place like the bed starts to become associated with work, and as a knock-on effect you may find yourself falling asleep at your desk.
The right to disconnect, which is legally exercised in a number of EU states, has attained new relevance from the lockdown periods of 2020 and 2021, where UK workers were found to be working £4.2 billion worth of unpaid overtime every week. This is at the expense of several things: employee welfare, clearly, but also productivity. Sufficient rest is necessary to achieve a good a quality of work.
A healthy work-life balance is necessary – for both your sake and that of those around you. Fortunately there are several ways to go about this. If your work obligation is the problem, then the boundaries need to set between you and those who incessantly materialise in your inbox. An out of hours automatic reply will do the trick. If your job involves receiving and answering a lot of emails you can also try assigning labels to the most urgent ones to declutter your inbox and attain a bit more peace of mind.
Meanwhile, you can clearly partition your home environment if you are remote working. This might mean allocating tasks to specific parts of your room or house. Emails might be checked exclusively at your desk, for example. You could use your phone on a chair or sofa, and leave the bed for sleeping. This means that when you go to bed you should immediately start to feel more relaxed.
If you are still inclined to reach for your phone or another electronic device you can reduce the impact of its screen by enabling a ‘night light’ or similar feature, or manually reduce the ratio of blue light emitted in the settings.
An excess of stimuli, particularly virtual, can also make sleeping difficult. I have known people to complain about a lack of sleep, while admitting to actively delay it by binge-watching on their phone or laptop well into the small hours. The link between screen-time and deferred sleep is clear, so why do we so easily fall into this trap?
Boredom is one cause, as explored by Dr Ai Ni Teoh in a study on the causes of bedtime procrastination. It is linked with the tendency to be easily distracted, as well as the depleted willpower we experience after a long day of decision-making, which makes it difficult to wind down. We can mitigate this by scheduling in relaxing activities before bed, and a having a set time for bunking down – putting down electronics one hour before gives us ample time to recalibrate and mentally prepare for bed.
Furthermore, we can focus on creating soothing sensorially stimuli that lulls us into shutting off. Dimmed lights, pleasant scents and soft music or ambient sounds can be effective. The amount and type of light we are exposed to at night is significant, as we have touched upon, so the aim should be to simulate a pitch black environment at bedtime. Blackout blinds or curtains and closed doors will work well, but you can alternatively opt for an eye mask. Additionally, it will likely help to lower the temperature of the room in order to fully simulate a cave environment, which has been suggested to be the ideal conditions for human sleep.
Undoubtedly, you will still feel some residual boredom – don’t antagonise this. A gentle boredom may just be the catalyst that induces you into sleep. Let the mind wander to places where it does not have liberty to go to during the strenuous activities of the day – if nothing else this can stimulate creativity and allow for deep reflection.
Also consider the anaesthetic qualities of boredom which can come from an external source. Many poor sleepers have attested to the success of audiobooks, podcasts or very boring music. A recent study has linked sleepiness with the area of the brain associated with stimulation and interest, explaining how we struggle to stay awake in the absence of engaging stimuli.
Exercise is one of the most widely cited treatments for sleep deprivation, which is unsurprising – it is advised for any number of psychosomatic conditions on the basis that it maintains muscles and regulates mood. While it’s not precisely clear how keeping fit contributes to better sleep, the link is definite, and the effects are often immediate. Even 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a day can be beneficial. You may want to try weight lifting, push-ups or other resistance exercises as they raises your heart rate, which aid the brain and body in creating the preconditions for sleep. Yoga is a great alternative.
By extension, we can see how a sedentary lifestyle might lead to problems . Some recent studies have seen a link between inactivity and insomnia, although one interestingly shows that very high levels of exercise can also be detrimental. Whether exercising at night is a good idea is also contentious, since the endorphins it produces can defer rest, while fatigue can put the body into a restorative state. However, recent findings suggest that as long as it is done one hour before bed, it shouldn’t defer sleep. Besides, if you find yourself more able to workout in the evenings then you will see the associated benefits regardless.
Those dealing with obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that leads to snoring and can interrupt sleep, will likely benefit from regular exercise since weight loss alleviates it. In the same way, exercise may indirectly improve sleep by addressing any number of ailments. If nothing else, it will make your healthier and more energised.
Sleep science is complex. There seems to be a wide array of factors that influence our ease and quality of rest – the genetic, environmental, dietary, physical and mental to name a few. Perhaps of most intrigue to those trying to manage sleep deprivation are the psychological factors, and the various tricks that can be used to lull the brain into the deep relaxation that is the prerequisite for sleep.
A recent method, developed by musician and professor Jim Donovan, focuses on rhythm – he details it in a 2018 TED talk which recounts his own struggles sleeping and experience as a drummer. Laying down, begin lightly tapping your hands against your hips in a quick, regular rhythm while inhaling and exhaling deeply. Over the course of a few minutes (though it is apparently possible in just 30 seconds) you should gradually slow this down, synchronising with your breathing – if successful, you should easily find yourself nodding off. According to Donovan, this works because of a phenomenon in the brain called the “frequency-following response”. In short, our brains like patterns, and latch onto consistently spaced intervals – such as those used in most types of music. By creating a consistent rhythm, and slowing it, we are in turn slowing the activity of the brain.
You may also want to try a regulated breathing exercise. Breathing naturally slows in entering the first stage of sleep, referred to as light sleep, in which we are halfway between wakefulness and dropping out of consciousness; this continues to slow into deep sleep. Focused breathing can aid the body in winding down, if you are feeling anxious, uncomfortable or agitated. Some techniques include:
- Visualisation breathing: Picture, in depth, how the air you draw in is reaching the various parts of your body. As you exhale, imagine you are dispelling all of your discomfort, negative thoughts and emotions.
While lifestyle choices can influence our ability to snooze, we cannot ignore the role of genetics. The characteristics that determine whether somebody is a morning or evening person have been traced to 15 different regions of the genome – suggesting it is at least partly inherent. These regions affect our circadian rhythms, which determine how we are affected by light, among other things.
But chronotypes are fortunately not the end of the story. Though we may have a genetic disposition towards waking and staying up late, our circumstances can have a greater influence than our biological circadian rhythm on our bodies. Breaking away from the screen and our tendency towards low-effort stimulation, and unhealthy habits, could effectively rewire our sleep. Indeed, exercise, nature walks, and other mood-lifting activities might just be the panacea.