However, stress has a major impact on sleep, preventing us from drifting off or waking us during the night. Our brains, if too active, struggle to drift into the lower brain wave frequencies that induce sleep, while high levels of cortisol, which are associated with hyperarousal (one of the symptoms of PTSD), also make sleep difficult.
Furthermore, being deprived of sleep can make us more vulnerable to stress. Unfortunately this can lead to a vicious cycle where a person can’t sleep because they are stressed, and because they can’t sleep they become more sensitive to other stressors.
When we sleep, our bodies release Growth Hormone that helps in the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats, cell regeneration and repair. It appears that sleep also allows us to consolidate and process what we have experienced during the day. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, can cause a number of problems. Even when mild it can impair the functioning of the mind, reducing memory and the ability to think.
Sleep is triggered by daily rhythms. As the light fades we become drowsy, and as it dawns we begin to get wakeful. When sleeping well, your body temperature drops and the production of melatonin increases. Although the average amount of sleep needed varies from person to person, usually between six and eight hours is the norm for adults. Generally, the last two hours of sleep in any one cycle tend to be the most refreshing.
How we can improve our sleep quality
Exercise can be very beneficial when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. However, it is important to rest afterwards for between four and eight hours before going to bed.
Similarly, it is better to eat early and allow your body to have 14 to 16 hours of fasting a day. Eating too late means the body is busy digesting when it should be relaxing and trying to go to sleep. Practising any relaxation technique in this manual before going to bed may be able to help you get a good night’s sleep.
You can also augment a poor night’s sleep with a nap. Twenty minutes napping can be more helpful than the same amount of time in bed in the morning. Anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour can provide the sleep ‘top up’ you need. Any longer than this and it can make it more difficult to go to sleep at night.
Short naps between 20 and 60 minutes typically consist of light sleep only. These can be restorative and make you feel more energised. If you want to nap for one sleep cycle you will need about 90 minutes to go through each sleep stage. This includes light sleep, deep sleep (drop in body temperature often goes with this) and REM sleep (dream sleep). Try and time the nap so you wake up just after the REM sleep or as you enter another sleep cycle of light sleep.
Keep a sleep diary for one week
1. Note what time you go to sleep and what time you wake up.
2. Keep a notebook and pen beside your bed and, when you wake, record any dream
fragments that you remember.
3. If you awake during the night, note the time and, if you were dreaming, write down
anything you remember.
4. At the end of the week review your diary.
Do you notice any patterns?
Is there a pattern in terms of the time go to sleep and wake up, or awake during the night?
Are there any recurring themes from your dreams?
About Gerrilyn Smith
Gerrilyn Smith has worked as a clinical psychologist in child and adolescent mental health services since qualifying in 1978. At the same time as qualifying as a clinical psychologist, she became involved with the London Rape Crisis Centre, working on the telephone counselling line, which she did for many years. Gerrilyn trained as a systemic psychotherapist in the early 1980s and she is EMDR trained and also holds a teaching certificate in Kundalini Yoga.