Sleep On It

Getting enough sleep, even in a crisis

Sleep is one of those things we all know is important, but quite often feel we’re not getting the right amounts or even the right quality. In fact, to be honest, even those who are Sleep Scientists still disagree on the right amounts and the importance or function of such things as dreams.

But in the context of risk industries, sleep is one of those important elements for when we’re making decisions, usually under huge amounts of pressure, when time is of the essence. At this time of uncertainty, I’m sure it’s not just those on the frontline who are struggling with sleep; many at home are probably struggling as well.

So here are 12 tips for better sleep, as prescribed by Matthew Walker in his book “Why We Sleep”.

Stick to a sleep schedule

Now, this is sometimes difficult, especially if on shift work so this may not work for you. But during my years of sailing, I found that doing short bursts of sleep and having a schedule of sorts would help a little, especially when combined with other strategies.

Exercise

We all know exercise is good for us, around 30 minutes a day is recommended. But there is one caveat to that, it should not be in the two to three hours before bedtime.

Avoid Caffeine and Nicotine

Now a cup of coffee in the morning or whenever you first get up is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be part of your waking up routine, which is as important as a sleep routine. But any caffeine in the afternoon (and that unfortunately means chocolate, cola, certain teas) can mean you don’t get as restful a sleep as you need.

The same can be said for smokers, as Nicotine is a stimulant, causing smokers to sleep lightly and often waking up too early because of Nicotine withdrawal.

Alcohol

This may come as a bit of a blow, but whilst that nightcap may help you relax, any heavy intake will rob you of the all-important REM sleep, which is an important stage in our sleep for memories. (There is still some debate as to the function of REM reams).

But REM sleep is not just important for dreaming and memories, it has other functions too; such as an emotional Homeostasis (balancing the emotional compass at a biological level). REM sleep is also thought to act like a kind of balm for the brain.

Alcohol can also lead to impairment in breathing, lighter sleeping or even waking up when the effects have worn off.

Avoid large meals late at night

The point of sleep is to relax, which will be almost impossible if you’ve had a big meal and your body is trying to digest it.

Medication

If possible, try to avoid medication that may disrupt or delay your sleep. Of course, this may not be possible, especially in the case of some heart medicines etc, but speak to your doctor to see if they may be contributing to your bad sleep, and if they can be taken at any other time of the day.

Napping

This is not a “NO NAP” policy at all, but try to avoid them after 3pm. A nap may be able to help make up for lost sleep, but a later nap can make it harder to fall asleep at night.

Relax before bed

Try not to over schedule your day so that you can’t relax before bed. Again, in the context of shifts and current climate, this may be difficult, but there are ways to at least relax you before bed. 

One thing I found that worked for me was listening to relaxing classical music to bring the heart rate down and generally relax my brain before bed. Try to make this a ritual so that it becomes habit, and then your body will know that it’s time to get ready for sleep.

Have a hot bath

A hot bath before bed will not only help you relax, but it’s been found that the drop in body temperature after getting out of the bath will help you feel sleepy.

Set up your bedroom properly

That includes temperature (not too hot) and darkness – try to keep your bedroom gadget free. Any gadgets you do have, put them too silent so if any notifications come through then they won’t disturb you.

Try to use a proper clock for your alarm if you can. The blue light from a screen acts like a stimulant and can wake you up just as you want to go to bed. The room temperature should be kept on the cool side.

Exposure to sunlight

Make sure you try to get around 30 minutes a day of exposure to natural light. Again, if you’re on night shift this could be difficult, but part of your ritual of finishing a shift may be to go for a short walk or get some time to sit in the outside before going to bed. This could be part of a general mindfulness routine before bed, listening to birds and enjoying some nature.

If you’re finding it hard to get to sleep…

Don’t lie in bed tossing and turning or worrying that you’re not getting to sleep at the right time. Get up and go to another room, or chair. Have a read of a book, listen to some music and try to reset your brain, as Charlotte Brontë wrote: “A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow”.

If you start worrying about sleep then you’ll get even more tense and find it harder to sleep, so by moving rooms or even just going to sit in a chair, you will be resetting the scene and not letting your brain associate a bad night sleep with your bed.

You could always have a notepad or a diary to write stuff down before bed, or even use it if you do have to get up and move. This way you’re almost emptying your brain onto the page so that it’s no longer in your head and you can refer to it the next day.

I used this trick a lot, especially when racing and skippering – it would be a good reminder for what I needed to do when I got up for my next watch or shift.

Not all these tips will be possible or helpful for you as everyone’s situation is different, but they may go a long way to helping you get that much needed sleep, ready to tackle whatever the next day or so has to bring.

The main thing I always found in getting to sleep was not to overly worry or stress about getting a certain amount, as this in itself can cause bad sleep.

If you’ve done all you can to help you sleep, then it will come: just don’t force it.

Alastair Duns, Human Factors Training Consultant

A former professional yachtsman with over a decade of building, coaching and leading race teams across the globe, Alastair is able to bring academic theory to life with his compelling stories of leading and managing diverse teams in ultra-high-pressure situations. With a degree in languages and a certified Human Factors trainer, Alastair is well placed to understand the many components which influence both human performance and culture.



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