Sleep is a natural and automatic process that we all have within us. This also means that we cannot control our sleep as we might like to, especially if you have problems falling or staying asleep. The harder you try, the more elusive sleep becomes. If it were possible to fall asleep whenever we want, an issue like insomnia would not exist.
However, what we can control is how we respond to sleeplessness. The key is our behavior, and that includes whether we behave in a way that is conducive to sleep. Unfortunately, it is very easy for us to disturb our natural sleep patterns.
The other important factor is to find out how much sleep you need. The amount of sleep someone needs is a very individual matter, depending on several factors such as age, genetics (night owl or morning lark?) and sleeping history.
Let’s look at both issues in more detail.
How to prevent sleep pattern disturbances?
Many people who have problems with their sleep tend to have unhelpful habits, such as going to bed at irregular times, getting up often at night, or staying in bed too long. Keep in mind that humans are creatures of habit, and a frequent change of our bedtime upsets the rhythm of our body clock and often leads to inadequate sleep and amplifies insomnia.
To regain a natural sleep pattern, it is therefore vital to behave accordingly. Go to bed at a regular time, don’t spend too much time in bed, make your last hour of the day relaxing, keep your bedroom clean and devoted to sleep, and avoid caffeine and too much alcohol before bedtime.
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You must find a rhythm that matches your natural inclinations and fits your life. In the following, you will find some ideas on how to develop your individual sleep rhythm.
Can you catch up on sleep?
Almost everyone knows the attempt to make up for missed sleep during the week on weekends. The so-called catch-up sleep feels good at the moment but has a strong negative effect on the following nights because the inner clock is disturbed.
This is also why Sunday evenings are a problem for many of us: catching up on sleep over the weekend shifts the inner clock to a later time, so the time of getting up is also shifted, which upsets the cycle for the next night. It is a vicious circle that continues and can eventually have the opposite effect: that you lie awake most nights with frustration and fear of not being able to sleep.
Just like catching up on sleep, activities such as screen time at night disturb the inner clock and can trigger insomnia.
What happens if you stay in bed too long?
This is not about sleeping too much, but about the problem of staying in bed much longer than you actually need. It’s a mistake that a lot of people with sleep problems make. They hope to increase their chances of getting more sleep by staying too long in bed. However, this behavior can have the opposite effect and reduce the quality of your sleep.
Staying in bed for too long usually leads to difficulty falling asleep and fragmented sleep and the frustration and anxiety that comes with it. This, in turn, increases stress levels and pushes sleep even further away.
The key is to generate enough sleep drive
We usually need 14-17 hours of wakefulness to generate enough drive to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep at night. Seven hours of sound sleep is far better than 10 hours of fragmented lousy sleep. Therefore, you should spend as many hours in bed as your body needs to sleep, and not more.
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If you try to sleep more hours than you need, you weaken the sleep drive, and the little sleep you get is of poor quality. Remember that restful sleep is primarily about good quality sleep, not just the quantity of sleep you get.
Also, keep in mind that the amount of sleep you need is very individual, which takes us to the second crucial factor:
How much sleep do you really need?
The rule of thumb of 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night is justified, but it depends on various parameters such as age or genetic predisposition. Some people wake up refreshed with only 6 hours of sleep and others who need 9 hours.
Especially if you only experience a few hours of sleep per night, don’t approach this condition to necessarily want to sleep 8 hours. Unrealistic goals only create additional fear and discomfort. The goal should be to wake up relatively refreshed and not feel tired all the time during the day.
My experience is that most people know quite well how much sleep they need. This is also true for people with insomnia, although they sometimes tend to exaggerate both their current sleep duration and the amount of sleep they need.
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For example, during my insomnia, I have often believed that I barely slept at all, although I usually got 3-4 hours of sleep. Remember that when you are sleep deprived, you often underestimate how much you actually sleep and easily overestimate how much sleep you need.
How to determine your sleep need?
The best way to determine how much sleep you need is to remember how long you slept as a normal sleeper. If you used to sleep an average of 6.5 hours, you don’t have to expect to sleep for 8 hours. As mentioned earlier, your sleep gets worse if you try to sleep more hours than you need.
If you don’t know what your individual sleep plan is, you can use your age and family history as a guide to determine how much sleep you need.
