Back in June 2020, half of us reported that our sleep had become more disturbed than usual since lockdown. This was hardly surprising news, given the seemingly infinite states of emergency ranging from a global coronavirus pandemic to a national mental health crisis.
Fortunately, putting the UK’s mental health in the spotlight has led to some positive action for our collective not-so-unconsciousness – from having more conversations and sharing more knowledge on how we can better support one another and help ourselves, to the government’s recent announcement of a £500 million mental health recovery action plan.
However, for many of us, adjusting to lockdown life a year later hasn’t necessarily meant hacking sleep as well. There’s still been plenty going on to keep us up at night, from the upcoming changes to lockdown restrictions to something as simple as Daylight Savings Time.
Oh yes. Just last night I was lying in bed, trying to drift off, when I suddenly realised, “Uh oh, I forgot the clocks go forward tonight! So that’s one less hour’s sleep I’m going to get before work tomorrow. I should have gone to bed an hour earlier. OK, I absolutely need to fall asleep now. Right now… riiiiight nooooow.”
Of course, it’s never as simple as that, but it’s definitely gotten easier for me to drift off since I started practising meditation. Two months ago, a friend recommended Headspace after I complained I was having trouble sleeping. While I was fidgety at first, and concerned about getting it “right,” I now set aside 10 minutes at the start of every single day to meditate.
It’s completely changed the pace of my mornings, starting the day with peace and tranquility instead of throwing on running gear and flying straight into my To Do list. Not only is practising mindfulness great for managing my Borderline Personality Disorder but, when I’ve found myself lying awake at night, employing the techniques has made hours spent lying awake a thing of the past.
How does mindfulness help to reduce anxiety?
Mindfulness and meditation have been proven to help people reduce stress and manage difficult emotions, Eve Lewis Prieto, Director of Meditation at Headspace, tells me.
“By becoming more aware of how stress, anxiety or worry appears in our thoughts and bodily sensations,” she says, “we can observe them and accept these are normal and understandable experiences. Using our breath as an anchor, we can feel connected to the present moment, unwind, reset and step away from the worried mind.”
How can mindfulness help improve sleep?
“The mind’s tendency to get caught up in thoughts is perhaps strongest at bedtime,” says Eve, “when we suddenly stop and be still. Meditation trains us to be less in our head and more aware of the present moment.
In scientific terms, it helps lower the heart rate by igniting the parasympathetic nervous system and encouraging slower breathing, thereby increasing the prospect of a quality night’s sleep.”
If you’d like to bring more mindfulness to bed with you, Eve lent us a few expert tips:
1. Practice good sleep hygiene
Your bedroom should feel like a sleep oasis — stress and distraction-free. While the right environment for said oasis will differ from person to person, there are a few must-haves.
Firstly, declutter your bedroom (come on, you’ve had a year).
“If your bed feels dreamy but your room is a mess,” says Eve, “you could be at a higher risk for sleep problems. What your eyes see when you walk into a room can influence whether or not you’ll have an easy time falling asleep.”
Next, assess your bedding situation. There are no hard and fast rules on soft vs. firm mattresses but, if you’re a softy lying on the equivalent of a hardwood floor, it might be time to make a new investment.
Finally, ensure your room is cool, dark and peaceful. Depending on your neighbours, the latter might be easier said than done, but white noise, ambient sounds or guided meditations can help to minimise distracting noises.
2. Allow time to decompress before bed
It’s important to allow time in the evening to decompress and unwind before heading to bed, especially after a busy day. Just a few small changes can awaken your senses and calm your busy mind, easing the transition from daytime to night.
Ease yourself into the evening by dimming the lights when you’re home at night. Eve recommends switching bright overhead lights off in favour of lamps and candles, and swapping the chatter of TV and the news for some soothing music.
Also, if you ever needed to hear why you shouldn’t be checking work emails after hours, listen up! “Checking work emails after hours can cause anxiety and stress,” says Eve. “Each new message represents another decision you have to make, keeping your mind active.”
Got it? Good. Let’s make a pact.
3. De-stress to help yourself drift off
Now you’ve saved yourself some time by not checking emails, why not use it on having a relaxing bath instead? Heat relaxes tense, tired muscles, and helps you to de-stress.
Eve also recommends some gentle yoga poses before bedtime. “Restorative yoga poses before bed have been shown to increase relaxation and relieve tension.”
Once you’re in your serene, uncluttered bedroom, don’t assume you have to dive straight under the covers and hit the hay. Find a nighttime routine that works for you. A good book, a dreamy soundscape or a sleepcast on Headspace are all great ways to help your body and mind unwind and power down.
If you’re struggling to control your anxiety at night or would like some more advice on how to cope, make sure to contact your GP.
For more advice on looking after your mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com.