Not getting a good night’s sleep?
Tossing and turning?
Although sleep problems are common, there are some easy ways to improve the quality of your sleep. Many people find that their physical and mental well-being also improves when their sleep improves.
What kinds of sleep problems can people have?
Trouble falling asleep: lying in bed for more than 30 minutes without being able to fall asleep
Trouble staying asleep: waking up frequently during the night
Early morning waking: waking in the early hours of the morning before you need to get up but not being able to fall back asleep
Behaviours that interfere with sleep: such as snoring, teeth-grinding, restless legs, sleepwalking and breathing problems
Sleeping too much or for too long
Excessive sleepiness or urge to nap during the day
Excessive fatigue or lack of energy
It’s hard to say how much sleep is ideal
Each person is different and some people need more sleep than others. Kids and teenagers need more sleep than adults. Older adults tend to take longer to fall asleep and wake more often during the night than younger adults. Most adults and kids would sleep 10 to 12 hours a night without clocks or routines. You know that you’re getting enough sleep when you don’t feel tired or drowsy during the day.
Most of us, though, just don’t get enough sleep. Over half of Canadians only get around seven hours of sleep a night and say that they feel tired most of the time.
Problems getting to sleep, staying asleep, or feeling rested after sleep are surprisingly common. One in four people experience regular sleep problems. You’re more likely to have sleep difficulties when you experience stress, major life changes, health problems or substance use problems. Sleep difficulties can then make these problems even worse.
How do sleep problems affect mental health?
Sleep problems can have a negative effect on your mental health by influencing your emotions, thoughts, behaviours and body sensations.
Emotions: If your sleep is disturbed, you might feel irritable, grumpy, numb, sad, anxious, worried or stressed.
Thoughts: Sleep problems can make it difficult to concentrate, think clearly or make decisions the next day.
Behaviours: You’re more likely to avoid your usual activities when you are experiencing sleep problems.
Body sensations: Sleep difficulties can leave you feeling tired, drowsy or worn out.
Tips for getting a good night’s sleep
One of the most powerful ways to improve sleep is to make small changes in everyday behaviours that impact how fast you fall asleep and whether you stay asleep. The goal is to increase the behaviours that improve sleep while you reduce the behaviours that interfere with sleep.
For more information about how emotions, thoughts, behaviours and body sensations influence your mental health, see our other Wellness Modules at www.heretohelp.bc.ca.
Tip #1 Avoid caffeine close to bedtime
Some people have problems sleeping when they have consumed too much caffeine. This is especially true as you get older. Coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate are the main source of caffeine for most people. Some medications for colds, allergies, pain relief and appetite suppression also contain caffeine.
Tip #2 Avoid alcohol close to bedtime
It might feel like drinking alcohol helps you fall asleep faster, but alcohol can disrupt your sleep. Drinking alcohol before bedtime can also cause breathing problems and jerky arms and legs. People with alcohol problems often have chronic sleep problems.
Tip #3 Unwind
Stress has a big impact on sleep, so it’s important to take time to relax before bed. Reading a good book, taking a bath or shower and listening to calming music are a few ideas. Screen time is actually stimulating, so it’s best to avoid watching TV, going online or using other electronic devices just before bed.
Tip #4 Exercise a few hours before bedtime
Research shows that people who exercise regularly (30 to 60 minutes, three times a week) have deeper sleep. Exercising gives you a boost of energy, so it’s best to exercise four to eight hours before bedtime.
Your local community centre is a great source of information about recreation and leisure options close to home.
Tip #5 Follow the same routine
Try to keep the same sleep and wake schedule every day—including weekends. This helps your body get into a routine. People who get up and go to bed at different times each day are more likely to have sleep problems.
Tip #6 Avoid taking naps if you are experiencing sleep problems
Some of us can enjoy our naps and still get a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, some of us will experience problems falling asleep or staying asleep at night if we take naps during the day. If you do take a nap, try to keep them to 30 minutes or less. Cut out naps completely if you are experiencing sleep problems.
