5 reasons we can’t sleep (and what to do about it)

Scientists have been telling us how much sleep we need for a while now. Depending on which research you read, the average figure quoted for adults is eight hours a night. But the reality is: most people aren’t getting that, and don’t sleep for that long.

According to the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) at least 4 in 10 people aren’t getting enough sleep, with the Sleep Health Foundation suggesting 1 in 3 people suffer with insomnia –  trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.  It’s the second most common health complaint after pain. The “average” Briton gets around six hours sleep a night according to this article in the Independent. Sunday was revealed as the day people get their worst night’s sleep.

And it’s not just a British problem. According to some reports (scrutinised by the NHS) sleep is an issue around the world.

It makes sense that when Dr. Guy Meadows commissioned The Big Sleep Report, he identified that only 1% of the UK’s population wake up feeling completely refreshed every day. Even people getting the recommended eight hours a night (or more) admit they don’t wake up feeling rested, with especially poor sleep the night before their next shift (known as Sunday Night Syndrome).

Why can’t we sleep?

Ironically, The Great British Sleep Survey identified that one of the main things (for 79% of people) that keeps us awake at night is how long they’ve been lying awake. In other words, it’s the worry that we are not getting our recommended eight hours, that’s stopping us from sleeping.

Other reasons include:

  • Body discomfort (e.g illness or injury)
  • Environment including room temperature, in comfy bed and noise
  • Use of technology
  • Persistent thoughts

What happens if we don’t sleep?

The research in the RSPH report and others explains that lack of sleep causes significant problems for us physically and mentally. People who don’t sleep well are more likely to wake up feeling depressed as well as experience poor memory, weight gain and ill health. Recent research published in the New Scientist shows increasing links in the role of sleep in causing Alzheimer’s.

So, what can we do?


First, talk to your doctor. They may be able to offer some top tips or strategies available to you locally.  You could also try:

  • Ditching the eight hours myth: not many people in this country get eight hours of sleep a night, in fact the ‘average’ Briton gets around six hours sleep.  Research also shows us that it’s our belief we should  get eight hours that’s actually keeping us awake; people look at the clock or check their phone when they wake up in the night, see what time it is and then get stressed that they haven’t slept enough.  Focus on quality, rather than quantity, using the additional tips below, and try not to use your phone if you’re waking up in the dark.  The light from it can literally keep you awake.
  • Taking care of yourself. A good daytime routine is as important as a bedtime routine. Avoiding caffeine and heavy meals in the hours leading up to bedtime, can help. A warm bath and listening to some calming music can also be relaxing before bed. We know that too much time spent on smart phones and computers, especially at night, as well as our bedroom environment can affect how well we sleep. So make sure your bed is comfy, and where you sleep lends itself to a restful night, going to bed when you’re sleepy. But also try to deal with stress during the day, so it’s less likely to come into your mind when it’s quiet. Talk to someone if you are worried or anxious about something.
  • Knowing your sleep cycle: the length of time it takes you to go through light, deep and dreaming sleep is called a sleep cycle.  We all have one, everyone is different but it averages between 90 minute and two hours in length in adults (it’s half that in children). At the end of each sleep cycle, it’s quite normal to come back round in to light sleep, (before you go into deep sleep) and be easily woken – it’s one of the reasons, people will often say “I was waking up every couple of hours in the night”.   Waking up is normal; the key is deciding how you get back to sleep.  This is where mindfulness can help (see tip at the bottom)
  • Accepting the problem. If you suffer with poor sleep, and have done for a while, acknowledging that you may not sleep well is a place to start. This can help manage the repetitive thoughts Instead of saying “I’m such a bad sleeper, what’s wrong with me?” try turning your thoughts away from criticising yourself; focus positively on getting back to sleep, like using the tip below.
  • Focus on the breath. When you realise you’re awake and not going to get back to sleep, try a breathing technique.  As you lay in bed, bring your attention to how your breath is coming in and going out of your body. Try not to get tangled in the commentary of thoughts that are rolling round in your mind. Every time you notice your mind wandering, accept that, label them ‘thinking’ and then turn your attention back to the breath. In one study, 91% of people who described themselves as having insomnia, were able to significantly reduce or stop using their medication after six weeks of mindfulness, 20 minutes a day (Please speak to your doctor first if you’re thinking of reducing your medication).

For people who work shifts, it can be even harder to rest. Here are some extra tips:

  • Go to bed when you’re sleepy; whatever time your shift finishes, you’ll generally start to feel sleepy every couple of hours, so try to factor in a bedtime which fits in with that.  If you don’t sleep when you’re sleepy, or if you push through it for more than half an hour, when you eventually go to bed you’ll probably toss and turn until you feel sleepy again – about two hours later. It’s one of the reasons why if you wake up at 4am, and don’t get straight back to sleep, you will be awake until 6am, just as you’re alarm goes off. So try not to push through sleepiness once you’re home, make sleep a priority.  
  • Try power naps – the optimum length of a power nap is 20 minutes; try not to nap for longer than that, unless you can manage a couple of hours. Don’t nap for something in between though; people who set the alarm to nap for an hour, will often find they wake up feeling like they have a hangover: headache, dry mouth and don’t know what year it is – this is actually called the Hangover Effect.  So keep your power naps to 20 minutes, or the whole length of your sleep cycle (90-120 minutes).   If power naps are stopping you sleeping at night, avoid them during the day.
  • Try Mindfulness – proven strategy for helping people sleep, and known for many other benefits including managing stress and anxiety.  Even if you find you’re tossing and turning in bed you can use mindfulness to  rest your mind and body.  There are a number of apps including Headspace you can try, as well as Mindfit Cop, which is being rolled out via the college of Policing, for frontline officers. You can read more about this here 

Everyone is different so how much sleep you need may be different to everyone else. If the aim is to wake up feeling rested, try shifting your attention to sleep quality, rather than quantity. Remember to chat to your GP or Occupational Health if sleep is really becoming an issue.

©️ Copyright Delphi Ellis

One response to “5 reasons we can’t sleep (and what to do about it)

  1. Pingback: Sunday Night Syndrome | Dream Expert Dream Interpretation Dream Meanings Nightmares Questions and Sleep Answers Dream Analysis Online Dream Therapy The Dreams Lady·

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