Getting enough sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our mental and physical health. It gives our brains and bodies time to recover, rest and repair themselves, and not getting enough has been linked to health problems from heart disease to diabetes, as well as affecting our emotions. But sleep is also vital for learning and memory.
When we are sleep deprived, our concentration suffers, so it’s harder to pay attention to what we are trying to learn. And there are other changes in the brain too. Learning relies on forming new connections between neurons in the hippocampus, and it seems that in sleep deprived brains, this doesn’t happen as easily[i].
Sleep is also important after you have learned something- it's while you sleep that memories are transferred from temporary storage in the hippocampus to long-term storage in the cortex[ii] (the wrinkly surface layer of the brain). So if your students aren’t getting enough sleep, not only will they be worse at taking in information, they will also be more likely to forget it later! (For more on the neuroscience of learning and memory see our post explaining how the best techniques for revision actually work)
But for many of us, getting enough sleep isn’t easy, and one of the things that can keep us up at night is stress or worry. Luckily, there are things you can do before bed to help quiet your mind, reduce feelings of stress and prepare for a good night's slumber. So here are 3 Braintastic! Science strategies to cope with stress that you can share with your colleagues and students to help stop stress affecting sleep.
1. Have a wind down routine
Our brains are constantly learning to link things together. Just like the smell of freshly baked cookies can instantly make you starving, you can learn to associate certain smells, sounds or actions with sleep. So having a wind down routine you do every night can be really helpful. Choose a few things you enjoy doing- whether that’s having a bath, using a fancy body lotion, or reading a few pages of a magazine, and do it every day, before bed. Over time, it will help your body learn it’s time to start switching off from the day and transitioning to sleepy time.
2. Write a list
If you find your mind tends to whirr as soon as you switch off the light, racing through all the things you have to get done tomorrow, this tip is for you. Scientists have found that spending 5 minutes writing a to-do list before bed can help people fall asleep faster. They think that writing down these tasks mentally ‘offloads’ them; you know they are safely on the list, and you won’t forget them, so it’s easier for your mind to let go of them, and let you fall asleep. [iii]
3. Try mindfulness
Mindfulness comes in many forms, but in simple terms, it is a practice where you focus on the present moment. This can be through a guided meditation, whilst going for a walk, or even doing some colouring. The important thing is to allow thoughts to come and go without getting caught up in them. A wide range of studies have suggested that you can reduce stress with mindfulness and it may also improve sleep quality, so it can be a great addition to a wind down routine[iv][v][vi][vii]. If you’d like to introduce it to your students we’ve shared some great free resources on mindfulness for teenagers, in our resources for PSHE in secondary schools.
While none of these tips are a silver bullet, they just might help you build a better relationship with sleep, and drop off a bit more easily. We now know how stress affects your brain, and these techniques can be a great way to calm yourself and prepare for a good night’s sleep. So why not share them with your colleagues or students? And for more on mental wellbeing in schools see our post about how to talk to kids about mental health.
[i] The tired hippocampus: The molecular impact of sleep deprivation on hippocampal function - PMC
[ii] System consolidation of memory during sleep - PMC
[iii] The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists. - PsycNET
[iv] Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Benefits Psychological Well-Being, Sleep Quality, and Athletic Performance in Female Collegiate Rowers - PubMed
[v] [Effect of mindfulness meditation training on anxiety, depression and sleep quality in perimenopausal women] - PubMed
[vi] The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials - PubMed
[vii] The Quest for Mindful Sleep: A Critical Synthesis of the Impact of Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Insomnia