Knowing you have a big presentation first thing tomorrow, you decide to have an early night. Your head hits the pillow and you wait for a wave of sleep to sweep you and your worries away. What was 9:30pm turns into 10pm, then 11pm, 12am, and the harder you try, the further you seem to get from drifting away. The initial stress about your presentation has faded, replaced by a fear of how you’ll perform following a night of tossing and turning. 

If you’ve ever been in this sleepless situation, you’ll know how distressing it can feel. It’s paradoxical that it’s often when sleep is most crucial that it seems to elude us. So, what helps? Let’s explore what science can tell us about why we sleep; what to do the next time you find yourself in the situation described above; and some tips on how you can improve the quality of your sleep. 

One proviso first. It should be noted that, for some of us, sleep can be hard to come by, especially for shift workers and new parents, for example, where it’s normal to have sleep disrupted by adjusting to work schedules or your baby’s rhythms. For others, trouble with sleep may be more persistent and remain that way for a while, beginning to tip into the territory of insomnia – in which case, the tips below may not go far enough, and it may be time to also get in touch with your doctor. 

Why do we sleep? (according to science)

There are many theories as to why we spend roughly one-third of our lives sleeping. Some believe that our early ancestors would sleep purely to conserve energy and avoid predators. However, there’s more to it than that. Research has shown that our brains are still highly active during sleep and cycle through a number of stages. These can be grouped into two key phases:

  • Non-REM (early sleep stages and deep sleep)
  • Rapid eye movement or REM (dream sleep) 

While there are many helpful benefits associated with non-REM sleep, one of the primary benefits that we might notice regularly in the workplace is maintaining our “working memory” function. This can be thought of as a temporary store for information and is the kind of memory that kicks into gear when we’re problem-solving. It’s unsurprising that working memory is critical for day-to-day functioning at work. Whether you’re keeping a mental tab of instructions for a new procedure, or your to-do list for the day, it’s your working memory that allows for the temporary retention of that information.

Other research has indicated that REM sleep – the stage of sleep during which dreams are most likely to occur – is associated with creative thinking and memory consolidation. According to assorted studies, REM sleep is involved in processing what researchers call emotionally salient memories. In other words, REM sleep helps us to process the emotional content of a memory, reducing its emotional intensity. For example, imagine you received some negative feedback on a project you were proud of and had worked especially hard on. At the time, you knew the feedback wasn’t meant to discourage you, but you couldn’t help but take it personally. Following a night of good quality sleep, you’re able to return to the feedback with a more objective frame of mind. Effectively, you have “slept on it”.

Temporary trouble with sleep at some point is likely to be unavoidable, so it’d be handy to know what we can do to help us doze off.

  1. Stop trying! Trying to force yourself to sleep is a little like trying to struggle your way out of quicksand. The harder you try, the further your situation spirals and the more anxious you get as a result. It’s not until you relax that you’re able to free yourself. 
  2. As counterproductive as it may feel, the best thing you can do is get out of bed and do something relaxing like reading an easy novel or listening to a gentle podcast until you feel sleepy. The “getting out of bed until you’re sleepy” part is important because it stops your brain from associating bed with being a place of sleeplessness and anxiety. On the flip side, the stronger the association between bed and sleep, the easier it will be to fall asleep in future.
  3. If you have trouble with pushing anxious thoughts aside when it’s time for sleep, you may find it useful to read one of our previous articles that covers some psychological tools to help combat anxious thoughts and worries. 

How might we improve the quality of our sleep day-to-day?

Start by working on building your drive for sleep (otherwise known as your “sleep hunger”). The first step you can take towards building consistent sleep hunger is to maintain a constant wake-time. Yes, unfortunately, that includes your non-workdays. Maintaining a constant wake-time will help regulate your circadian rhythm and ensure the time spent awake – building sleep hunger – remains the same. You could also try these tips:

  • Avoid excessive napping: Naps can be thought of as sleep snacks. Too much napping and your sleep hunger will begin to dissipate, making it harder to sleep when the time comes. If you are going to nap, aim to keep it around 10 to 20 minutes long. Sleep science tells us that this is the most effective nap length as we’re able to reap the benefits without entering deep sleep. 
  • Limit caffeine: Caffeine disrupts the build-up of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that increases your drive to sleep throughout the day. Limiting caffeine intake will help to avoid this disruption. Don’t worry, there’s no need to go cold turkey on your morning cup (or 3) of coffee. You can try reducing your coffee count by one or aiming to have consumed your last cuppa before 1:00pm. 
  • Move your body: Alongside the many other psychological benefits of exercise, getting up and moving your body for 45 to 60 minutes will help to build sleep drive and improve the quality of your sleep. Research has indicated that it’s best to exercise roughly 5 to 6 hours before your bedtime and to avoid physical exertion 3 hours prior to sleep. If exercise is something you find hard to commit to, try to make it fun! If running on a treadmill isn’t really your style, playing an hour of basketball with a friend or “exer-cleaning” can be just as beneficial for your sleep. For more on exercise, you can view our previous article on physical activity and wellbeing. 

As well as building our sleep hunger, there are a few other steps we can take to improve the quality of our sleep, based on the latest evidence:

  1. Improve your “sleep hygiene”: Sleep hygiene refers to the practices and habits we carry out before heading to bed, that help to ensure a quality night of sleep. Making sure your room is dark, cool and quiet will help to improve the quality of your sleep. 
  2. Avoid alcohol: While a glass or two of red wine before bed may seem to help you nod off to sleep, research has indicated that alcohol not only disrupts the quality of your deep sleep, but it also delays and suppresses your first period of REM. This may leave you feeling groggy and unrefreshed in the morning. Furthermore, all those cognitive functions for which REM is important might be slightly impaired. You may also be more likely to reach for that extra cup of coffee, further diminishing the quality of your sleep that night.  
  3. Stop trying to improve your sleep: Yes, we’ve said that already, but the body is very skilled at ensuring we get the sleep we need for survival, so even when you think, “I didn’t sleep AT ALL last night”, you will have had more rest than you realise, and the odd night of patchy sleep is OK. “Smart” devices to monitor sleep are only “somewhat accurate”, producing data that’s easy to misinterpret, so don’t ask your smartwatch if you had enough rest, listen to your body and mind instead. Some research has also indicated that too much focus on these devices can lead to a paradoxical phenomenon known as “orthosomnia” – by which the obsession of sleep optimisation leads to poorer sleep.  

As with many psychological interventions, it’s important you focus on the things that work for you. Everyone is different, so some of these tips will work and some will not. The same goes for the amount of sleep you should be getting each night. You’ve probably heard that you “need” to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night. However, the amount of sleep that an individual “needs” varies greatly from person to person. The best strategy is to experiment a little and try to find what leaves you feeling the most refreshed and energised. 

Interested in finding out more? Read some of our other articles, or reach out to our team to find out about how we can help you and your team to sleep better.