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11 top tips to beat insomnia

Can't get no sleep? You're not alone. For National Sleep Day (19th March) we asked two sleep experts how to pandemic-proof our Z-time.

A year of general pandemic anxiety, coping with homeschooling, juggling Zoom calls and goodness knows what else, has left many of us lying awake at night, wide-eyed.

In the past year the hashtag ‘can’t sleep’ has been trending like crazy, with 2.3m people posting about their inability to nod off (and 3.7 million posting under ‘insomnia’). We are the new woke generation – and not in a good way.

Even in ‘normal’ times, approximately up to 35 percent of the population experiences acute, or short-term, insomnia (according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine) so it’s little wonder that our disrupted schedules and anxieties have created the perfect storm of sleep problems.

We caught up with two sleep pros, certified breath coach and trainee Wim Hof Method instructor, Sara Cain of Breathways and Kathryn Pinkham, Founder of The Insomnia Clinic and a consultant Sleep Specialist for the NHS for their tips on cracking sleepless nights.


Sara says:

“We spend one third of our lives sleeping, it’s crucial for our mental and physical health and wellbeing and one of the most important things when it comes to our day-to-day happiness but it can be elusive and sometimes, especially in times of stress, almost nonexistent.

The science is still emerging about breathwork, but we know it can slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. All these things can help you get to sleep quicker, stay asleep and get better quality sleep.

The key to good sleep is understanding how the body and mind work. To get to sleep we have to down-regulate our nervous system, aka relax, sometimes easier said than done! The breath is a brilliant tool as it directly influences the nervous system, so by changing the way we breathe, we send relaxation signals to our nervous system, which means we are better able to nod off.

I get so much feedback from people the day after our session saying it’s the best sleep they’ve had in ages. I had one client recently who hadn’t slept through the night in over a decade and after just one session (yes ONE!) he had his first full night’s sleep. It’s amazing that something so simple can have such a huge benefit, that’s why I love what I do.

Breathwork is like any exercise, it takes time to perfect it and you get better at it the more you do it, so give this a try and see if you sleep better and feel better.

1/  Think about how you breathe. There’s some debate about how many breaths per minute is the ideal amount, but generally anything above about 16 breaths per minute means you are sending stress signals to your nervous system, essentially telling it you are being chased by a bear. Use the stopwatch on your phone and count how many breaths you do in a minute. If it’s more than about 16 try and consciously slow it down and see how you feel.

2/ Use your breath to manage and train your mind. When you’re focusing on your breath you aren’t re-running your day or planning your to do list, so you are much more likely to nod off, especially if you wake up in the middle of the night. Try breathing in through your nose and breathing out through your nose elongating your exhale. This creates a deep sense of relaxation.

3/ Equalise your inhale and exhale. Use your nose to breathe in for a count of five and out for a count of five for five minutes. Try this when you get into bed or if you wake up in the night to help you nod back off. This breathing really calms the body and mind. This is called ‘coherent breathing’ and I provide a free recording of this exercise, as lots of people say it’s so much easier to follow a recording than count themselves. Just email to get it.

4/ Try holding your breath for a short time. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, then breathe out for a count of eight. This technique gets more powerful over time as it can take some time to get used to holding your breath for the count of seven and to really relax into it. Its inventor, Dr. Weil, describes this as ‘a natural tranquiliser for the nervous system’ and says with continued use you should be able to fall asleep in 90 seconds. I don’t know about 90 seconds, but it certainly helps.


Kathryn says:

“Social-distancing, relationship woes, irritable kids, financial worries and a change in normal routine can profoundly affect your sleep.

“But it’s important to acknowledge that this is ok, and that it’s really normal. We are designed to cope with periods of sleep loss. For some people, the threat of illness is a trigger for sleep anxiety – the belief that we need to get more sleep to fight illness kicks in. And of course, this is true to a certain extent, as good quality sleep can help us to develop a stronger immune system. However, what is important to note is that it’s quality of sleep and not quantity of sleep which counts.”

1. Don’t spend too long in bed. The first thing we do when we can’t sleep is start going to bed earlier to try and increase our hours of sleep. Reduce the amount of time you spend in bed awake, go to bed later and get up earlier, this will encourage your body’s natural sleep drive to kick in. By reducing the time you spend in bed you will crave more sleep, fall asleep faster and find your quality of sleep improving.

2. Keep to a routine. Set your alarm and get up at your usual time. Resist the temptation to lie in as this will affect your ability to build a drive to sleep the next night. If you are self isolating, then try to stick with a normal routine. Don’t spend lots of time in your pyjamas or watching TV in your bedroom instead, as far as you can, keep your bedroom for sleeping.

3. Stop clock watching. It is very tempting to look at the clock every time we wake up to monitor how little sleep we are getting. However, this then increases the pressure to fall back to sleep and makes it less likely. Set your alarm for the morning then avoid looking at the time again.

4. Don’t lie in bed awake. If you can’t get to sleep or have woken up in the middle of night, get out of bed. The longer we lie in bed trying to fall back to sleep the more frustrated we get. This, in turn, means we begin to subconsciously relate bed to feeling stressed and being awake rather than asleep. Leave the bedroom and do something relaxing like read a book downstairs, then when you are tired go back to bed.

5. Manage your thoughts. A busy mind is one of the most common culprits in keeping us awake at night, so start by writing things down. Make time to list what is on your mind, this can be therapeutic as it is a way of getting things out of your head. When you write down your worries in black and white, you can make a plan about what you are in control of. Ask yourself, how many of the worries are hypothetical (haven’t yet happened) and how is worrying about them affecting you?

6. Get outdoors. Within government guidelines get as much exercise as you can. If you have a private garden or open space nearby, get outside every day. You need the fresh air to keep you healthy as being inside too long can make it hard to sleep well, and also affect your mood. You also need the daylight to regulate and keep your body clock in sync, so as a minimum make sure all curtains and blinds are fully open during the day. From March 29 a wide range of outdoor adult sports will reopen, including tennis, basketball courts, golf and grass roots football. Why not think taking up a new sport you’ve not tried before? Or join that local tennis club you’ve often thought about.

7. Tap into a mindfulness or meditation app. You can also find help online, there are lots of apps for inducing sleep and reducing anxiety. (Muddy loves Headspace, the free version has “sleepcasts,” which are 45-55 minutes and like adult bedtime stories, and Noisli which lets you choose your favourite sounds. Check out the reassuring murmour of a coffee shop). Or the Insomnia Clinic offers a free sleep webinar too, which will provide further tips on improving your sleep.

Find more ideas here

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2 comments on “11 top tips to beat insomnia”

  • Ms Rita Baker March 21, 2021

    I’ve tried everything at the moment I’ve got lavender sticks by my bed and lavender sleep mist on my pillow no matter how tired I am when I go to bed I have trouble getting to sleep but I will definitely try the breathing exercises

    • lisabuckland March 21, 2021

      Hi Rita, give it a go! The coherent breathing is really working for me when I wake up at night and can’t get back to sleep. I’d also recommend doing a taster course with Sara too. It costs a fiver and I had the best night’s sleep in ages afterwards! Lisa x


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