Know about... sleep

On average, we will spend about one third of our lives asleep and yet most of us take this for granted. Until that is, one night you have problems sleeping.

Sleep is a vital part of our lives and broadly speaking, serves two purposes. Firstly, our ability to function both physically and mentally depends on us getting enough sleep. Sleeping enables us to recharge our energy levels ready for another day's work. Secondly, sleeping and dreaming provides an opportunity for your brain to rest and 'file' away the events and information of the previous day.

How much sleep do I need?

Most adults need between seven and eight hours sleep a night, however, this does seem to get less as a person gets older. This is not to say that anything else is abnormal, some people manage very well on only three or four hours a night.

Problems with sleep

Most of us will at some time or another have had some difficulty sleeping, eg lack of sleep due to exam worry/stress or because of jet lag or a disruption to normal routine. These are generally short-lived experiences that have little effect on our physical or mental health. However, for some, this persistent sleep depravation can cause problems, such as difficulty in making decisions and mood fluctuations. As a student, these feelings are likely to affect your ability to study and in turn might reduce the quality of the work that you produce.

Sleep walking: sleep walking typically occurs when the individual is in a very deep sleep and, although not conscious, they are partially awake. Occasionally, sleepwalkers will carry out a range of activities, which either have a purpose or not. Whilst the sleepwalker may not experience fear, this problem can reduce the overall quality of a person's sleep and therefore the quality of their waking life.

Sleep talking: people talk in their sleep all the time. It is very common and can happen at any time during any stage of sleep. Like sleep walking it does not in itself cause too many problems, however, it often occurs alongside other sleep problems which can cause difficulties.

Nightmares: most people will at some time in their lives have had a nightmare and most would agree that they can be quite frightening and often traumatic. Nightmares can cause problems because they often prevent the person from returning to a restful sleep.

Night terrors: people who have night terrors might scream or sit up suddenly. They may behave in a very scared or terrified manner. Because this generally occurs during the deepest sleep, they are generally unreachable. It is usually quite easy to return the person to sleep, and they may or may not remember the disturbances clearly.

Snoring and sleep apnoea: snoring itself is probably more of a problem for anyone sharing the bed than for the snorer themselves and is a condition frequently joked about. However, Sleep Apnoea is a condition in which a person who snores loudly actually stops breathing for short periods through the night and is therefore very serious and potentially life threatening.

Narcolepsy: the individual experiences sudden, short episodes of sleepiness during the day. Very often, the person will be unable to move and may have strange experiences as they are falling asleep.

Insomnia: at some time or other we all complain that we aren't sleeping enough or well enough, indeed, around 30% of the population experience insomnia at one time or another. Very often, however, we are actually getting more sleep than we might imagine. People may feel like they've been awake all night when they have actually only missed out on about 15-30 minutes sleep. There are four types of insomnia: difficulty getting off to sleep; early morning wakening; waking during the night and being unable to return to sleep; and waking in the morning still feeling tired.

What causes sleep problems?

There are lots of reasons why people may have difficulty with their sleep pattern and everyone is unique. Students in particular experience many changes throughout their university or college life, which can and do have varying effects on their ability to sleep. Broadly speaking, the following is a list of some of the factors affecting sleep patterns:

  • changes to daily routine
  • emotional stress/distress
  • illness and/or pain
  • trauma
  • use of medicines
  • excessive amounts of caffeine or other stimulants
  • discomfort due to temperature changes or uncomfortable mattress

What can you do?

There are some very easy and practical steps you can take to improve your sleep pattern. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Try to keep to a routine. Unless you have lost a lot of sleep the night before, try not to sleep through the day. Try to go to bed at the same time every night and set your alarm for the same time (at least until you've developed a good pattern).
  • Avoid any kind of stimulus close to bedtime. Reading a text book or working on an assignment can feel like the right thing to do, particularly close to exams, however, it can mean that you're not allowing your brain the chance to relax and wind down before going to sleep. Also, watching TV or reading a book is not a good idea, so use your bedroom for sleeping only. Coffee, tea and some soft drinks can contain lots of caffeine that will help to keep you awake late at night. Try and avoid upsets or arguments close to bedtime. Light exercise early in the evening is good, but try to avoid anything vigorous close to bedtime. Avoid drinking large amounts close to bedtime, since you will probably have to get up in the night to wee. Sleeping can also be difficult on a full stomach, so try not to have a large meal close to bedtime.
  • Do something that helps you to relax. This will be different for everyone, but some people like to have a nice warm bath with bubbles or to sit in a warm, dimly lit room. Do whatever feels good for you.
  • If you can't sleep, don't try and force it, this will only make you lie awake for longer.

And finally, if you can't get to sleep, try not to worry too much, particularly if it's a one off. People will generally cope reasonably well even after a restless night.

Whilst some of these suggestions will help most people at some time or other, it is important that you do what works for you. For example, some people may find that light reading helps them to sleep, or a hot drink before bedtime is just the thing. If something works for you then go for it.

Where can I get support?

The University Counselling Service offers confidential, non-judgemental counselling. Talking to someone who is not involved in your life can help you recognise patterns of behaviour and find your strengths. Counselling sessions usually last 50 minutes and the number of sessions will be decided by you and your counsellor. You can arrange an appointment by phoning 01642 342277 or by calling into the reception of the Student Centre.

Your GP may be able to help by referring you to counselling or other support services. You can talk confidentially to the Student Health Adviser and the university chaplain who will listen and offer help and support. They can also act as the bridge between yourself and an outside support agency if you want further help. To make an appointment just call into the Student Centre or phone 01642 342277. If you are living in halls, you can also talk confidentially to your sub warden.