Sleep Well

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The performing arts industry can present unique challenges for healthy sleep. Unusual work hours, workload pressures, touring, needing to be awake or asleep at varied times, working or attending functions at night, jet lag, and difficulty winding down are just some of the factors that can impact our ability to get the restorative sleep we need to function at our best.

This resource examines sleep strategies and techniques for addressing common sleep difficulties. If your schedule is limiting your opportunity to get proper sleep, these strategies may not be as relevant. If it is the case that you regularly work inconsistent and strange hours, or always take on overtime – consider how you can treat the problem at the source, perhaps by changing your schedule to enable sleep habits that serve you. For more information on the challenges of working inconsistent or extended shifts, visit Better Health.

Let’s now look at some common sleep challenges, and simple strategies for addressing them. Don’t feel like you need to try all the strategies at once. Try choosing one or two to work on for a couple of weeks, with the aim of creating conditions that are conducive to falling sleep: being sleepy and being relaxed.

What is sleep?

Sleep is a surprisingly complex and dynamic process. It is a particular kind of rest that is important for our physical and mental health. Sleep is as essential to good health as oxygen, food, and water. Even though we might think of it is as a passive, dormant part of daily life, it is actually a time when parts of the brain are more active than during wakefulness! We cannot live without sleep, it assists with growth, repair, memory, mood and pretty much every type of tissue and system in the body. Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or consistently poor sleep quality, increases the risk of many common disorders.

For more information on the basics of sleep, visit Better Health.

When we are functioning well, sleep happens automatically, and we don’t need to give it much thought. Our bodies are attuned to our environments and activity and will automatically give us the type and amount of sleep that we need.

There are four typical stages of sleep. Stage 1 is light sleep as your body is winding down. Stage 2 is where we spend most of our time when asleep, whilst stages 3 and 4 are deep sleep. Finally, there is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep which is the stage where our most vivid dreaming occurs. Interestingly, our bodies go into a paralysis-like state during REM sleep so that we stay safe and don’t act our dreams!  One complete sleep cycle (i.e., Stage 1 through to REM) takes about 90 minutes. In the image below, we can see five sleep cycles across the period of sleep. The pattern is rather like a rollercoaster as we cycle through the sleep stages.

We are most prone to waking up when we transition from one sleep cycle to the next. In the image below we can see two instances of being awake, both at the end of two of the sleep cycles. This is entirely normal and healthy. It is thought that humans have evolved to wake up a few times during sleep, so that we could check our surroundings to ensure our safety. Perhaps we can be thankful for our ability to wake up, as without it, humans may not have adapted and survived this long!

Interestingly we obtain nearly all our deep sleep in the first four hours of the night (see image below). So, even if you only got to sleep four hours on a particular night, you might have been able to get the same amount of deep sleep as someone who had an eight-hour sleep.

A typical night of sleep for a healthy adult
How much sleep do I need?

There is no one amount of sleep that ‘fits’ everyone. Most adults sleep six to nine hours per night. A minority of people (around 1%) only need four or five hours of sleep each night, while others require up to 10 hours a night. Some large-scale studies and sleep experts recommend at least six to seven hours per night as being optimal for most people.

A good indication of sleeping well is that it takes us less than 30 minutes to fall asleep at the beginning of the night, and we experience a few wakings during the night. It is unrealistic to expect to fall asleep immediately on getting into bed or to never wake up during the night. Everybody, even people who often sleep well, will have some nights when it takes them a long time to get to sleep or they are wakeful overnight. This is often triggered by stress of some kind and will usually pass after a night or two. The human body is designed to be resilient in the face of occasional instances of poor sleep, and these occasions will not harm you long-term, though you may feel sluggish the following day.

Sleep strategies

Poor sleep is a problem related to both the day and the night. What happens during the day affects sleep at night, and sleep at night affects mood, cognition and behaviour during the day. It might be helpful to pay attention to the days you’ve had that have resulted in a good night’s sleep for you.

