Struggling to get a good night? In honour of Sleep Awareness Week and World Sleep Day this month, we asked caba counsellor and sleep specialist Miro Cansky for his advice.
Q Why is sleep so important for our physical and mental health?
One thing I’ve noticed is that in our society, it’s considered a bit boring to sleep – it’s not productive or entertaining. But it has so many physical and emotional benefits. Our whole wellbeing is affected by it, from physical aspects such as our heart, breathing and circulatory systems to our mental health. When we sleep well, we make better decisions. We can better manage our cravings and our weight. There is a proven impact on creativity, too: if you have a good night’s sleep, you have more energy and resources to think outside the box. If you are prone to catching colds or bugs, the culprit is often lack of sleep, because the body is not in a state of homeostasis, or balance. We need to rest to recover and repair. Physically we recover – our cells renew themselves – and mentally we recover as well, by memories establishing themselves and the mental space doing what it needs to do. I could go on! But it’s huge. It’s extremely important.
Q What about for students who are learning and taking on lots of new information?
Again, it is so important. There was a piece of research done in the early 2000s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US where rats were hooked up to machines that measure brainwaves, then placed in a maze where they had to overcome obstacles and solve problems. At night, they were hooked up to the same machine while they slept – and what the scientists found was that the same brainwaves that happened while they were overcoming the obstacles were repeatedly triggering in the brain, but at about 20 times the speed. The brain was going over and over the maze again at night. The next day when the rats were put back in, they were super-fast because they already knew how to do it. This is why we need to sleep – when we sleep, we let the brain do what it needs to do with information.
Q What’s the ideal amount of sleep for an adult?
Most of the research shows that seven to nine hours is about right for young adults, though some people might need more, and there may be some exceptional cases who need less. But it’s not just about quantity – quality is just as important. You might be getting the right number of hours, but something stops you from fully resting – maybe you had a couple of drinks just before going to bed, or you’re worrying about something as you’re falling asleep. Sleep tracking apps can be useful, as they monitor not only the length of your sleep, but also the four different phases – the REM cycle is particularly important for memory and learning.
Q Is timing important as well? Should we follow our night owl or early bird tendencies?
Those patterns of behaviour come from a part of our brain that monitors our environment and responds by regulating our body temperature. With early birds, their body temperature rises earlier in the day, and that’s when they feel awake and are most productive. It’s not because they force themselves – their brain is making their body more active through raising their temperature, so they have energy available. For night owls, that phase comes much later. All the research suggests that early birds have an advantage: they get more, better-quality sleep, and wake up feeling more rested. Also, the more hours you can sleep before midnight, the more rested you will be. So if you are a night owl – and naturally at this age most students will find themselves in the night owl zone – pushing yourself to move more into the larkish zone will benefit you. It’s good to shift things and work with what the body wants from you.
Q What’s the single most important thing young people can do to improve their sleep habits?
The most important thing from which everything else arises is attitude. In one workshop I ran with accountants, a participant asked me: “Are there any tips you can give us on not feeling tired and not needing to sleep? Because I don’t want to sleep – I’m busy and sleep is not very useful.” I think that is a problem in our society: sleep is underrated and not seen as useful. So for me, the number one is when people sit down and say, “You know what? This matters. This is important. This will make a difference.” Once that mental shift happens, then you can start trying other techniques.
Q So once we’ve set that attitude, what are the practical things we can try?
One simple thing is to set an alarm for going to bed, so that you are challenged to start preparing your routine – getting into your pyjamas, having a chamomile tea, brushing your teeth, whatever it is. So put it in your calendar and stick to it. Then it’s about practising relaxation, looking after your mind and body to support a state of mind so that you are ready to fall asleep. Think about your night-time routine in advance – what do you need, what do you like? Treat yourself as you would a young child: nurturing, supporting and low stimulation. You wouldn’t give a child a lollipop and a phone half an hour before you want them to go to bed! We need to do the same with ourselves. Another thing that is underestimated is attending to your relationship to your bed and bedroom. My experience with a lot of people I’ve worked with is that they procrastinate – they are tired, but they don’t go to bed, because being in bed is somehow associated with boredom, anxiety, loneliness or worrying, perhaps from childhood. That’s when we need to start attending to making the bedroom a really safe and comfortable place.
Q What can you do if you’re struggling to fall asleep, or waking a lot at night?
There are three things to look at. First, the environment: is it too hot, too cold, too noisy? Second, is there some physical pain or discomfort that needs attending to? Or finally, is it your mind that’s anxious? Once you identify what it is, work on that. In terms of the mind, my favourite technique is abdominal breathing. We need to learn how to soothe our nervous system, whether that’s through breathing, mindfulness or guided relaxation. The paradox of course is that the more you try to force yourself to sleep, the more awake you will become. We need to learn how to let go and surrender to sleep – that’s why it’s called falling.
Q Many students end up studying late into the evening. What’s the best way to handle this?
It’s tricky if you’re trying to switch from being a night owl to an early bird but you’ve got this amount of studying to fit in. I think it’s unavoidable to an extent – there are periods in life when we just have to survive and hope it will settle later. So then it’s about just doing your best and not beating yourself up about it. What I would say, though, is to look at the quality of your learning. Are you still taking it in? Is your mind retaining the information, or are you actually just reading and rereading? If so, it’s pointless – go to bed, because your brain is telling you it can’t do it. Try to allow some time to relax between studying and falling asleep, too, at least an hour – but not on your phone. The same goes for cramming the night before an exam: if you’re anxious, cramming might make you feel more in control because you feel like you’re still doing something. But again, the question is whether you are actually absorbing anything. Common sense says you will do better in the exam if you get enough rest the night before. It goes back to the rats in the maze: sleeping will actually help you to retain information – and if you don’t sleep, you won’t retain it anyway.
caba, the charity that supports the wellbeing of ICAEW students and members, offers a range of online resources, practical advice and support. Upcoming training courses include ‘espresso supercharge your sleep’ on 13 April, run by Miro Cansky, and ‘supercharge your sleep’ on 17 May.