Tip #7 Avoid going to bed too hungry or too full
Eating balanced, healthy meals and snacks at regular times throughout the day will help with a good night’s sleep. Try to avoid eating a large meal in the two hours before bedtime. Consider a light, healthy snack if you’re still hungry just before going to bed.
Tip #8 Get up if you do not fall asleep within half an hour
Get up if you don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes. Leave your bedroom and do something relaxing like listening to soft music, taking a bath, drinking a warm caffeine-free beverage or meditating. Go back to bed once you feel very drowsy. Don’t try too hard to fall asleep—this does not tend to work. At first, this strategy might feel like it’s making things worse because you may have a few sleepless nights. However, after several nights, it will become easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. Be consistent in your use of this strategy. Studies show it is very effective in reversing sleep problems.
Tip #9 Make your bedroom comfortable and only use it for sleeping
A mattress with good support and comfortable bedding are both helpful. Make sure your room is not too hot or too cold. Don’t use your bed for watching TV, working, studying or any other mentally stimulating activities, especially if you are already experiencing sleep problems.
Tip #10 Challenge the belief you can’t function without a perfect night’s sleep
When you can’t sleep, it’s normal to check the clock and worry about getting through the upcoming day. This increases anxiety and makes it even harder to fall back asleep. Turn the clock away from your view. Remind yourself that you can likely do your daily activities even when you feel tired (unless this would pose a danger to yourself or others).
For more tips on managing difficult thoughts that can disturb sleep, see our Healthy Thinking Wellness Module at www.heretohelp.bc.ca.
To improve the quality of your sleep, follow these strategies on as many days as you can:
Use our sleep skills diary at the end of this Wellness Module to track your progress.
Be consistent in your use of the strategies.
Remind yourself it takes time to change sleep behaviours and see positive results.
Still having sleep problems?
If you continue to experience difficulties with your sleeping patterns, talk to your doctor or mental health professional. Sometimes, sleep problems can be a sign of a sleep disorder, mental illness or substance use problem. Health problems like asthma and chronic pain can also affect the way you sleep. Quality of sleep often improves once these problems are identified and managed. Some medications may cause sleep problems. Talk to your doctor if you think that your medication is affecting your sleep.
Should I use sleeping pills?
We recommend trying these tips before taking over-the-counter or prescription sleeping pills. Some disrupt the way you sleep or interfere with falling asleep the next day. Certain medications may be addictive. Beliefs around medication can also play a huge role in sleep. If you believe that you need medication to sleep, you’re less likely to sleep well without medication, whether you really need it or not. If you feel like you need to take sleeping medication often, it’s best to talk to your doctor.
For more information about sleep disorders, visit the Canadian Sleep Society at css-scs.ca.
Use this worksheet to track your daily use of sleep skills. Place a check mark in the box for skills you used on a given day. Leave the box blank if you did not use a particular skill on that day. Aim to use as many strategies as possible for maximum sleep benefits. Use your sleep quality ratings to track your weekly progress.
* Note: Avoid caffeine, alcohol, smoking, heavy meals or exercise 2 hours before bedtime may not be enough time for some people to experience sleep benefits. Start by avoiding these experiences within 2 hours of bedtime. If few sleep benefits are experienced then gradually increase the time period until quality of sleep improves.
About the authors
Canadian Mental Health Association BC Division helps people access the community resources they need to maintain and improve mental health, build resilience, and support recovery from mental illness. CMHA BC has served BC for over 60 years.
AnxietyBC is a member of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information and is committed to building a provincial resource network through which reliable medical and psychological information and services are accessible by those impacted by anxiety disorders.
Select sources and additional resources:
Visit the Canadian Sleep Society at www.css-scs.ca.
Visit the National Sleep Foundation at www.sleepfoundation.org.
Coren, S. (1996). Sleep Thieves: An Eye Opening Exploration into the Science and Mysteries of Sleep. Toronto: Free Press.
Kryger, M. (2004). Can’t Sleep, Can’t Stay Awake. Toronto: Harper Collins.
Sharp, T. (2001). The Good Sleep Guide: 10 Steps to Better Sleep and How to Break the Worry Cycle. Berkeley, CA: Frog Ltd.