‘Switching off’. Sounds so easy doesn’t it? Just flick a switch and everything will power down, letting you settle into a glorious, dreamlike sleep. But it’s not that easy. Our research shows that over a quarter of people regularly struggle to switch off at night, with a restless night of not enough sleep the result. But what exactly is going on when you ‘switch off’? And why can it be so hard? And, most importantly, how do we get better at it?
To understand what really is going on in that noggin of yours when when you head up the stairs to Bedfordshire we need to start with a bit of science. Hidden in your brain are special chemicals, called neurotransmitters, and they govern how you feel from moment to moment. Some of these neurotransmitters, such as noradrenaline, cortisol or dopamine make you feel more aroused and awake, whilst others help dampen down your brain activity and promote sleep. In essence, you ‘drop off’ to sleep, when the levels of ‘arousing’ hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, drop, and the level of ‘sleep promoting’ hormones, rise. That should all be very easy. The levels of sleep promoting hormones are governed by things like how dark it is, how long you’ve been awake, the time of day or night it is, your body temperature and bodily comfort, and how safe you feel. The hormones that keep you awake are governed by how active you are, levels of external stimuli (light, noise etc), the time of day it is (or your brain thinks it is) and whether you feel ‘under threat’ - in other words, whether your brain feels like it needs to do something urgently to stay safe.
But as we all know, it’s often not quite as easy as that, and we have to work hard to help manage our brain, and how it’s feeling, and things can easily get in the way of switching off to sleep. The easiest way to think about what these things are is about how fundamentally comfortable you are. To switch off, you need to be comfortable in 3 ways;
- You need to be comfortable in your body. That means a comfortable bed, a body as free as possible from aches and pains, and being the right temperature - ideally in a cool room (around 18 degrees centigrade is ideal) but in a warm bed.
- You need to be comfortable in your environment. That means little or no light (and certainly no ‘blue’ light, such as that used by mobile phones - this sort of light is particularly damaging, as it simulates bright daylight, tricking your brain into thinking it’s the middle of the day). It means little or no noise that could arouse and stimulate your mind. And it means nothing in your environment that could arouse or worry you, whether a phone lurking with e-mails and whatsapps pinging or a pile of ironing that needs putting away at the end of the bed.
- And most importantly you need to be comfortable in your mind. This is the hardest to achieve, but your mind needs to feel safe and free from worry in order for the stress hormone, cortisol, to drop. There are a number of tricks to help with this, but the tried and tested ones are often the best. Journal your thoughts, write down any ‘to-dos’ and plan your following day before you start winding down. This way your mind won’t be whirring with worry. Spend some time clearing your mind before sleep, whether through listening to a podcast, reading a book, listening to calming music, or doing mindfulness and relaxation exercises. Heavy bedding, such as a weighted blanket can also make you feel more safe - this replicates the feeling of being hugged as a child by a parent. And there’s nothing wrong with having a favourite teddy bear in bed with you - over a quarter of adults do. When you do settle down to drift off, feel free to let your mind wander, and try not to think about whether or not you’re asleep, or what time it is.
Human brains and bodies are very trainable, responding well to repetition (as anyone who’s ever felt hunger pangs on the dot of 12 o’clock will know). So whatever your chosen wind down routine, make it regular, make it repeatable, and make it the same rhythm you follow. Every. Single. Night.
All the time you spend in bed, resting with your eyes closed is helpful for recovery and recuperation, even if you’re only in very light sleep, so the most important thing is not to clock watch, or count the minutes waiting to drop off. If you find that, instead of becoming less aroused and more sleepy over time, you are beginning to toss and turn and feel more agitated, it’s worth getting up, and starting your wind down routine over again.
Over time, and with practise you’ll find switching off easier and easier, letting your mind and body make the most of your time in bed so you wake up well slept and raring for the day.