Why is it so difficult to get a good night’s sleep

If you’re reading this title and thinking “it isn’t” then that’s great, but I am extremely envious of you. However, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in thinking this because a recent survey found that many people living in the UK find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. The survey found that the average Brit only gets just over six hours sleep a night, and only sleeps for the eight hours that is recommended, two nights a week. For a part of life which is common for everyone and plays such an important role in our general health and wellbeing, it is quite unsettling just how much people struggle with it. So why is it so difficult for the nation to get the right amount, and quality, of sleep?

For children, sleeping is important because, among other things, it aids growth. I also remember being told that children need to sleep more than adults (this would mainly be when I wouldn’t go to sleep myself). As a child, I would never go to sleep early and a doctor once said that “some people are owls and some are larks” – meaning that I was an owl. I liked that because I like owls (!), but I also thought that I was different. However, I now know that I was not. In 2017, it was found that bedtimes are getting later and later, while the average length of sleep is decreasing. Interestingly for me, it was also found that five-years-olds should get around eleven hours of sleep each night. I remember when I was around that age that I wouldn’t go to sleep until at least 10pm and so was definitely not getting those eleven hours. It’s quite frightening to look back and think about this – and this was in the 1990s when the internet wasn’t widely known about, mobile phones were the size of bricks, and iPads weren’t even invented. So nowadays if it is spoken about how technology is the main problem for children not sleeping properly, take it from that it’s not necessarily that clear-cut.

The problem with me, even as an adult, is that I hate going to sleep early and this is something that has definitely stayed with me from being a child. I remember the reasoning for this being told to me, and I never believed it be true, but I do now; I always think I’m going to miss out on something! Although now it’s more that I want to watch just one more episode of a television programme rather than I’ll miss out on being with my family. However, as I have got older, I care more and more about sleeping. As a teenager this resulted in the school holidays being a time to go to bed at 4am and getting up at 3pm – but at least I was getting my eleven hours!

Now, like most working people (employment and/or being a parent), it can be a chore to fit sleeping into our busy lives. This doesn’t always have to mean work, but also hobbies and other aspects of life we have; perhaps there are more now than there ever were because of the ever-increasing inventions and opportunities to do things. However, in terms of employment, if you get up early in the morning, ideally you need to go to sleep earlier, but what if you are already working till late at night? That would mean all you do is work and sleep, and that is not a good work/life balance at all. Therefore, in most cases, sleep is sacrificed, which leads to its own set of problems. Personally, I am a bit like this – I don’t want to sacrifice any sleeping time, but it just works out like that. I usually find something to do to make my bedtime later than it should be. Once I’m ready to go to sleep I usually look at my phone and start catching up on the latest celebrity news - I am my own worst enemy! But this is because I don’t always have time to unwind and do this at any other time. However, this is something that I can control and change, and it’s not just about the amount of time we spend sleeping, the quality of sleep is also a huge factor.

Sleep quality is something I never understood when I was younger; I didn’t think that it mattered how many times you woke up in the night, but if you slept for the right amount of time altogether than you would be alright. Unfortunately, my thinking on this was wrong. The National Sleep Foundation in 2017 found that the key elements of good quality sleep include:

  • At least 85% of sleeping time taking place while in bed
  • Taking 30 minutes or less to fall asleep
  • Waking up no more than once each night
  • Being awake no more than 20 minutes after initially falling asleep.

The quality of sleep is therefore as important as how much of it you have. Preparing to go to sleep is also just as important as any other aspect, and the NHS state the following ways to aid sleep:

  • Go to sleep at regular times
  • Make sure you wind down before going to bed (tips including having a warm bath, doing relaxation exercises, reading a book or listening to the radio)
  • Writing lists for what needs doing the next day (this helps clear the mind and organise your thoughts)
  • Make your bedroom sleep-friendly (e.g. keep it quiet, tidy, and dark).

Ultimately, each individual will have their own ways that work for them when it comes to trying to get a good night’s sleep, and maybe already know what they are, but just haven’t put them into practice yet. Sleep is vital for our wellbeing (both physical and mental) yet it is something that seems to be compromised because of other life factors. I’d like to think we wouldn’t compromise on other aspects of our health and wellbeing, but it seems to be a nation, and world, wide problem that seems to be getting worse, especially if my own experience from the 1990s is anything to go by. In 2011, in study based on the observations of school teachers, it was found that English students are Europe’s most sleep-deprived. The reasons for this also touch upon reasons that adults can look at and improve on as well; an increasing dependence on technology; poor diet; and the example set by the older generation including working longer hours, coming home later, and constantly checking their phones.

From my point of view, life takes over and compromises do happen. As I have already said, sleep seems to be what is sacrificed and this is wrong, but what is the solution? If possible, I think each person needs to look at their own life and see if, firstly, sleep (or lack of) is affecting their life. If it is influencing their thoughts, feelings, and actions day-to-day. If it is, then something needs to change. I think that most of the time, sleep is something that can be sorted out by ourselves, just by making some changes (like those I stated above), or our own changes that we possibly already know will work. Of course, there could be other, more deep-rooted problems or disorders, which would need to be looked at by a doctor.

In the article I have only highlighted general reasons for why the population as a whole find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, but there are many more reasons for why someone could struggle. I have highlighted that modern technologies play their own factor in influencing our sleep patterns, how people’s busy lives impact upon getting enough sleep, and that other issues unique to an individual could also be a factor. The reasons are always going to be subjective to the person experiencing the sleep issues, and my advice is that sleep is extremely important for wellbeing – both physical and mental. If people are struggling and have tried the more obvious ways to sleep better than it’s worth seeking professional help. It can be difficult to get a good night’s sleep, but it’s one of the most vital element of life and that should always be remembered.

Sarah Keeping MBPsS MSc PgDip GDip BA (Hons)

Follow Sarah on twitter at @keepingapproach