Is there a science to getting a good night’s sleep? We talk to sleep psychotherapist Heather Darwall-Smith, and find it all starts with creating a space that you want to be in.
“It’s a biological truth that we have to sleep. Our body knows how to do it. So what is it that stops us doing it?” Heather Darwall-Smith, a psychotherapist specialising in sleep-related issues, has been trying to answer this question for years.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND SLEEP
Her new book, The Science of Sleep, uses a bold visual approach to try to simplify some of the more complex concepts around sleep, seeking to answer 100 of the most common questions she hears in her clinic. But Heather’s advice for those of us seeking better slumber is actually quite straightforward. It’s all about making a space that you actively want to be in. And there are no rules for that, other than your personal preferences.
USE YOUR SENSES
“Sleep is a sensory process, so I encourage people to think about using the five senses in the bedroom,” she tells us. “So is your room decorated in a way you visually like? Do you like the touch of your bed linen? What sounds do you like in the room? How do you want it to smell?”
These are personal choices unique to each of us and Heather is keen to recommend that people find their own rituals. “What are the things that you could put in place that become a trigger for the brain that makes the association with ‘I’m going to sleep now’? It’s very individual and should absolutely be rooted in pleasure.”
Heather reminds us that “the body wants darkness at night, so the bedroom should be as dark as possible.” This can be achieved in a number of ways. With deep, dark-hued walls, especially if they are in a colour you love. Upholstered beds, like our beautiful Hilcott velvet bed in petrol blue, or if you have the room, an armchair upholstered in our Deep Blue or Slate matt velvet. Accessories are a wonderful way to bring in comfort and colour too. Layer your bed with cushions, like our velvet pom pom cushion in navy or a mix of our new range of simple velvet cushions in autumnal hues. A cosy wool-blend or cashmere-blend throw paired with our embroidered quilts will add texture and warmth.
Heather likens sleep rituals to training a baby: create consistency, do the same things, at the same time, over and over again to tell the body it’s time to go to sleep. “Try to get ready for bed at a consistent time,” suggests Heather. “I like to have a shower about an hour before bed, drink a mint tea and spend time on a nice skincare routine. Do what feels good for you.”
This consistency also applies to Heather’s one golden rule: get up at the same time of day, every day. “That consistent timing sets your circadian rhythm for the day and signals to the body that in 12 to 14 hours you’re going to start producing melatonin, which makes you sleep.” Human bodies follow the solar process of light and dark, and as the circadian rhythm is reset by light, there are various things we can do to help this process. Heather’s advice? “In the bedroom it’s really important to get it as dark as possible at night and then flood the room with light first thing in the morning.”
TAKE TIME OUT
Flooding the system with light resets your body clock and tells your brain, ‘it’s time to wake up’. In the winter, you can use daylight bulbs in your ceiling light to create the same effect, or dot table lamps around for a softer glow. It comes as no surprise that blue-light devices in the bedroom are a big no-no. “Devices are designed by geniuses to keep us awake,” warns Heather. “They give us a dopamine hit every time we engage with them, and that’s a signal to the brain to be awake. And because it’s such a concentrated amount of light in a small space it’s basically like shining a torch. Using a device between 11pm and 4am is pretty much disastrous to effective sleep. So turn off all screens as early as you can.”
Finally, Heather’s keen to dispel the eight-hours-a-night myth. “The idea that we’ll close our eyes, sleep for eight hours and wake up refreshed is absolutely not how it works.” Instead, she says, what we need is good quality sleep, for a consistent, regular amount of time. And this is also a very individual requirement. “Do what feels nice for you,” concludes Heather. “It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.”
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