3. Retrain your Brain to Sleep: Good Thinking!

Our brains are very clever and are learning all the time.

Although we may have a natural body rhythm related to sleep our brains have an incredible capacity to step in and mess up our sleep patterns!

In this final blog episode of our Improving your Sleep mini series we explore how we can use our brain to retrain our associations with our bed.

1. Learning, and bedtime

In order to understand how to retrain our brains, we first have to understand a little about some of the methods by which our brains learn.

Classical condition was first documented by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, a Russian physiologist. In his early experiments Pavlov paired a normal body state in dogs: salivation when meat was presented, with a neutral event- ringing a bell. Over a short space of time of pairing both the meat and ringing the bell, the dogs learned that bell=food and would begin to salivate in anticipation even when food was not given straight away. Pavlov had created a 'conditioned stimulus' that signaled to the dogs that food would be coming soon and the dog's bodies reacted accordingly.

When we consider sleep in this context we can start to understand how the principles of conditioning might enhance our ability to sleep at night.

Sleep is a natural body state that occurs once our 'sleep debt' is high enough. If we can start to make pairings with particular objects or activities that also promote sleep then we can help our bodies to anticipate that sleep is on it's way and they will start to wind down and relax, giving us a better chance of drifting off easily.

2. Bedtime Routines

Why is that with little children, we adults are great at giving them a bedtime routine: meal at a particular time? bathtime? getting into your pajamas? a story before bed? a cup of milk? and yet with ourselves we expect to be able to whizz around all day long doing all sorts of things and then just switch off in the space of minutes and get off to sleep??

Establishing a good bedtime routine allows your body to start winding down from the day, and also allows your brain to start associating particular activities or objects with the arrival of your bed and sleep time.

You might want to consider the things that you find soothing (preferably other than TV or other screens!) or objects that you associate (or could learn to associate) with your bedtime. Perhaps even think back to some of the things that you used to do as part of your childhood bedtime routine.

Some examples are:

  • having a soothing bath

  • having a milk based drink

  • getting into your pajamas or comfortable sleep clothes

  • switching the lights down low

  • making the house a little quieter by turning off radios or TVs

  • reading a book or a magazine or listening to an audiobook quietly

  • listening to soothing music

If you are someone who struggles greatly to drift off to sleep however it is very important that you do this away from your bed and here's why....

3. Building positive associations: Bed= Sleep

Just in the same way that our brains can learn to associate our bedtime routine with switching off, we can learn to associate our beds with everything BUT sleep and end up waking up more than switching off when our heads hit the pillow.

Clear the decks:

Most of us have experienced that rushed 'hideying up' that happens when an unexpected visitor arrives on the doorstep. In a bid to appear tidy and organised piles of 'stuff' gets moved to an inconspicuous part of the house- quite often our bedroom! If you have items in your bedroom that have no link to sleeping then it's time to get sorting! Removing the pile of washing, stacks of magazines, children's toys or the broken electrical item that you intend to fix "at some point" will help you to start building connections with your bedroom being the place where sleeping happens.

If you watch TV, work on your laptop, read in bed or if you play with your mobile phone, then it may be time to move these activities to another area in your house and preferably ban them from your bedroom completely. Remember that you are trying to build as strong an association as possible: BED= SLEEP. Not Bed= TV Time, Bed= Read, or Bed= check my Facebook account! The stronger the association, the better your chance of getting off to sleep and sleeping well.

4. Serious retraining: "Stimulus Control"

If all of the above is in action and you're using all of the tips from our previous 2 blog episodes and you're STILL struggling to get off to sleep within a reasonable time- Or you're waking in the night and can't get back to sleep- then it might be time to step up your sleep training!

The closer you follow these steps, the faster you will see results. So it's time to get tough!

  • Step 1. Don't go to bed until you feel ready to sleep

  • Step 2. Once in bed, if you don't fall asleep within a reasonable time period (i.e about 20 minutes, but don't clock watch!), then get up and go somewhere else in your house until you feel ready to sleep again.

  • Step 3. Whilst you're out of bed, engage in a non-stimulating activity: no screens, no vigorous exercise, no drinking masses of tea or coffee!

  • Step 4. Repeat steps 1-3 for however many times are needed. Try to remind yourself that the more tired you are, the more likely you are to sleep- perhaps not tonight, but tomorrow!

  • Step 5. Get up in the morning at your set waking time!Sleeping in will effect your sleep debt and make it even harder to get to bed at your set time the next night.

  • Step 6. Don't nap during the day! Think about those little naps as paying off a bit of a your sleep debt without getting that full restorative sleep from going fully round your sleep cycles.

  • Step 7. If you need to get an early night then try to limit this to one hour before the bedtime that you are aiming for.

Our Next Mini-Series of Blogs focuses on Stress. We all have it. We can all have problems with it at times. So who couldn't do with tools or tips to cope with it even better?!

Next time we will be covering:

  • Stress: is it all bad??

  • Where does Stress come from?

  • Helpful ways to address Stress right now.

If you give any of the hits and tips above a try let us know how you get on! If you have any specific sleep issues whether covered in this blog or not, we would love to hear from you! We might even include it in a second Sleep series, just for you!

If you find that your sleep needs an extra work then perhaps CBT-i is for you. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia is the recommended form of psychological therapy for sleep disorders and is highly effective at improving sleep. It involves advanced specialty training, so be sure to go to an expert!

Rest Well Everyone!


Good Thinking

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