(Ghost-written interview, by me)
By Professor Richard Wiseman
Don’t hate me, but I’m a really good sleeper and usually get a solid eight hours. I rarely wake up in the night and I don’t use an alarm clock to get me up.
Trust me, I know how lucky I am. We are a sleep-deprived nation — and our problems seem to be getting worse. In 2014, six in ten British adults reported getting fewer than seven hours sleep a night, a 50 per cent increase on the previous year, which is huge.
A lack of sleep is linked to all sorts of problems — from road accidents to mental health issues (and we’ve seen an explosion of those in recent years). It can also raise the risk of obesity (sleep deprivation saps your willpower and drives up hunger hormones), heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In my work as a psychologist I’ve sifted through decades of research into sleep and dreaming and come up with techniques to help people who struggle to get a good night’s sleep. And even if you sleep pretty well, there are tricks to help you snooze even better.
Nodding off too quickly is bad
You might think falling asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow is a good thing, but it’s actually an indicator that you’re not getting enough sleep. Ideally, it should take eight to 12 minutes from the moment you get into bed to drifting off. Five minutes or less is a warning that you need to go to bed earlier.
If it takes you longer than 12 minutes, that’s a sign of what we call sleep-onset problems.
This is different from, say, lying awake because you have chronic back pain, which isn’t a sleep problem per se. But if you’re lying there staring at the ceiling unable to sleep, it’s probably because you’re anxious.
When you’ve got something running back and forth through your brain, it keeps you too alert to sleep. You need to do something to quiet the mind — but trying to will yourself to sleep will only make matters worse. So . . .
Can’t sleep? Try to stay awake!
Try applying a bit of reverse psychology — and try to stay awake. Paradoxically, this seems to make you feel less anxious and help you sleep.
In a useful study, researchers from the University of Glasgow asked volunteers to monitor their sleep for two weeks. One group was asked to try to stay awake for as long as possible, while the other didn’t receive any special instructions. Those trying to stay awake felt less anxious at bedtime and fell asleep quicker.
The problem with trying to relax in order to sleep is that you’re constantly monitoring yourself to see if you’re asleep yet, keeping your brain quite active. In trying to stay awake, you’re not monitoring yourself in the same way. But it’s important you just lie in bed. You mustn’t read or watch TV.
Another option is an exercise such as the alphabet game (pick a theme, such as animals or countries, and try to name one beginning with each letter of the alphabet) or counting backwards from 100 in threes. This occupies the working space of the brain so you can’t think worrying thoughts — and the exercise itself is too dull to keep you awake for long.
Don’t be alarmed in the morning
Unless I have to get up especially early, say at 5 am, I don’t use an alarm clock. Once you’re getting the right amount of sleep — and yes, I’m afraid that means at least seven hours, ideally eight — you shouldn’t need one. It’s fine to set an alarm as a back-up, but you should be waking up five to ten minutes before it goes off.
If you need it to rouse you, that’s a problem — because the chances are you’ll be being woken up from the deepest part of sleep. As we snooze, our brain waves (essentially the electrical activity in our brain) change speed — slowing down until we reach the deepest stages of sleep and then speeding up until we reach the lightest stage known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is when dreaming occurs.
We do this several times a night in sleep cycles, each lasting about 90 minutes. You want to wake up at the end of a sleep cycle, while in REM sleep, because this lightest stage of sleep is closest to our natural waking state.
If you wake up naturally — without an alarm clock — you will always wake up in this last, lightest stage. By comparison, deep sleep — sometimes called slow-wave sleep — is a very strange state of consciousness. Our brain waves slow right down, and if woken straight from this stage we feel groggy and ill-tempered. This is why alarm clocks are a bad idea — they don’t know if you’re in deep sleep or not.
To wake up at the end of a sleep cycle, decide when you want to wake up, then count backwards in 90-minute blocks to find the time you need to go to bed. Ideally, you want five or six sleep cycles, so if you want to wake up at 7.30 am, you need to be going to sleep at either 10.30 pm or midnight.
This doesn’t matter so much if you’re sleeping for a full eight hours, as by the end of the night you will have spent more time in dream sleep anyway.
But if you’re getting up to go on holiday for instance, you may be better off getting four and half hours (three sleep cycles) than four or even five hours. You’ll still be tired, as you’ve not slept for long enough, but you’ll feel a bit better when you wake up.