For example, as a teenager, I slept about 9.5 hours (as a teenager, we often sleep 1-2 hours longer), and my mother always slept an average of 8 hours, so I need about 8 hours of sleep.
Keep your alarm off
Another way to find out how much sleep you need is to choose a standard bedtime and not to use an alarm clock to wake you up. You should do this for about two weeks, for example, when you have a flexible schedule or are on vacation. You will most likely sleep longer in the first few days because you will pay off your “sleep debt” – the amount of sleep deprivation you have accumulated over time.
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However, if you continue to go to bed at the same time and allow yourself to wake up naturally, you will eventually create a sleep pattern of essentially the same amount of sleep each night.
How can you determine your bedtime?
The time you go to bed depends on your genetic background (are you a night owl or a morning lark?) and your waking time. If you are flexible in the morning, you can choose the bedtime at which you can best fall asleep.
However, if you have clear responsibilities, such as preparing your children for school and fixed working hours, you will also need to adjust the bedtime to your current daily routine.
Then start with your wake-up time and work backward through the number of hours of sleep to find your bedtime. For example, if you have to get up at 6:30 am and your sleeping time is 7.5 hours, the time to go to bed is at 11:00 pm.
The importance of sleep cycles
Some sleep specialists advise you to base the length of your sleep time on your sleep cycles because the quality of your sleep depends significantly on how many complete sleep cycles you experience, not just how long you sleep.
But how many sleep cycles are there? And how long do sleep cycles last? A typical night’s sleep includes five complete sleep cycles, and the average sleep cycle is 90 minutes. A typical sleep duration would, therefore, be 90 x 5 = 450 minutes or 7.5 hours.
In theory, this is correct, but it is also a fact that the length of each sleep cycle is very individual and varies. Therefore, taking your sleep cycles as a basis for determining when and how long to sleep might be tricky to do without undergoing sleep lab tests.
If you have difficulty determining your bedtime, it is best to keep a sleep diary for at least two weeks. A sleep diary is a record of your sleep patterns and habits that can be very useful in understanding your condition and finding out whether your behavior is conducive or not.
Once you have chosen your new sleep duration and sleep time, stick to it as much as possible, and avoid deviations of more than 20-30 minutes. Changing your sleep pattern too often will confuse and make your sleep worse.
However, to avoid unrealistic expectations, remember to
- Be patient – it may take a few weeks for your sleep pattern to take effect if you changed it.
- Remain realistic – choosing the time you want to spend in bed does not mean that you will immediately sleep for so long.
- Stay flexible – you may need to refine your sleep time until you find the right rhythm. Rigid and unrealistic sleep patterns only lead to further anxiety and stress.
- Be prepared for special events such as travel, a night out with friends, or an illness.
How much napping is too much?
Being awake during the day builds up your natural sleep drive, which means that extensive napping will lower your sleep drive and cause sleep problems. On the other hand, a short nap during the day reduces stress and increases alertness.
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Also, if you have insomnia, daytime tiredness can be a significant challenge, and a short nap in the middle of the day often helps to recharge your batteries. The key is not to sleep for more than about 20 minutes, as this prevents you from weakening your sleep pressure.
Here are two simple steps on how to proceed:
- Choose a time, ideally after lunch or in the early afternoon, to take a short nap of about 20 minutes. Avoid taking a nap after 3 pm.
- Close your eyes and allow yourself to enter the pre-sleep phase of the calm waking state. If your mind does not stop racing, use the time for simple meditation practice. The emphasis is on gaining valuable rest rather than trying to sleep. If you feel that you are sleeping too long, set an alarm clock.
Take a short walk
Another remedy against daytime tiredness is gently exercising in the fresh air. A 10-minute walk during the lunch break can give you a tremendous boost to get through the day. The natural light stimulates your alertness, and the gentle exercise releases endorphins that improve your mood. You don’t have to run a marathon to do this; you just need to tell your brain that you are ready to get on with your life, no matter how small the action.
Pay attention to your body’s sleep signals
As you can see, there is a lot to consider about how much sleep you need. Apart from all of the above factors, don’t forget to pay attention to your body’s sleep signals and ask yourself the following questions:
- How tired do I feel during the day?
- When do I feel most alert?
- When does fatigue set in?
Even moments of sleepiness that you may consider routine, such as falling asleep on the subway on your way to work or during a routine task, are probably a sign that you are not getting enough sleep and need to rethink your sleep schedule.