As a nation of sleep obsessives, there are few things worse than a bad slumber. Hours spent tossing and turning under the sheets whilst you question every life decision is a common problem, leaving you frazzled, foggy and fully unprepared for the day ahead. Sound familiar? We hear you.
If you’ve desperately tried every trick in the book to no avail (looking at you, lavender spray), fear not, nutritionist Rob Hobson is on hand to help. In his new book, The Art of Sleeping, Rob identifies seven easy steps you can follow to ensure a good night’s sleep. From the position you sleep in to the way you’re breathing, Rob’s practical handbook will have you passing out before you hit the pillow.
If you want to prepare your body for a good night’s sleep, you need to chill out. When we think about the effect of temperature on our body it’s easy to assume that heat can help us to sleep. Sitting outside in the midday sun or inside a hot stuffy office can leave you feeling dozy, but if you’re trying to fall asleep in the evening, heat can make things difficult.
The tiredness you feel from high external temperatures during the day is a side-effect of your body trying to cool you down. Your body responds to these high temperatures by expanding blood vessels, which increases blood flow nearer to the skin to release heat and cool the body. At the same time, your blood pressure drops, resulting in less oxygen being delivered to various systems in the body, which causes fatigue. In contrast, your circadian rhythm is very attuned to body temperature – it’s one of the functions it controls to help you fall asleep or stay awake. During the day, your body temperature rises naturally until late afternoon, at which point it then starts to fall.
As you start to fall asleep your body temperature begins to lower by one to two degrees, which helps the body to conserve energy. This drop in temperature signals the release of melatonin to help induce relaxation and sleep by slowing the heart rate, breathing and digestion. If your sleep environment is too hot or cold, this can make it more difficult for your body to reach the optimal temperature required for a good quality of sleep.
Take A Bath
While it may seem counterintuitive to what we’ve just discussed, many studies have shown that warming your body by bathing can help to promote sleep, but to harness these effects, timing is key. The best time to take a bath is at least one hour before you hit the hay, as this gives your body enough time to cool down to its optimum sleep temperature.
Similar effects have been shown when showering or even soaking your feet in warm water to increase your skin and body temperature.
Bathing has also been shown to help relieve anxiety and muscle stress, which can help with relaxation and sleep. Epsom salts are a good choice for putting in the bath water, as they are rich in magnesium which helps to promote muscle relaxation and sleep.
Bath oils can also help with relaxation as they stimulate the olfactory nerve. This nerve gives us our sense of smell and sends signals to parts of the brain that are in charge of emotions and mood, soothing us through the parasympathetic nervous system which relaxes the body. Oils traditionally used for relaxation include lavender, bergamot, ylang ylang, clary sage and vetivert. Whilst the essential oil aromatherapies may not have been rigorously studied, they can still have calming effects.‘Moon breathing’ is the genius Japanese technique that will help beat insomnia
‘Moon breathing’ is the genius Japanese technique that will help beat insomnia
You can make bath time even more relaxing by burning candles and turning off the bathroom light. Listening to calming music or using a meditative app on your phone can also make bath time even more relaxing and offer an opportunity to calm a busy mind.
Restlessness and a busy mind can easily make falling asleep difficult. As you lie awake your mind can go into overdrive while you focus on the issues and worries impacting on your life, many of which you will unconsciously ruminate on all night.
People who write down their thoughts, activities and tasks that need to be completed before they go to bed fall asleep much quicker than those who don’t.
Keep a pad of paper and a pen next to your bed so you can jot down your thoughts before you go to sleep each night. As well as writing down your worries and stresses, include any unfinished tasks that need to be completed the following day, or make a to-do list.
If you wake up during the night and your mind starts to wander, read through your diary and to-do list, adding to it if you need to. Sometimes the best ideas can occur in the middle of the night, so be sure to keep plenty of space to jot these down. As I mentioned earlier, don’t spend hours lying in bed trying to fall asleep. Instead, get up and sit somewhere quiet, keeping the lights down low. Use this time to reflect and to help organise your thoughts by writing them down rather than letting them buzz around on repeat in your head.
The position you choose to sleep in could be a factor in your ability to sleep through the night. The most common sleep position – and the one recommended by many sleep experts – is foetal. If you choose to sleep this way you should favour the opposite side to the one of your dominance (in other words, if you’re right-handed, choose your left side). Not all experts agree on this though, with many suggesting that sleeping on your back is better for your health, even though this is the least popular position to sleep in.
