I'm finding it hard to sleep

Getting a good night's sleep is essential for both our physical and mental health.

Unfortunately, it is common to have problems sleeping. Worrying about work or family problems, experiencing mental health difficulties or just getting into poor sleeping habits can all have a huge impact on the way we sleep.

In this section you can find out why sleep is so important, what can be the effects of lack of sleep and what you can do to sleep better. It can also help you to find the right support services in Leeds.

What happens when we sleep and why is it so important?

Sleep is a mysterious state which is both more active and complex than it first appears.

Not all sleep is the same. Download 'The Sleep cycle' sheet to see the different types or stages we go through as we sleep:

The Sleep cycle

We will move through these different types of sleep - four or five times - through the night and may wake up briefly as well. Having a good night's sleep depends on spending enough time in deep sleep (Non-REM stage three). When you have had enough deep sleep you will wake up feeling refreshed and full of energy.

We still don't know exactly why we sleep but what we do know is that sleeping well is essential for a number of reasons:

  • The body goes through some essential maintenance while we sleep including the repair and growth of tissues, muscles, bones and blood vessels.
  • Poor sleep can affect the immune system and increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
  • Lack of sleep can affect mental processes such as problem-solving, judgement and learning as well as the ability to focus and complete tasks.
  • During sleep the brain processes the day's thoughts and experiences, forms memories and stores information.
  • Sleep can aid recovery and healing and is important in regulating the hormones which control appetite and hunger.
  • Poor sleep can affect your mood and increase stress which can affect relationships and may sometimes lead to problems like depression and anxiety.

What are the effects of poor sleep?

While we all know how a poor night's sleep can leave us feeling tired, dizzy and sluggish – a chronic lack of sleep can have a range of possible effects:

  • Poor concentration and difficulty focusing.
  • Low energy and problems staying alert.
  • Reduced creativity and ability to make decisions and solve problems.
  • Difficulty completing tasks and increased mistakes.
  • Low mood - feeling more anxious, irritable and less able to cope with stress and upsetting situations.
  • Poor memory and difficulty recalling information.
  • Problems taking in and learning new information and processes.
  • Eating more sugary foods and weight gain.
  • More infections and colds.
  • Reduced reaction times – affecting ability to drive safely and increasing the risk of accidents.

How many hours of sleep do we need?

While most adults need an average of seven to nine hours of sleep - some people need more and some people need less. What's important is to find out how much sleep you need to feel refreshed and alert. If you have had enough sleep you should awake naturally from sleep feeling refreshed.

Age can play a part in how much sleep someone needs. As a general rule we need less sleep as we grow older. People over 65 may need less than seven hours and sleep much more lightly, whereas a teenager may need more - up to 10 or 11 hours. Lifestyle can also be factor in how much sleep you need - people with young children or people with very active or physical jobs may need to go to bed earlier and get more sleep.

What matters as much as the quantity of sleep is the quality. Relying on short naps or only getting broken sleep can mean that you are not achieving deep sleep (Non-REM stage three). Deep sleep is the time when the body repairs itself and stores energy for the following day. To wake up feeling refreshed and energised it's essential to get enough deep sleep.

What kind of sleeping problems do people experience?

People can develop a range of poor sleeping patterns and problems which can disturb their sleep:

  • Some people go to bed feeling very tired but can't sleep as worries and thoughts keep going around in their minds which won't go away. They then start to feel more and more frustrated and upset and find it harder and harder to fall asleep.
  • Some people fall asleep very quickly but then wake up during the night or very early and can't get back to sleep.
  • Other people may wake several times during the night.
  • Some people may also nap during the evening and then find it very hard to fall asleep when they go to bed.
  • It's also common to just wake up feeling very tired after having a night of very poor or light sleep.
  • Some people can be woken by distressing nightmares or will awake with an intense feeling of terror or fear about an unknown danger (called night terrors) which can make them scream or hit out at someone near them. Severe nightmares or night terrors in people can be linked to stress, an upsetting situation, trauma or possibly medication.
  • Sleep apnoea is a common condition where normal breathing is interrupted during sleep causing someone to snore very loudly or gasp or snort. Speak to your GP if you think may be experiencing this condition.

What factors can affect how we sleep?

Whilst everyone can have difficulty sleeping from time-to-time, certain factors can make it more likely for some people to experience ongoing sleeping problems, known as insomnia, which can start to affect day-to-day life:

  • Poor mental health - people experiencing problems like anxiety and stress often have racing thoughts, muscle tension and a faster heart beat which make it difficult to relax and sleep well. Some people experiencing depression may oversleep during the day and stay awake at night troubled by different thoughts and feelings.
  • Stressful or upsetting life events - such as money, work or family worries, redundancy or the break-down of a relationship.
  • Bereavement, loss or a major life change.
  • Traumatic events - when someone experiences a life-threatening danger, abuse or crime whether recently or in the past. People with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may re-live traumatic events through distressing dreams, flashbacks or night terrors and may also experience hyper-vigilance or alertness to danger which may make it very difficult to sleep.
  • Pain or discomfort caused by health conditions like arthritis or a long-term/severe illness.
  • Physical issues - needing to get up to go to the toilet more often (particularly common in older people), the menopause, pregnancy, high blood pressure, diabetes or thyroid problems can all affect sleep.
  • Working night shifts - working through the night can upset a person's natural body clock which is set to be awake during the day and asleep at night. It can also be harder to sleep well during the day if you are disturbed by light and noise.
  • Some medications such as anti-depressants can disrupt sleep – speak to your GP if you are concerned.
  • Age - older people tend to need less sleep and sleep lighter, waking up more times during the night.

Can sleeping tablets help me sleep?

Some people with severe insomnia may find it helpful to take sleeping tablets for a few nights. Sleeping tablets are habit forming and can be addictive, however, and can also affect the quality of your sleep. Many people feeling groggy and have difficulty focusing the next day after taking a sleeping tablet. Addressing any problems which may be affecting your ability to sleep and improving your sleeping habits are much more effective in have a long-term impact on how you sleep.

What can I do to help myself?

Find out how you can start to tackle your sleeping problem and learn helpful tools and techniques which can help you feel better soon.

Take control of your sleeping problem

Find ways to improve your sleep

Look after your physical health

Take time to relax

Be mindful

How could IAPT help me?

Leeds Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) supports people experiencing common mental health problems such as anxiety, stress and depression.

Leeds IAPT is run by Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust, Community Links, Touchstone and Northpoint Wellbeing and provides assessments and a range of talking treatments.

You can self-refer to the service through an online form. A number of questions will pop-up - these are to make sure you are being directed to the right service. You don't need to see your GP to access this service although your GP will be updated about your treatment.

When do I need to talk to my GP?

Read more about when you should talk to your GP and how to prepare for a GP appointment.

Tools and apps

Sleep station – online sleep treatment. Available through GP referral.

Stress management apps in the NHS apps library

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