For instance on the days you sleep well, did you eat well, exercise, connect with a friend or family member, have a particularly enjoyable day at work, resolve a problem, feel engaged by a challenge or task, or a mixture of any of these things? Identifying those factors can help you repeat them in the future and have more good days, more often! You could even examine what you do in the lead up to bedtime and identify whether your current habits are helpful in preparing your mind and body for sleep.

When sleeping poorly, it’s helpful to make proactive and considered changes to routines around sleep, while not getting into a cycle of overthinking and worrying about sleep. Overthinking and constantly worrying about your sleep can impair sleep even further. Often, the more you worry about your sleep, the worse it will get.

Check out the following tools and strategies, and aim for gradual positive changes over time that suit your unique situation.

Get up at the same time each day

This can be tricky in the performing arts but it’s effective! The time you get up to start the day is like an anchor for your body clock. A regular rising time sends a strong message to the brain about when to be alert and awake. This also influences when you feel sleepy at night.  A regular rising time can help your bedtime become more regular too.

An irregular sleep schedule can leave you feeling in a constant state of jet lag. So, where possible, wake up and get out of bed at the same time each morning (within an hour). Choose a rising time that suits your usual circumstances, and then you can adjust where needed for touring, changing show schedules, bump in times etc. If you set your alarm for a standard wake-up time, you will soon notice that you usually will become sleepy at about the same time each night, which helps allow you to get the sleep you need.

Go to bed only when sleepy

There is a difference between feeling sleepy and feeling fatigued. Fatigue refers to symptoms of feeling low in energy, sluggish, heavy, and so on, but it is possible to feel fatigued without being sleepy. If you’re experiencing fatigue, have a read of this resource for more information, or speak with your GP to identify the possible causes. Sleepy is when we are close to nodding off. Go to bed at night only when you feel sleepy, not because of the time on the clock. Going to bed before you are sleepy or drowsy is likely to result in a longer period of wakefulness in bed. If it is late but you are not sleepy, engage in a wind down activity (see below).

Don’t worry, plan or problem solve in bed

Try to avoid worrying, mulling over problems, planning future events or doing other thinking while in bed. When you cannot seem to shut off your thoughts, get up and engage in a wind down activity until you feel sleepy. If this disruptive thinking occurs frequently, it may be helpful to routinely set aside time each day to do the thinking, problem solving and planning that your brain wants to do. If you make this a regular practice, this may help reduce the amount of ruminating you do when you would prefer to be sleeping!

The power of a nap

A short nap in the afternoon can be extremely helpful for boosting energy. You might have heard the term, ‘power nap’, which is a very short daytime sleep of 10-20 minutes. It may be hard to believe that a sleep this short could provide much benefit, but the science tells us that short daytime sleeps can be hugely beneficial. Aim to ensure your naps are more than six to seven hours from your main sleep – this will help ensure they don’t impact your slumber.

power nap of 10-20 minutes is great for a boost in alertness and cognitive function, for up to around four hours after the nap. It is not likely to make you feel groggy and is unlikely to negatively impact your sleep that night. During a nap this short, you are unlikely to go into a deep sleep – in fact, you want to avoid this as it may impact your sleep schedule. A nap of 10-20 minutes assists in waking up feeling ready to ‘hit the ground running’. Research also suggests that a brief nap can enhance athletic performance after a short night of sleep – it’s not a stretch to think this may extend to performing arts activity too.

If you feel you are someone who can’t nap, it may just take a bit of training. Go to a quiet place (preferably the same place), give yourself permission to switch off from your to-do list, and engage with something calming such as reading, gentle music, a relaxation or meditation app. To begin with, don’t expect sleep, just aim for quiet rest. You may find after a week or two that you start to fall asleep. 