Sleep tracking apps could be causing ‘orthosomnia’ and actually making you more tired than ever
Back And Neck Pain
Sleeping on your back allows your head, neck and spine to rest in a neutral position, which limits any excess pressure on those areas. Placing a pillow under the back of your knees can help to support the natural curve of your lower back and further lessen any stress on your spine. Make sure the pillow you rest your head on supports the natural curve of your neck and shoulders.
Snoring or Sleep Apnoea
Sleep apnoea is a condition that causes the airways to collapse during sleep, which leads to interrupted breathing. The condition can cause disrupted sleep and snoring. Avoid sleeping on your back as this encourages the base of your tongue and soft palate to collapse to the back wall of your throat, which causes snoring. Adopt a side position to help prevent this happening and to aid in opening up the airways. Placing a firm pillow between your knees can help reduce any stress on your hips and lower back.
This is exactly what your sleeping style reveals about your wellness – and it’s so interesting
Reflux and Heartburn
Many people struggle with reflux and heartburn, which is caused by stomach acid rising up into the oesophagus and throat. Pregnantwomen and people who are overweight are more prone to this condition. Lying on your back can make symptoms worse, but if this is how you sleep, elevate your head and shoulders to an incline using pillows. Sleeping on your side has been shown to help with reflux and heartburn, but the side you choose is important and is largely down to gravity. Given the position of your oesophagus, sleeping on your left-hand side means reflux is more easily drawn back towards the stomach.
In the 2003 film Falling Down Bill Foster, Michael Douglas’s divorced and unemployed engineer, descends in a stress induced downward spiral, angrily fighting and shooting his way across LA to make it to his daughter’s birthday.
“I’ve passed the point of no return. Do you know what that is, Beth? That’s the point in a journey where it’s longer possible to go back to the beginning. It’s like when those astronauts got in trouble. I don’t know, somebody messed up, and they had to get them back to Earth. But they had passed the point of no return. They were on the other side of the moon and were out of contact for like hours. Everybody waited to see if a bunch of dead guys in a can would pop out the other side. Well, that’s me. I’m on the other side of the moon now and everybody is going to have to wait until I pop out.”
Given how long the queue to the armoury is and how far in advance you have to book ammunition, I don’t think British soldiers are likely to go full-Bill-Foster.
But stress is a double edged sword. On one hand, stress has a multitude of ill effects on the individual and the team. But at the right levels, stress helps us focus and perform well.
It’s not just as straight forward as saying ‘stress comes from overwork’, or ‘stress reduces performance’. Once you understand what causes stress you can look at how to manage it in yourself and in your team.
What is the stress point?
Stress isn’t just about workload – it’s about perception. The perception that the demands are greater than the perceived resources available. Those resources include not just time and material but also the person’s capability and capacity. The perceived importance of the task can also magnify the stress. This magnification of stress is something that’s often found when leaders are responsible for their subordinates’ lives or when staff officers feel responsible for subordinate units but perceive they have little ability to help.
Below the Stress Point, the person is happy they have the resources to deal with the tasks at hand. But as a perceived gap between demands and resources develops the person goes past the Stress Point. Beyond the Stress Point, a person starts to struggle mentally. At the Crisis Point mental health gets worse, decision making suffers. Eventually the person reaches Collapsewhere there is a cascading failure in performance.
Stress has several general effects that you probably already knew about. It affects the immune system, causes sleep loss and can lead to clinical depression.
But, specifically, it has a large effect on the part of the brain called the hippocampus. That’s important because the hippocampus regulates emotional control and has a huge role in learning and memory. Damage or shrinkage in the hippocampus causes memory loss, loss of emotional control and greatly reduces the ability to learn.
The hippocampus constantly regenerates itself. In a rat’s brain it regenerates over 9000 neurons a day. Stress prevents this – makes it more difficult for neurons to fire, damages synapses and prevents new synapses from forming. This means the hippocampus (and in turn learning and memory) are hugely responsive to stress.
So stress is all bad?
Sports coaches will tell you stress is not all bad. There is a sweet spot where you have enough to put you at peak performance. Generally, whether stress is good or bad depends on the task:
Stress is ok for simple tasks. When you are doing a simple task you can carry a great deal of stress. But it is bad for complex tasks, where too much causes a massive performance tail-off.
The Yerks Dodson Chart. The link between stress and performance depends on the complexity of the task
Short periods of stress that push us over the Stress Point cause a performance tail off, but they put us in the learning/growth zone. If you put yourself under stress for a short period of time you can identify the effects and develop coping mechanisms without burning out. There is also evidence that dealing with stress adapts the hippocampus so that it is better able to deal with stress.
