Tips for teachers - managing your own mental health: sleep

When it comes to self-care, research and data implies the most important element is sleep. If we are to be productive in whatever our life demands and be able to face the challenges we are confronted with, then sleep is the cornerstone of being able to do this and stay well. In his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan B. Peterson refers to the idea of balance as “the body, with its various parts, needs to function like a well-rehearsed orchestra. Every system must play its role properly, and at exactly the right time, or noise and chaos ensue”. There needs to be a balance between several factors; exercise, nutrition, being organised and sleep, with sleep being paramount as a lack of sleep has an impact on your productivity, making you sluggish and prone to poor decision making and procrastination, all of which potentially undermine all of your efforts to be successful in the other areas.

Matthew Walker’s book, Why we sleep, explains that sleep is fundamental to recuperation and recovery and to consolidating your memories. It’s not only important that you get the right amount of sleep but also the right quality of sleep. If you are routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night you are demolishing your immune system and more than doubling your risk of cancer and the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and your blood sugar is disrupted to levels seen in those with diabetes.

In relation to memory function, your memories are initially stored in your short-term memory which only has limited capacity so, during sleep, they are transferred into other areas of the brain to create long-term memories. As Walker puts it, it “effectively clicks the ‘save’ button on those newly created files”. The process of sleep is a complex one with your body trying to initiate sleep from about 9pm. Melatonin is the body’s chemical messenger that informs the brain that it’s dark and it’s time to sleep. Melatonin continues to try and do its job of getting you to sleep no matter what your efforts are to stay awake. Your core body temperature drops, orchestrated by your natural rhythms, and you fall asleep. Once asleep your brain initiates several functions that sift and store memories. Most of the sifting happens at the start of the night, if you stay up late – beyond 10-10.30pm – you run the risk of undermining this element. In the later part of the night your brain makes connections between new memories and old ones. This is the phase of the night where you are most likely to dream. Getting up too early runs the risk of negatively impacting on this part of the process. You should aim to rise at about 6-6.30am, after having approximately 8 hours sleep. While we are all slightly different, our bodies are largely following this pattern (or attempting to) day in, day out.

I don’t suppose you need me to tell you what a poor night’s sleep feels like! I suspect we’ve all being there. But it is worth reminding you of the benefits that increased levels of energy from good sleep cause. A study in to how sleep habits can undermine wellbeing, found that better sleep practices could reduce the negative feelings people experience when placed under stress and cause them to respond less negatively towards the circumstances of the day. Better sleep can make people feel in control of the stressful situations that they encounter, therefore improving their mental well-being and productivity. Simply, you have more energy to get on with tasks and more focus when doing so.

What can you do to ensure you get a good night’s sleep?

  • Aim to get 8 hours a night.
  • Sleep from about 10-10.30pm to 6-6.30am. This is the optimum time for good quality sleep.
  • Keep to this routine 7 days a week as this trains your internal body clock. Sleeping more on a weekend does not help you to ‘catch up’ on sleep or undo the damage done by getting less sleep during the week.
  • Write a ‘to do’ list before you go to bed and keep a pad of paper by your bed in case you wake up and start thinking of something. The ‘churn’ of going over things in your head can keep you awake so write those things down so you can deal with them in the morning.
  • Wind down by having a warm bath, reading a book, or listening to relaxing music.
  • Avoid devices (phones, tablets etc) for 1-2 hours before bed as the light from such devices fools your brain into thinking it’s still daylight.
  • Ensure your room is clutter free, cool (around 18°C to 24°C) and completely dark.
  • Don’t exercise for 2 hours before going to bed.

If you enjoyed this blog, read more from Stephen and his tips for managing your mental health through organisation, nutrition and exercise.

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