Avoid checking the clock

One reason that the mind can be busy at night is related to monitoring the clock. When we are worried about falling asleep, we are naturally inclined to check the time to see how long it has taken so far to fall asleep, how much longer there is left to sleep, how much sleep has been lost, and what impact this will have on the following day…

If this thought pattern sounds familiar, trial not looking at the clock overnight. Use an alarm clock that is hard to read in the dark, or if you use your phone, set the alarm on your phone, put it under your bed, across the room, or cover it in some way so that you won’t be able to look at it.

Clock watching > mental calculations and worry about sleep and tiredness > increased anxiety, frustration > arousal and wakefulness

Learning to relax and unwind

Adrenaline and cortisol levels can sometimes run high when we’re at work. This arousal can be a major barrier to sleep. Strategies to gently encourage ‘down regulation’ can be helpful, this may mean staying up after a late performance to wind down. This can feel counterintuitive if you finish late. But, if you finished work at 5pm, you wouldn’t go to bed at 5.15pm! You’d want some time to relax and unwind. The same applies whether you finish at 5pm, 11pm, or 3am – we can’t expect to finish work, go to bed and fall asleep immediately.

Expect to spend an hour or so winding-down before bed. If you need ideas for winding down, try some of the following strategies:

Put the day to bed (so you can go to bed)

Reflect on your day by writing about it. Keep a journal or diary. What happened, how did you feel, what did you learn, what did you think?

Psychologists call this ‘emotional processing’ and it can assist in putting thoughts, to-do lists, emotions and memories in order so that the mind can let go of the day and switch into a gentler gear. Evidence suggests that 15-20 minutes writing in this way each day can be beneficial for sleep.

Chat about your day in a balanced way. Sometimes we can get ourselves ‘riled up’ by talking about our day and complaining or venting about everything that went wrong. Try a technique such as ‘thorn, rose, bud,’ to reflect on the day. The thorn represents a challenge you faced, the rose represents what you liked most about your day, and the bud is something you’re looking forward to or anticipating.

The aim of writing, talking or sharing in this way is to give you a sense of, ‘I’ve thought this through, and now it’s time to unhook from these thoughts switch into a slower gear’.  When thoughts about the day or the next day crop up, recognise them, and make a decision to let them go for now. You can come back to writing or talking about them the following day.

Gentle exercise

Yoga, stretching, or walking are all useful gentle exercises to help wind down. For example, if you are staying close to the theatre when you are on tour, you may feel comfortable walking home after the show, which can be a good way to start the wind down process.

Reduce use of screens

Watching TV, playing on our phones and other screen-based activities can all keep us awake, or not be conducive to winding down. The general recommendation is to limit screen use within two hours of bedtime. This is both because the light from screens can keep us awake, and because certain types of screen use (social media, games) can increase brain activity and alertness.  As with all the recommendations here, it is important to make an assessment for your individual situation.

Rinsing off the day

Try taking a warm shower or a bath, and picture ‘rinsing off’ the day. Take the opportunity to focus on the sensations of the water against your skin for an added mindfulness moment.

Try a meditation

The Arts Wellbeing Collective has several meditations designed specifically for people who work in the performing arts. Try a wind down meditation, or a de-role meditation. Remember, a de-role practice can extend beyond playing a character onstage. De-role can involve simply transitioning from one ‘role’ (like your work role) to another (like your home role). Allowing space and time for this change can be helpful for wind down.

Sleepy spaces

Sleeping well is more likely if your space is set up for sleep. This might involve adjusting the temperature of the room, making the space dark enough – and quiet enough – for sleep. If you can‘t control noise (for example, loud neighbours), you might want to experiment sleeping with earplugs.

For more ideas visit on effectively setting up sleepy spaces, visit Better Health.

Sleep is critical to being at our best. If you feel like you could benefit from improving the quality and/or quantity of your sleep, a psychologist, GP, or another appropriate professional can help you identify strategies, tools, and techniques.

Sleep well!

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