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  • Mark Hill

Seven Sleep Spoilers. Spoiler 3: "Putting up with a Poor Sleep Environment"

You’ve heard the adverts with the usual sales pitches of: “you spend a third of your life in bed” and “you should change your mattress every 7 years”. The thing is, perhaps there’s just some truth in it all and we shouldn’t sleep walk (pun not originally intended, but then noticed and left in quite deliberately) through life accepting a poor sleep environment. It’s not uncommon for “poor sleepers” to sleep better when away from home such as at a hotel. I’m not saying the solution is always as clear-cut as a new mattress or moving into your local Premier Inn, Mr Lenny Henry style. However, if your sleep environment isn’t working for you, then it’s worth exploring what might be unhelpful about it and experimenting with new options.

Let’s break this down a bit, the following are significant when it comes to our sleep environment: noise, light, air quality, temperature and the comfort of our bed.


Noise

I’m not just talking about when your neighbour, Big Jim returns home from the pub at 2 a.m. on Saturday nights (and the occasional Fridays) singing (well chanting) “We are sailing” by Rod Stewart at the top of his lungs (hey, at least it’s now at 10 p.m. instead). This could be far more nuanced, the presence (or absence) of the tick of a clock, the sound of traffic outside, the sound of a partner snoring. For some we get used to these noises, but for others it might be worth exploring methods of reducing or removing them.


Light

I’m not just talking about when your neighbour, Big Jim returns home from the pub at 2 a.m. on Saturday nights (and the occasional… in fact most Fridays) and puts on his outdoor strobe light, in the belief he’s entertaining the street. This could be more subtle such as streetlighting entering the bedroom through weak curtains, light through an open door, your phone lighting up, the light from a device on stand-by etc. Also, remember the importance of light with regards to your sleep/wake cycle, the presence of light supresses our melatonin and tricks our brain into thinking it’s day.


Air quality

I’m not just talking about when your neighbour, Big Jim… okay we’ll leave Big Jim out of this now. Ever been away camping and slept like a log? Maybe it’s just me, but fresh air will tend to promote sleep, so it is a factor to consider.


Temperature

A room which is too hot has been found to cause restless body movements during sleep, more night time waking and less dreaming sleep. A room too cold makes getting to sleep more difficult and increases the frequency of unpleasant dreams. It’s worth noting that poor sleepers tend to report feeling hotter than good sleepers. The majority of our dreaming occurs during a stage of sleep known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM), it’s important that we’re able to experience a good portion of this sleep stage each night, as it allows us to process and retain memories, it’s therefore key to learning and has even been found to have an impact upon life expectancy.


The comfort of your bed

Do you have a particular number of pillows you use, why? Are your mattress, duvet (I usually call it a quilt but wanted to sound right posh), pillows etc actually to your liking? When in a comfortable bed we can move up to 20/30 times a night, but this can actually shoot up to as high as 100 times in an uncomfortable bed.


What can you do?


Noise

We can loosely separate noise into two categories those that we have control over and those that we don’t. Trying to increase our awareness of these noises in order to reduce or remove them can have a paradoxical effect, as rather than benefitting us it can lead to our attention to them increasing when trying to sleep. Hence, I suggest having a specific period of time dedicated to noticing these noises e.g. 2 nights or attempting to identify them in the day. Once identified, ask if this is something that you have the control to remove or reduce, do I need this in the bedroom? Now, I’m certainly not advocating forcing a snoring partner out of the bedroom or even the house, it’s getting cold outside after all. There are plenty of other more ethical examples: a ticking alarm clock can easily be replaced with a silent one, a mobile phone’s updates can be switched off or better still it could be charged downstairs (but my phone is my alarm you say – then replace it!)

For those you cannot control, consider earplugs, which can help at least reduce noise. Additionally, ask: what does this noise do? Does it wake you up or does it prevent you getting to sleep? In my experience complaints tend to concern the latter. One solution could be to reduce your attention to the noise – relaxation and imagery techniques can assist with this.

In terms of imagery: creating a relaxing image that takes around 10 minutes to go through can be helpful. To make the image vivid consider the scene in plenty of detail by including: where you are, when it is, what it is, who you’re with and ensure you include all of the senses – what can you see, hear, smell, taste, touch. Try to make the scene meaningful to aid this process, i.e. somewhere you have been and found to be relaxing. Beware of including others in the scene, as they can inadvertently contaminate it, e.g. a “fun” experience with the kids can suddenly merge with that time they all fought with each other and threw tantrums under the watchful eye of some “judgmental tutters” (yes, I speak from experience).

Relaxation techniques: progressive muscle relaxations are a really good way to take your attention away from other noises (and your own thoughts), there are a number of options on youtube. I’d suggest listening to a few of these to see which one works best for you.

A further solution is to deal with the thoughts that occur as a result of the noise i.e. we may not be able to prevent our partner snoring, but we can take a look at the thoughts that come as a result of the snoring. Calculating sleep time remaining, establishing how long you’ve been “trying to sleep for”, results in frustration and worry with thoughts such as “I’ll never manage tomorrow, off so little sleep”. Some in the moment challenging can help with this – “have you ever had a day that you didn’t survive due to a bad night’s sleep? If in the moment challenging is too tough, try writing these thoughts down to challenge when more lucid the next day.


Light

Be kind to your little Pineal Gland (see blog 1) and consider purchasing some “blackout” blinds to prevent any artificial light entering your bedroom, it’ll make sure it’s not tricked into thinking it’s day time. Remove any items that are lit within the room and close any doors as required.


Air quality

Consider having your window open prior to going to bed, to ensure there’s some fresh air in the room, to recreate that camping experience. Experiment with having the window open/closed to see if this is key for you.


Temperature

Try to ensure your room/bed is neither too cold nor too hot, around 18-20 C should do the trick, but again experiment with what works for you. “But you told us all to open our windows to get fresh air, when it’s nearly winter!” I hear you, but this is about experimenting with options to see what helps for you; why not try popping the heating on after/whilst having the window open for the fresh air, it might sound like sacrilege for the frugal of us, but it’s surely worth experimenting with if we’ve put up with poor sleep for years.

Additionally, let’s consider your bedding, is it appropriate to season? Is it appropriate for your body temperature? Do you wake sweating? I personally have no idea of the “tog” of my duvet, which is likely to be the case for a number of us. There could be mileage in considering changing its tog if we’re too hot or too cold at night, or in having a summer and a winter duvet to ensure our temperature is always at its optimum.


The comfort of your bed

For your pillows; could you trial one pillow instead of two, two pillows instead of one, thicker pillows, thinner pillows?

For your mattress; it’s worth considering whether you’re due a replacement. Unfortunately, “experimenting” to find the right firmness isn’t the easiest, I’m not sure Bensons would be happy with you stopping overnight to test out there autumn range, but ask yourself whether your present mattress is working for you. I’d recommend also considering a mattress topper for extra comfort.




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