We know that sleep is essential for health and wellbeing. Sleep supports the immune system, assists physical growth and repair, strengthens memory, and improves mood and wellbeing. Lack of sleep can contribute to feeling irritable, stressed and overwhelmed which are common experiences in our busy modern Christmases.
It’s common for sleep to deteriorate during the festive period due to increased busyness and stress associated preparing food, buying presents, end of year work functions, completing work tasks before going on leave, kids being on holidays (while you’re still working), travel, entertaining guests, & increased financial pressure. Phew, it’s an exhausting list.
Add in a large measure of alcohol and an increase in indulgent treats – and you have a time of year that isn’t the kindest on our bodies.
One recent survey suggested that stress related to Christmas is one of the biggest causes of lack of sleep at this time of year – and this is especially the case for women, with a third of women losing sleep because of festive stress.
So how can we respond to festive sleep-stressors in a helpful way? Read on......
When stressed, we produce cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that provide energy and help us function through stress. These hormones keep us alert so if they are around in great quantities, are not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
Especially when busy during the day, we’re prone to take our busyness to bed with us. We can feel fatigued before bed, but when the head hits the pillow, worrying thoughts, deadlines, and to-do lists pop up, and then cortisol and adrenaline floods in.
Daytime (not nighttime) is the time for thinking, planning, & worrying.
It's possible to train the mind to do it's thinking/planning, & worrying during the day and get it out of the bedroom. Try using a notebook or your phone during the day so that you can write down reminders and worries as they come up. Create 15 minutes a day to quietly sit, reflect, plan and problem solve. Or talk about what is on your mind with a friend or family member. Revisit your notebook/phone list at this time.
At Sleep Matters, we find this 'thinking time' a helpful strategy for our clients. ‘Bottling up’ stress tends to lead to poor sleep. If you are able to process worries during waking hours they are less likely to pop up whilst in bed at night. What’s more, if they do pop up at night, it can be easier to let go of them if you know you will come back to them during your thinking time the following day.
If overthinking and stress does get the better of you overnight and you feel there’s no way you’ll be able to get back to sleep, we advise to get out of bed. This is an insomnia treatment technique called Stimulus Control. Get up out of bed and ask ‘what will help me wind down?’ It might be listening to a relaxation app, practicing some slow breathing, adding items to your list to organise the next day, reading a book, or doing a crossword. Once you notice that sleepiness has returned or that you are feeling calmer, return to bed.
Many of us enjoy a tipple or two at Christmas time, but alcohol can negatively impact our sleep. It changes the structure of sleep, so even if you get enough sleep hours, you won’t feel as refreshed when you wake up the next day. Further, getting up to the loo, or feeling dehydrated can be causes of sleep disruption. See our earlier blog post on the impact of alcohol on sleep.
- ‘Knit one, pearl one’ when it comes to Christmas alcohol consumption. This means, have a glass of water in between every drink. And drink plenty of water before retiring to bed.
- Avoid drinking on an empty stomach, Even an energy bar, nuts & fruit to help fill your stomach is better than no food at all.
- Set a time for your last alcoholic drink. Ideally with a space between this drink and when you retire to bed. Tis will allow for a little more processing of alcohol before sleep.
The festive season is a time for travel for many.
Jet lag can be an issue for those traveling across time-zones. While there is no way to completely avoid jet lag, there are ways to overcome it faster, for example by moving your sleep schedule towards the new time zone before you travel. I love to tell people about Jetlag Rooster – a great resource complete with calculators which can help people plan for traveling across time zones. Taking short acting melatonin for a few days can also be very effective.
Sleep is of course essential for people travelling long distances by car. If you feel sleepy whilst driving, it’s crucial to stop and have a rest or short nap, or swap the driving with another passenger.
If you’ve travelled, are stressed, or have had a few late nights you may benefit from a short daytime nap to keep you going.
However, the guidelines around napping may surprise you. Keep naps short and early. We recommend naps to be less than 30 minutes and 7+ hours before the night-time sleep period. Most people find surprisingly good benefit from even a short nap like this. Check our our earlier blog post for more on naps.
Creating a buffer zone between the busyness of the day and sleep is really helpful and important for promoting sound sleep.
Before your wind down, write out a to do list for the next day. Then give yourself permission to switch off from planning and problem solving.
For some people the wind down period might be 30 minutes before bed, for others, especially after a busy day, and hour might be needed. This 30-60 minute period is for quiet activity - a shower or bath, TV, reading, a relaxation or meditation exercise or some gentle music. Quiet hobbies such as craft or jigsaw puzzles may also work well. If you engage in the same activity each evening in the period of time before bed it can become an activity that 'cues' sleep.
I often suggest to my clients to engage in the nightly wind down even if they have been out and are later to bed then usual. It can take a little encouragement and time for the mind to calm down after the stimulation of socialising. It is often better to carry out your wind down routine than to jump straight into bed which may result in tossing and turning and a long time to achieve sleep.
Finally, do your best to avoid over worrying about sleep
Remember that disturbed sleep for a night or two, or even a week won’t cause long-term harm – your body is resilient in the face of short term sleep loss.
Make sensible decisions about sleep but don’t 'over-worry' about it. Worry about sleep tends to make sleep much worse.
Melissa and the Sleep Matters team would like to wish you a safe, happy, fun, and restful Christmas season!