But in the long term, staying over the Stress Point has the opposite effect. Stress physically damages the Hippocampus. The brain gets damaged and this impairs learning and creativity.
A good analogy is training to run a marathon. If your first training run is for 26 miles you’ll probably damage your body and impair your ability (and motivation!) to continue training. Instead you should do shorter sessions of running with increasing intensity and length. This causes your body to adapt. You also learn how to cope with the negative effects of running such as tiredness and soreness – but you don’t eliminate running.
So its important we subject ourselves to enough stress to grow, but not so much we burn out or damage our ability to learn.
What does a leader do about stress?
A few years ago I deployed to Afghanistan on the staff. My role rarely took me into harm’s way and I beasted myself as a result. After four months of 15-hour days the lack of sleep and my perception of the task overcame me. I made mistakes. Eventually I piled in.
So what does a leader have to do?
If your team is doing a task with high complexity, that requires creativity, where learning and improving are essential and where decision making and risk judgement are critical, then you need to make sure you manage your team’s stress levels. You have to train them to deal with stress, but outside of training you have to keep them short of the Stress Point. Here’s how:
1. Deal with your team’s perceptions
An easy answer is to provide more resources or reduce the demand. But instead remember – stress is about perceived demands and resources, and about perceived task importance. Instead, work on those perceptions. Hold a mirror up to them.
I’ve worked myself to collapse at tasks where I didn’t think I could have been given more resources (including time), where the job demanded perfection and where I thought the task was of the utmost importance. With hindsight, I could have asked for help, perfection was unnecessary and, on balance, the job was not the boss’s highest priority.
As a leader you need to be on the lookout for people who will drive themselves to collapse. They sometimes need to be reminded what is important.
2. Understand how you create those perceptions
You also need to understand the perception you create by what you say and do. It is incredibly simple to make every task priority number one for your staff. That’s a great way to build stress – the demand ramps up; with everyone working on priority number one there is never enough resource; and every task has stress-inducing importance. Have the strength to chose what isn’t a priority for the team.
3. Ensure your team get sleep
Just like when we are running (or tabbing), sleep is a powerful recovery mechanism. Long term lack of sleep reinforces stress and impacts the recovery and growth of Hippocampus. It makes emotional highs higher and lows lower. It reduces learning and creativity. Also, it damages decision making processes and drives risk-taking and reward driven behaviours. You don’t need to track your team’s sleep but its worth checking work routines to ensure they aren’t reinforcing stress. If your late nights in the office are causing them to stay late, and consequently choose between sleep or time with their family, then you are adding to the problem.
4. Train for stress adaption…
The hippocampus adapts to stress, so you can develop your team’s ability to deal with stress by training for it. The adaption happens when you put people into the area between the Stress Point and the Crisis Point.
Exercises should push us to failure and push us to uncomfortable levels of stress. Not just to help us make decisions under pressure but to also help our brains adapt to the stress. We don’t do our subordinates any favour when we given them a stress-free exercise or training serial.
5. …but teach coping tools as well
I’m gonna train you for stress adaption you ‘orrible man!
Even better than simply aiming for brain adaption is to teach coping mechanisms. I developed coping mechanisms during my most stressful jobs. I was told it was one of the benefits of being in a crunchy job. On the other hand, I could easily have been taught those coping mechanisms in a few simple coaching sessions.
Once you’ve finished an exercise (or any stressful period) hold an After Action Review or reflection session on how people perceived stress, how they might identify it and how cope with it.
Stress is growth and your team needs to grow… but not break
When you are leading a team you need to keep your team members in the growth zone where the stress levels are high enough to peak perform, high enough to aid brain adaption, but not so high they damage learning and creativity.
Know your team well enough to spot those who will over-work themselves. When you spot trouble, manage your follower’s perceptions to lower the stress. And don’t forget to teach the stress management techniques you learnt yourself.
Stress isn’t a rite of passage. Its a factor a good leader manages in order to achieve peak performance and peak growth.Subscribe To The Army Leader
PS: Although I haven’t widely referenced what I’ve written, much of the thinking behind this article is based on the work of Prof Geoff Bird, Associate Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University. He gets my recommendation as a speaker on the subject should you want someone to help your team explore it further.
thearmyleader.co.uk is run by a former soldier in the British Army. The thoughts in these articles draw on experiences and thoughts from two decades in the Army, years in training and leadership development roles and over a dozen operational deployments and overseas training missions. His views are his own and do not represent the views of the MOD or the British Army.