During the past year we’ve all had to become much smarter about protecting our health and wellbeing. Pre-Covid we had structures and routines that may have felt burdensome at times but were in fact supportive.
We had the company of our colleagues with the opportunity to share a joke or a problem; the evening commute gave us space to decompress before we re-entered family life; the physical separation of work from home helped us to keep boundaries around our roles as colleague, spouse and parent.
After restrictions were imposed, we realised that left unchecked our mental and emotional health might take a dive. As a result we embraced the many brilliant opportunities that suddenly became available online. We had the time and flexibility after all. Joe Wicks’ sessions at lunchtimes, renewed interest in the Great Outdoors and a newfound patience for endless jigsaws…
Yet for many, despite their best efforts, their sleep suffered. This is not surprising. This has been, and continues to be, a time of huge uncertainty and anxiety all made the worse by the lack of normal distractions – social activities, holidays and well, just spontaneous fun!
And of course, anxiety and sleep are bad bedfellows.
With exercise and diet, most people know what they should be doing to make improvements. The public health messages are fairly clear and consistent. When it comes to sleep, however, it can be more difficult. The internet is full of confusing and often superficial advice.
I’ve heard people swear by bowls of fresh cherries and weighted blankets. And while some of the sleep tips you read online may deliver marginal gains, they’re unlikely to fix your sleep.
So I thought I’d use this space to de-bunk three common sleep myths.
Sleep Myth 1#
It’s OK to skip on sleep during the week and make it up at the weekends
There are two problems with this. Firstly sleep thrives on consistency.
If you have an irregular schedule it makes it harder to maintain a good sleep habit. A lie-in on a Sunday morning might feel a real treat but it can make it harder to nod off that evening. You may already find that on Sunday evenings you don’t sleep that well anyway and a lie-in will have weakened your natural sleep drive. You take longer to fall asleep and start Monday morning already in deficit.
The take home here is to stick to regular bed and waking up times, even at weekends.
The second problem with skipping on weekday sleep is that clinical studies ¹ show that even after just one night of sleep deprivation you experience a rise in blood pressure. One bad night now and then is of little importance but if it becomes the norm it will have a significant health impact. And that can’t be reversed by a lie-in at the weekends.
For optimal physical, emotional and mental health adults need at least seven hours a night, every night.
Sleep Myth 2#
Sleep apps tell you if you’re getting sufficient sleep
Most sleep apps simply aren’t sophisticated enough to measure your sleep patterns in any meaningful detail. They tend to measure movement, not sleep itself. This misleads you. For example you could be lying very still, trying not to disturb your other half, yet wide awake. An app however would interpret this as deep sleep.
Delegating the assessment of your sleep to a tracker isn’t useful. As one of my clients said in frustration:
“I thought I slept well last night but my app says I only got three hours deep sleep!
You are in fact the best judge of your sleep. Instead of relying on an app to tell you if you’ve slept well, simply ask yourself this question when you awake in the morning
Do I feel rested, refreshed and ready for the day ahead?
If the answer is usually “Yes”, you absolutely don’t have a sleep problem whatever your smart watch tells you!
Of course everyone has the odd bad night now and then but if on the whole you feel you have the mental and physical alertness to perform well at work and enjoy your leisure time, you’re getting sleep of sufficient quality and quantity.
Sleep Myth 3#
If I can’t sleep because I’ve got work on my mind it’s better to get out of bed and tackle it rather than lying awake and getting frustrated
Lying awake at night with your brain spinning is such a common problem and it always comes up in my conversations about sleep. When you work hard all day and are busy with family in the evening the quiet of night can be the first opportunity you’ve had to process the day.
But thinking at night will keep you awake, especially if your thoughts are stressful ones. Relaxation paves the way for sound sleep. If your mind is spinning then your physiology will be on alert and sleep can’t arrive.
I completely understand how trying to sleep when your mind is wired is very frustrating. Of course you want it to stop. But getting out of bed and working (or continuing to worry) really isn’t the answer. Getting up at night soon becomes your norm. You lose sleep and the thinking/worrying doesn’t go away.
Instead of learning how to power down you give free rein to your mind and reinforce the habit.
A client told me she made the best decisions when she thought about her cases in bed at night. Yet she found it hard to switch off and was surviving on about five hours. Numerous research studies show the impact of sleep deprivation on cognitive functioning. For example during sleep, learning and memory functions are consolidated.² After a bad night you’re more likely to experience brain fog, forgetting important details and finding it harder to summon your words.
You may get that piece of work done in the small hours but at what cost?
Instead of giving in to late night thinking, you need healthy sleep-supporting strategies to power down.
The great news is that we now have properly researched insomnia treatments that replace myth with methodology. With the right approach you can re-set your sleep in five weeks or less without the need for medication, even if you’ve had a sleep problem for years.
If you know that your work and life would be easier and happier if you slept better then there are different ways I can help. To get started, sign up to my free 7 Day Better Sleep Challenge, or book a complimentary Sleep Analysis Call.