Programme: How to sleep better

1. Sleep: What’s it all About?

To understand what is behind advice about sleeping better, it helps to have a general idea of what is happening when you sleep. What exactly is going on in your body at the moment you drop off into dreamland? 


It all begins with the body. Everything in our body follows a rhythm, from our heart and breathing to our digestion. These rhythms are controlled by our internal biological clock. This ‘clock’ ensures that all the rhythms in our bodies are synchronised and that they are in tune with daytime and nighttime. Our biological clock uses a sleep hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is what makes us feel ready to sleep. It is created in the dark and broken down by light. It ensures that you gradually become more tired as your body prepares for sleep.

Our biological clock and our sleep rhythm can be influenced and disturbed by many things - the changing seasons, personal preferences and external factors such as work, irregular shifts and young children, for example. A disturbance in our biological clock can lead to a disturbed sleep rhythm. 

The phases of sleep
It is not only falling asleep that can be a challenge. A lot happens between the moment when you fall asleep and the moment you wake up. Even though we are resting, our brain is incredibly active during this period. Here is a quick explanation:

There are four sleep phases:

  • Phase one: light sleep. You may still be aware of things going on around you such as noises. You may experience the sensation of falling during this phase of sleep - this is a typical phase one characteristic!
  • Phase two: your body becomes more relaxed, your muscles release tension and your brain settles. You enter a deeper sleep.
  • Phase three: a peaceful phase. Breathing slows down. This is the optimal stage for your body to recover. During this phase, our brain consolidates all the memories from the previous day.
  • Phase four: REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep. This phase is characterised by dreaming and rapid movement of the eyes. It is during this phase that we process emotions and experiences. If you wake up during phase four, it is common to have very vivid recollections of your dreams. 

A cycle of four phases of sleep lasts around 90 minutes. The cycle is repeated numerous times during the course of the night. 

Tips

  • Sticking to a regular rhythm each day can help your biological clock. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. This will help to activate other rhythms at regular times, including your eating pattern.
  • It is more difficult for your body to create the sleep hormone melatonin  during the summer months because it stays light for much longer in the evenings. In the winter, on the other hand, it is dark for much longer, which makes it more difficult to break down melatonin. It can help to close the curtains during summer evenings and to get outside into the daylight as often as possible during the winter months. 
  • Try to complete sleep cycles. It is better to sleep for 7.5 hours than for 7 hours as you can then complete five 90-minute sleep cycles and you will not be interrupting your sleep halfway through a cycle. 
  • Sleeping pills, alcohol or drugs may help you to fall asleep but they can have a negative influence on the quality of your sleep. Avoid using them - try other methods first. Ask advice from a professional before using medication, including melatonin pills. 

Watch this film for a detailed explanation of the sleep phases

“The best way to fall asleep is to tell yourself that it’s time to get up”
(Groucho Marx, American actor, 1895-1977).


Reflect & connect

Answer these questions and share your answers with your online psychologist, your partner and/or a friend:

1. What does your sleep pattern look like at the moment?

2. What is a typical night’s sleep like for you? Ask yourself:
A. How many hours do I sleep on average?
B. How many sleep cycles do I usually complete?
C. When do I typically wake up?
D. Do I often remember my dreams?

3. Is there anything you would like to change about your sleep pattern? If so, what?

4. If you share a bed or a room with someone, discuss how your sleep patterns might be influencing each other in either positive or negative ways.

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