What to do if you wake up at night
Some people suffer from ‘sleep maintenance insomnia’, waking up during the night and struggling to get back to sleep. If you’ve woken up because you have remembered something you need to do the next day, make a note (keep a pad by your bed) and try to get back to sleep. You could also try one of the tricks I suggest for nodding off.
If you’re still awake after 20 minutes, most sleep scientists recommend getting out of bed: you need to associate your bed with sleep. Whatever you do, don’t get up and watch TV and avoid bright lights and computer screens.
Professor Jim Horne, recently retired head of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University, recommends an activity you find relaxing which uses your hands as well as your head, such as a jigsaw or a colouring book.
If you often wake up in the night, but don’t have much trouble going back to sleep, it’s not necessarily bad. It may be we’re designed to break our night into two segments.
Diaries and medical books from before the advent of electric light often mention ‘first and second sleep’. It seems it used to be commonplace for people to sleep for four hours, wake for an hour, then go back to bed for another four.
Some research has even suggested this segmented sleep may be good for you as the break in between appears to coincide with the release of the hormone prolactin, which can generate a positive mood. The brain seems to go into a slightly different state afterwards too, making the second sleep especially refreshing.
Grab forty winks during the day
I nap almost every day — usually at about 2 pm and for 20 minutes. Everyone should nap: we’re programmed to do it. We all have an internal clock that governs all sorts of processes, including when we feel tired. This is known as the circadian rhythm.
From about 6 am, your body’s clock makes you feel steadily more alert until about 11 am at which point you slowly start to feel less awake again, hitting an all-time daytime low at around 3 pm. This dip in your circadian rhythm is the ideal time to nap — and if you can, you should.
However, if, like most people, you work in an office, console yourself with the fact that the slump will only last an hour or so before your energy levels start picking up again.
So try to resist that extra cup of coffee or chocolate biscuit in the knowledge you won’t feel tired all afternoon.
Worried you won’t wake up from a quick cat-nap? Take what sleep researchers call a coffee nap. Before settling down for a short nap (around 20 to 25 minutes) have a caffeinated drink. It takes about that long for the caffeine to work its magic, kicking in just as you plan to wake up.
Solve problems while you snooze
We all have dreams, though often we forget them. We tend to remember dreams only if we’re woken up out of them or they’re so bizarre they wake us up. Dreaming seems to act as your brain’s therapist, working through your worries.
In a key study published in journal Psychosomatic Medicine, volunteers were shown an unpleasant film of a bloody autopsy before spending the night in a sleep laboratory.
One group was woken up whenever they started to dream, while the other was woken up the same number of times, but when they weren’t dreaming.
The following morning all were shown the film again — the group who’d been allowed to dream were significantly less stressed by the film the second time around, the theory being they’d dealt with any anxiety related to it in their dreams.
Studies in which people are woken up after their dreams have also shown that dreams get more positive throughout the night, as your sleeping brain works through your problems.
Keep cool to beat night terrors
I first became interested in the science of sleep a few years ago when — despite having been a good sleeper my entire life — I started to share my bedroom with the devil.
Shortly after falling asleep I would wake up in a cold sweat and see Satan standing in front of my wardrobe.
After about a year of this, I happened to meet the highly regarded sleep expert, Dr Chris Idzikowski. I asked him whether I was having a recurring nightmare. Chris explained that I was having a ‘night terror’.
True night terrors, as opposed to bad dreams, which we all have, are experienced by around 2 per cent of adults. Even though the person is still asleep, they may suddenly sit up, with their eyes wide open, scream or lash out. Night terrors tend to take place during the first few hours of the night, while we are in deep sleep.
Scientists believe they’re a result of the brain struggling to move from deep sleep to wakefulness — so you end up in a strange zombie-like state, neither completely awake nor asleep.
Research suggests that fatigue, stress, heat and disturbances such as light and noise all make night terrors more likely.
Simple things such as keeping the bedroom cool (ideally 18c) and dark, avoiding thick duvets and getting a bigger bed, so you aren’t disturbed by your partner, can help.
After taking this advice on board, I never saw Satan again.
- As told to JENNIE AGG. Richard Wiseman is a professor in the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. His book Night School: The Life-Changing Science Of Sleep, is published by Pan Macmillan, £8.99.
Originally published by the Daily Mail, Good Health, in October 2017.