Sophie King talks to clinical psychologists Victoria Baxter and Shabnam Berry-Khan about how to get a better night’s sleep during these stressful times.
During the lock-down so far I have dreamt about bumping into a bad ex-boyfriend, losing my job, going back to work with the pandemic still rife and someone trying to kill me in ways only witnessed in Marvel films.
On many nights I’ve woken bolt upright from a bad dream and found it difficult to get back to sleep. Not only that, the level of detail in these dreams has been vivid in the extreme.
I know I’m not alone. Many of my friends and family have admitted to having vivid dreams. Uncertain and stressful times are sure to make anyone anxious, which could cause us to have hectic dreams and sleepless nights.
For the majority we can probably point a finger at the pandemic and lock-down but how can we help ourselves to sleep easy? I spoke to two clinical psychologists to find out more.
Senior clinical psychologist Dr Victoria Baxter has more than 12 years’ experience of helping people understand their emotions and overcome psychological hurdles. She also runs the Love Food Live Well programme.
PsychWorks Associates director and clinical psychologist Dr Shabnam Berry-Khan has 20 years’ experience of helping people with anxiety management, trauma, depression and adjustment to loss. PsychWorks delivers evidence-based assessments to support clients’ well-being.
Why are our dreams so vivid and why aren’t we sleeping well?
Baxter and Berry-Khan explain we sleep in cycles and the last part of that cycle involves rapid eye movement, which is where we are at our deepest level of sleep and subsequently dream. We could have six cycles a night, which means multiple dreams.
Baxter said when we reach the end of a sleep cycle we usually roll over or wake slightly before starting another cycle. However, in times of stress we may be more susceptible to waking up and finding it harder to get back to sleep, which is when we are more likely to remember our dream.
Warning from our brain
Berry-Khan also explains that when our brain wakes us up after or during those dreams, it could be perceiving danger and warning us to get ready to react. As we can’t control coronavirus or the lock-down, our brain might turn to other fears it thinks we can do something about.
Baxter says: “When we’re under stress our brain encourages us to wake and check for danger. Things are so outside our control at the moment our brain constantly wants to monitor the environment.”
Berry-Khan also said if we consider the brain as a filing cabinet for all our life experiences – some of them buried under years of episodes in our lives – similar experiences can trigger similar but unrelated times in our lives. “Especially if they contain unresolved angst,” she says.
Berry-Khan adds: “Another theory is we’re trying to rationalise our memories of the days gone by to either create new memories or introduce unfamiliar information into existing knowledge to inform our reasoning. In short, there’s a general sense vivid dreams are a way to cope with new information that might have created an emotional response.”
Intrusive thoughts and anxieties
In addition to vivid dreams, people might also experience anxieties or unwanted thoughts during the day or while trying to get to sleep. Berry-Khan says intrusive thoughts are often linked to heightened anxiety. “Their function is to stoke the fire or worry and stress to whip up a mini-frenzy.”
She adds: “Unwanted intrusive thoughts are reinforced by getting entangled in them. Accepting they are a thought that entered your head and then left is incredibly helpful in keeping emotionally detached from them.”
Meanwhile, Baxter says these anxieties, fears or unwanted intrusive thoughts are just a way for your brain to say: “Don’t be complacent.” Your brain is reminding you to stay alert.
My body’s tired – but my brain says otherwise
During this crisis many of us may feel tired before getting into bed but suddenly feel wide awake once we’re trying to sleep. Baxter suggests this might be because our brain associates going to bed as a “cue for overthinking”.
She adds: “If you’ve had periods in your life like that before, your brain might associate bed as a place where we process everything.” Baxter says unfortunately bedtime can be the perfect time for past experiences or threats that have yet to happen to pop into our minds.
Berry-Khan says being unable to sleep could be a “fight or flight” reaction. She says: “Even if you’re tired, if the body is unable to feel relaxed because of an increase in stress we might not recognise cognitively, our minds will receive feedback there’s a threat about and it wouldn’t be sensible to switch off.”
Both experts tell me anxieties and unwanted thoughts before sleep can quickly spiral into a negative cycle. The thoughts are stressful, which has an impact on the body and heightens stress, making it harder to unwind.
How can we help ourselves?
Berry-Khan and Baxter both stress the importance of “sleep hygiene” as a normal part of your daily routine, not just when feeling anxious. Baxter says just because someone feels fine, the next day might be different so continually practising mindfulness will help in the future.
“Routine is important as sleep is patterned-based,” she says. “It won’t be long before your brain gets into the habit of waking you at certain times.”
She advises a set bed and wake-up time for every day and, if we’re unable to get to sleep within 20 minutes of turning the light out, moving into another room to do something soothing instead. This tells the brain bedtime isn’t stressful and trains it to acknowledge the bed is for sleeping only.
“Do something relaxing, ideally not involving a screen – listen to a podcast, read, knit,” she says.
Baxter says it might be an idea to write down your worries before you turn the lights out as sometimes your brain will keep you awake to ensure you don’t forget those thoughts. Writing them down should tell the brain it’s ok to fall asleep and will help you let go of those worries.
For intrusive thoughts (and other worries), Baxter suggests you acknowledge the thought but then focus on being in the moment. This could be focusing on breathing or a focal point and can be practised multiple times during the day or 20 minutes once a day.
Each time you “train your brain” it will be easier the next time unwanted thoughts pop into your head, especially at night.
Learn to slow down
Berry-Khan says sticking to a whole-body routine should calm your brain in the run-up to bedtime. Turning off screens an hour or two before sleep, listening to or reading upbeat programmes instead of the news, avoiding caffeine, having a bath or listening to music are all things that can help us sleep better.
She says: “Slow down physically and mentally in the run-up to bedtime. Switch off heavy topics such as work, problems or life dramas. Different people need different things and your healthy habits require some investment, honesty and discipline. Practising meditation and mindfulness can be helpful in times of stress.”
Berry-Khan encourages people to be kind to themselves, especially during the pandemic. She says: “It might sound spiritual and karmic but there’s a whole psychology approach to focusing on what you have rather than a ‘deficit model’ of what you’ve lost. It’s very powerful and is where some of the ideas around acceptance, compassion and mindfulness come from.”
Berry-Khan has produced guides on ways to navigate anxiety-fuelled conversations with clients, family or friends who might be stuck in their worries about covid-19. Click here to access them.
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