How to improve your ability to fall asleep faster

April 16

Do you lie in bed at night wishing that you would just be able to get to sleep? Find yourself getting off to sleep but wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the past or what the tomorrow might bring?

In the PAC community this week we were fortunate to have sleep expert Dr Luke Gupta join us to talk everything about sleep (and Sleepability – yes, a new concept for me too – which is your ability to fall asleep). It was an incredible insight into one of the most important things we do as human to help us function, recover and thrive as a human being. It is a massively underrepresented topic and one for positive and negative can have a massive impact on the quality of your life.

This will be the first part of a series of articles is the concept of ‘Sleepability’ and how we can improve our chances of falling asleep.

First of all, according to Dr Gupta, and this makes sense from a psychological perspective, it is helpful to consider sleep as a habit/behaviour. When you go off to sleep, you do not turn off like a computer. You go into a ‘sleep mode’ which activates parts of the brain to help you restore and recover for the next day. The absence of sleep is a ‘stress response’ and more so, not only regulates our emotions, it manages our emotions.

What are your emotions like when you have had a lack of sleep?

Key point: The saying, 'sleep on it' is true. The brain organises itself during sleep to help remove the emotion around an experience.

The success of Sleepability (ability to fall asleep) comes down to how well you can allow the automatic process of sleep to take place, i.e. not forcing sleep or trying to think your way to sleep. Sleep is unlike anything else you do in life like eating or working out, you cannot put effort into it as a means to fall asleep. That approach makes it worse.

Two things have a profound impact on your ability to fall asleep.

  1. What you do AND do not do in the lead up to sleep 
  2. What you do AND do not do in bed

An expert performer in their domain is a great analogy for explaining this (think of a musician or sports star). Those who have practised over and over again with years of varied experience will effortlessly and beautifully execute a performance, with seemingly little effort. Yet, when you ask them how they did what they did, they cannot explain what happened. They just did it. They were inflow. Yet, you ask a poor sleeper and they will be able to tell you a very detailed account of why they could not fall asleep and what they have tried in pursuit of improving sleep.

Here is the key point: good sleepers have just fallen asleep, time after time, in the same position. They have a habit of falling asleep over a lifetime. It has become an ingrained habit. 

To think about it simply, the ability to fall asleep is linked directly to helpful or unhelpful habits you have embedded in the lead up to falling asleep. A great task Dr Luke Gupta asked The PAC community to do and I would encourage you to do the same now, is;

  • List up to five things you do in and around bedtime…

You can imagine there are many things people list… including my routine of drinking a sleepy tea!

What did you list? Sleep is one of the key factors listed for maintaining structure and routine during lockdown

Some common things are reading, watching Netflix, sex, thinking about plans tomorrow, thinking about a meeting earlier, painting nails or scrolling through social media. To help understand this Dr Gupta explained it like a ‘numbers game’. Broadly speaking, if you engage in five activities (i.e the ones you listed), you have a one in six chance you will fall asleep. That is because your attention is on five other things that hook your attention.

Why does it keep you awake?

It is because you are doing activities that you would normally do when you are ‘awake‘, in bed. Your brain has created pathways that associate ‘awake’ activities with the bed. It is also probable that those who sleep better are those who do fewer activities in bed. If you only do two or three things, your probability of falling asleep is one in two or three.

Yet, here is the counterintuitive thing, when we cannot sleep, what do we typically do? We start to introduce new things to try and help us sleep which has the opposite effect. Sleepability is based on ‘less is more‘. Those who are the most effective sleepers are those who have a really strong association between 1) bedtime, 2) their bed and 3) failing asleep. So generally speaking, what is the rule of thump?

The bed is for sleep and sex only.

And the powerful association we should be wanting to create, according to Dr Gupta, is the association between ‘sleepiness’ and falling asleep. We generally do this badly. When we are hungry, we eat. When it comes to sleepiness, we do not often go to bed.

Key point: The critical relationship we should be striving to create to improve Sleepability is 1) sleepiness and 2) falling asleep because if we connect the cue of sleepiness with falling asleep when we fall asleep, the relationship is reinforced. After all, you have fallen asleep.

The summary of this conversation with Dr Luke Gupta will hopefully provide you with some reflection on how you could improve your bedtime and bed behaviours. What can you strip away to improve your ability to fall asleep? The next article will look at the ’10 minute technique’ to apply in your evening after your busy day.

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