Top Tips to get a good night's rest

Tuesday 13 April 2021

How often have you heard someone say, ‘you just need a good night’s sleep and it will all be fine in the morning’?

If you’re one of the 16 million people in the UK who struggle to do just that, it can be exasperating and distressing.

Many of us struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Some find it difficult to get off to sleep, others wake in the night, struggle to sleep after that, lie awake for hours and get up not feeling refreshed.

Sleep difficulties often start or are increased with a diagnosis of cancer, side effects and treatment. Other factors can contribute, like physical pain, emotional distress, the side effects of some medications, and radiotherapy and chemotherapy might bring on nausea and night sweats.

We know that unfortunately about a third or more of people undergoing cancer treatment struggle with symptoms of insomnia.

Their partners and family members may also have difficulties sleeping. And right now, worries about coronavirus and the stress of lockdown has triggered a sharp increase in anxiety-related sleeping problems.

That’s the bad news. The good news is you can begin to find ways that work for you to help you sleep better. In this blog, we’ll share our top tips for better sleep and at the end, you’ll find a list of helpful resources and suggestions for further reading.

1. Find strategies that work for you

If you struggle to sleep, you’ve probably tried countless things to help. Be careful not to rely too heavily on strategies.

If you find something hard to do or it doesn’t work, you might see it as a failure and become exasperated. That’s when we become desperate and say things like ‘nothing is working if only I could find something that helps me sleep’.

You need to identify what does work but not over- rely on tools and techniques. And be kind to yourself and remember that sometimes a strategy will help, but on another night it might not.

2. Make sure where you sleep is comfortable

Creating the right environment in your bedroom is the first step to preparing a nurturing and calming space. Keeping it fuss-free and tidy will help, and look at changes to lighting so that you can create a relaxing feel. Try and avoid using your bedroom to work in and invest in a good mattress if possible. At Maggie’s we know that good design can affect how we feel, so indulge yourself with comforting textures, and get the temperature in the room just right for you.

3. Develop a routine

A routine can be helpful, but not if you are a slave to it. Try and spend 45 minutes before bed winding down by having a warming drink or reading a bedtime story, and turn off all your devices. Checking Facebook in bed on your laptop won’t help your brain and body wind down. Go to bed a bit later if you can as this may help trigger sleep. It’s tempting if you have had a terrible night’s sleep, to sleep in, but try and get up. Be flexible, not a prisoner of your timetable.

4. Practice mindfulness

You may have heard about a technique called mindfulness. It’s an incredibly useful approach, especially right now when we’re living through a time of increased uncertainty and anxiety.

We know that it can help with health and general well-being and reduce stress, but it’s also a potentially powerful tool for anyone who struggles to sleep. It takes time to learn the practice but if you are patient with yourself you may find it helpful in many areas of your life.

Mindfulness involves learning to pay attention more consciously, in the present moment to what we are doing and experiencing. When you can’t sleep, things can seem even more overwhelming than they do at other times.

Through the practice of mindfulness during the day, we can train the mind to settle and we can learn how to step back and be less reactive and blocked by patterns of unhelpful thoughts and moods. The amazing thing is you can practice it every day when you’re walking, reading or just breathing.

This resource is very helpful.

5. Learn to breathe

Try and practice a calming breathing technique which can help reduce stress and anxiety. You will get the most benefit if you do it regularly, as part of your daily routine. Focussing on your breath can also help settle you in the moment and stop unhelpful thoughts.

6. Exercise and eat well

This may seem obvious, but getting out into the fresh air for a bit of physical exercise can really help, not just by getting the heart rate up, but allowing us to enjoy nature and be present in our environment.

Be careful not to plan a strenuous workout just before bedtime though, as this could end up giving you a sleepless night.

Avoid stimulants, alcohol, and sugary foods, especially before you go to bed, but do allow yourself a treat now and then. Think about trying yoga or tai chi, both of which we offer at Maggie’s.

7. Avoid pills, potions and products

Countless products claim to aid sleep, but try to avoid medication that over promises. An eye mask or a few drops of lavender on your pillow could aid restful sleep.

8. Accept difficult thoughts and emotions

We tend to spend a lot of time wanting things to be different and striving for happiness. However, striving to avoid what is painful and trying ‘to think’ our way out of how we are thinking or feeling seems to produce more misery. These can be patterns we find particularly upsetting when we can’t sleep. Identify unhelpful thoughts and learn to step back from them, try and embrace more comforting thoughts. It could be about how much you value a sibling or how much you enjoy being a good friend.

9. Embrace being awake

In the past, you may have thought it was better to get up and get on with something useful when you can’t sleep. Believe it or not, the key to getting a good night’s rest is, BEING WILLING TO BE AWAKE when you’re lying in bed at night. In accepting being awake, letting go of the struggle to be asleep, the body is less aroused which actually increases the probability of sleeping. So trying to get to sleep can be the problem. We may force ourselves to relax, when what in fact will relax us more is accepting we are awake.

10. Focus on what you can control and change and accept what you can’t

Try and avoid punishing and blaming yourself when you can’t sleep and think you can’t find anything that works. Above all, be kind and compassionate to yourself.

At Maggie’s, we run regular sleep workshops. Here are some resources that have been recommended through our Merseyside Sleep Workshop.

  • The Happiness Trap: Russ Harris
  • Russ Harris on Youtube; there are several video animations about different aspects of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
  • Russ Harris App – ACT Companion, has lots of practices and audio exercises, including Mindfulness exercises and The Sky and the Weather exercise.
  • The Little Act Workbook: Michael Sinclair and Matthew Beadman
  • Kitchen Table Wisdom & My Grandfather’s Blessings: Rachel Remen
  • Finding Peace in a Frantic World: Mark Williams & Danny Penman (CD included)
  • The Mindfulness Breakthrough: Sarah Silverton
  • The Sleep Book: Guy Meadows
  • Guy Meadows: Don’t Tell me the Score podcast on Radio 4. The insomnia episode is an excellent summary of his work with sleep and ACT. He also has a couple of interviews and TV clips on his website, ‘The Sleep School.’
  • Tara Brach on Youtube. Some good talks and a few audio practices.

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