Neil Garrity, a former nurse in the NHS and long-time counsellor at XenZone, offers his experience and insight in helping young people and adults to view sleep as less of a luxury and more of necessity.

It might feel like there is a growing expectation that we should be awake and alert for longer. Left unchecked, the demands of work can easily bleed into our evenings and that’s without the clamour of social media demanding our attention day and night.

We barely have a moment to ourselves – let alone to dedicate to a good eight-hour sleep.

For some, the prospect of switching off our phones so that we can switch off our minds an hour or two before bed seems impossible. But this fear of missing out (“fomo”) or an addiction to the dopamine high we get from scrolling through our Instagram feed may be such that we are compromising our physical and mental health.

Preparing our bodies and minds for bed, knowing that sleep will make us feel better in the morning, is low on our list of priorities.

Recent NHS statistics show that there were almost 10,000 sleep disorder admissions in 2017 for the under 16s alone. And we are seeing prescriptions for melatonin, the hormone we produce to get us ready for sleep, increase across the board.

One of my first questions to a new client will be about their experience of sleep as an indicator of their mental health. It’s a rare event that someone comes to me for mental health support and has great sleep; it’s often the first thing that’s affected when we are anxious or stressed.

Insufficient sleep can be responsible for someone feeling irritable, tense and non-communicative, which can easily be misinterpreted. I have often worked with clients who have mistaken these symptoms for something far more serious. Sleep-deprived and anxious, they believe they are bipolar or need anti-depressants.

In most cases they simply need better sleep.

Really, it boils down to self-care. Often people don’t feel they have time for themselves. When it becomes clear what an impact their lack of self-care is having on their lives, their health and their relationships, people are more likely to make changes. An understanding of the causes of a lack of self-care is key while the rest may rely on motivation and a willingness to listen.

So how do we start to tackle the fundamental building block of sleep to achieve better mental health?

There are six basic tips to improve sleep patterns:

  1. Get Some Exercise. Exercise is good for improving our mood and our sleep. It releases endorphins (our ‘feel good’ hormones) and helps to boost our moods – as well as letting out anxiety or tension. Finding an exercise or sport that you enjoy or can do with friends and others may be the best way to access those feel good hormones.
  2. Establish a Schedule. Try to get up at the same time everyday and avoid taking naps. We all know how tempting a nap can be at the weekend when we’re yawning at 3pm but it can affect your sleep routine and lower mood.
  3. Avoid Lying in Bed Awake. If after 20 mins or so of lying in bed not feeling sleepy, do something uninteresting. Try reading a non-taxing book. Avoid the TV or the computer or anything that is stimulating as the less boring it is, the more we will prefer it to sleep. You could try a warm, non-caffeinated drink, which leads me to:
  4. Be Aware of Your Caffeine and Stimulant Intake. An obvious one maybe, but avoiding caffeine will reduce feelings of stress and anxiety and increase the chance of better sleep.
  5. Establish a Bedtime Routine: This can be tough for those of us operating on different schedules on weekdays and weekends. But going through the same pre-bedtime routines can help to improve sleep as our minds recognise certain triggers and prepares for sleep. A routine may include having a bath, listening to pleasurable, calming music, having a warm (caffeine free) milky drink – or anything that is about ‘switching off’ for the day to get a good night’s sleep.
  6. Turn off Phones (and tablets, laptops, etc.) We need our bodies to produce melatonin so that our brain knows it’s time to switch off and go to sleep. It may be tough, but banishing the phone to the kitchen for the night while we go up to bed may be an important step in achieving better mental health.

Learning to take care of yourself and prioritise sleep using some of the tips above can lead to an increased sense of self and dramatically improved mood.

Both are big prizes that can lead to better all-round mental and physical health.

Neil Garrity

Kooth Counsellor for children and young people