When it comes to sleep, it can be difficult to know what is normal and what’s not.
Some people worry unnecessarily about the quality or quantity of their sleep.
Others don’t realise that their sleep is poor but feel the negative effects of lack of sleep through their lives.
So, in this post I want to outline 5 common issues I come across and explain what is normal, and what is not.
Please remember, just because a problem may have persisted for a long time, it does not make it normal.
Find out what is stopping you sleeping using this self assessment tool
1) It is normal to wake up during the night…but then to go back to sleep again
It is common and quite normal to wake up 2-3 times during the night. You might be aware of looking at the clock to check the time, turning over, repositioning yourself to get comfy or even getting up to go to the loo. Usually you are waking up as one sleep cycle comes to an end. You should then drift off to sleep again easily until roughly your normal waking up time.
If you are waking up during the night and then laying awake for an hour or two, or even longer before eventually going back to sleep, this indicates a sleep problem. Most likely, you will be feeling the effects of stress or anxiety keeping you awake, even if you are not fully aware of it. You might feel your mind is racing when you are awake. In some situations, your subconscious mind may have developed a habit of being awake at a certain time of night – this is usually when you are perfectly relaxed, very tired but can’t sleep.
Some people worry that if they can remember their dreams they have not slept deeply enough. This is not the case. Some people remember their dreams and others don’t. You dream more towards the end of the night so if you are going to remember a dream it is most likely to be what you dreamt just before you woke up in the morning.
Your dreams should be reasonably pleasant most of the time. Dreams can be very odd and you might have the occasional dream where you feel anxious or frustrated. However, your dreams should not be upsetting or anxiety-provoking on a regular basis. If you feel troubled by your dreams during the day, if they are preventing you sleeping well at night or if you dread going to bed because of the content of your dreams, your mind is working overtime. Sometimes the pent up stress and anxiety from the day is expressed through our dreams at night. Sometimes there can be subconscious causes of distressing dreams. Either way, it can be changed, you do not have to dream this way forever.
The way sleep cycles work means that you experience lighter sleep towards morning. Lighter sleep is where you dream. So, often it can feel as though we are aware of being asleep or we are very aware of our dreams, as if we are watching a film play out moment by moment. This is quite normal and you might notice it more when you have something on your mind or during a busy week.
However, you should only feel this way towards morning. If you feel very aware of your sleep all night or feel you are sleeping lightly all night you may not be achieving deep sleep and therefore not getting the restful sleep you need. It is normal to have the odd night of this when something is on your mind (eg, you have a work presentation to do, you have to get up early to go to the airport) but it should not last more than a night or two.
Everyone has the odd night of not being able to get to sleep for an hour or two. These nights can feel random or can be linked to being stressed due to something happening at work, a worry about your child, having worked late etc. Sometimes we might have a week or two of not being able to get to sleep which would usually be due to an event such as a bereavement, an inspection at work or a relationship problem. Getting to sleep should return to normal once the situation has passed or once the initial intense feelings have died down.
If this does not go back to normal within a week or two, or if you can’t pinpoint the reason as to why you are struggling to get to sleep, you are more likely to be suffering with an insomnia problem. For some people they can trace their insomnia back to an event such as those described above but it has gone on for months or years without ever going back to normal. In these situations, your mind needs to relearn how to go to sleep when you go to bed and break the habit of lying there awake for hours on end.
Most people need to wind down before they go to bed and I would encourage you to make this part of your daily routine. You might read a book, have a bath, listen to some music or watch some TV. If for some reason you are unable to wind down before bed (such as being out late), it would be normal to notice that it took longer to get to sleep or you didn’t seem to sleep as well.
If you are relying on a substance to put you to sleep, this can create more problems. Common substances people use to get to sleep are alcohol, sleeping medication or cannabis. Whilst these substances may help you to get to sleep, the quality of your sleep can be affected and you may notice you still feel exhausted the next day.
I hope this has helped you to understand the difference between normal sleep occurrences and those which are more indicative of a problem you may wish to address.
In my experience, almost any sleep issue can be rectified so please do not lose hope.