Have you got BNB (Busy Night Brain)? Here's how to reclaim sleep

·7 min read
What to do if you wake up in the night with a busy mind. (Getty Images)
What to do if you wake up in the night with a busy mind. (Getty Images)

Why is it that some nights you just can't get your brain to shut up long enough for you to get to sleep?

Or if you do manage to drift off, you can suddenly be pulled from slumber by a random thought you really don't need at 4am?

Whether it’s stopping you from falling asleep or preventing you from staying asleep, a busy night brain can be a major obstacle to a good night's kip. 

And the pandemic seems to have exacerbated matters for stolen-sleep sufferers. 

Recent figures have revealed that fewer than 1 in 10 (7.7%) people say they got ‘very good’ quality sleep during the most recent COVID-19 lockdown. 

This has deteriorated by 39.4% as the pandemic has progressed, according to UCL researchers as part of the COVID-19 Social Study.

Read more: Allergies keeping you awake? Here are the secrets of a sneeze-free sleep

So what's making our brains to be so busy?

“Switching off for the night is an issue that many people struggle with," explains Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert for Silent Night.  

"As a nation, we’re often so busy with day-to-day life, that we forget to give our brains and bodies a much-needed rest and this can often cause the brain to work overtime and affect our sleep pattern."

Dr Ramlakhan says being kept awake during the night is often caused by anxiety, stress and worry. 

"These can often be subconscious, as many struggle to identify underlying issues that can prevent or disrupt sleep,” she adds. 

“Even while we sleep, our brain is busy sending signals to the body," she continues. 

"The reticular activating system is a part of the brain located just above the spinal column, and it acts as a filter of information to your brain. 

"This part of the brain plays a vital role as it sends signals to the body which wake us up from a slumber and enables alertness throughout the day.”

Busy mind stopping you sleeping? (Getty Images)
Busy mind stopping you sleeping? (Getty Images)

If you tend to wake up in the middle of the night and a racing mind won’t let you get back to sleep, it may mean that something is bothering you more than you think.

“There are many issues that may cause a person to wake up in the middle of the night, including underlying stress or health issues, medications, muscle or nerve spasms, digestive problems or simply needing the toilet," Dr Ramlakhan explains.  

"But if waking up during the night becomes frequent and starts to impact on the quality of your sleep and overall health, it’s important to address the issue.”

Read more: Why sleeping with a fan on might be bad for your health

However, it is worth pointing out that everyone has trouble sleeping from time to time. 

"In terms of the sleep issues I deal with, waking in the night is probably the most common one I work with," explains sleep expert James Wilson AKA The Sleep Geek. 

"The biggest surprise to the people I help learn to deal with this issue is that, despite what they think, nobody sleeps through the night, that we all wake 3-6 times a night."

Wilson says that as we are at our most vulnerable during the night, we come out of our sleep cycle to check if we are safe. 

"When we are sleeping well we do not remember waking up, but sleep poorly and when these awakenings occur our brain kicks in and starts considering whatever it is that ails us," he explains.

"Understanding that these night time awakenings are perfectly typical behaviour is the starting point to overcoming waking in the night."

But we also need to understand what might be triggering us coming out of our sleep cycle.

"This could be the stresses and strains of life, and addressing these away from bedtime is really important," he adds. 

Watch: Why is sleep so important? 

What to do if a busy brain is impacting your sleep

Do a pre-bed wind down

According to Wilson taking an hour to wind down before bed, to drop your heart rate by doing things that relax you, is fundamental to sleeping well. "Swap the news for your favourite rom com, that true crime podcast for a podcast like Boring Stories for Bedtime or an engrossing novel for something trashy," he suggests.

Steer clear of smartphones

The first thing many do when they are unable to fall asleep is reach for their smartphones or switch on the television, but Dr Ramlakhan says this sort of activity acts as a stimulant to the brain and makes sleeping more difficult.

"Stay in bed with the lights off and try some breathing exercises to calm your mind and allow your body to rest," she suggests.

Read more: Is it time for a 'sleep divorce'? This NHS doctor thinks so

Move your body

According to Dr Ramlakhan, simply moving the arms or legs relaxes the body. "If you’re in the same position for a period of time without moving, it could become uncomfortable," she explains. "Gently exercising the arms and legs may help the body to feel more comfortable and increase the chances of getting to sleep."

Stress is often the underlying cause of a busy mind. (Getty Images)
Stress is often the underlying cause of a busy mind. (Getty Images)

Keep the lights off

"Even the smallest glare of light can be invasive and stimulate the brain, so it is crucial that you keep your surroundings dark in order for your brain to feel relaxed," says Dr Ramlakhan.

Avoid checking the time

Tempting as it is to check how long you've got before your alarm goes off, Dr Ramlakhan says this should be avoided. 

"Although this may be your first thought when waking up during the night, once you’ve checked the time this becomes the focus of your sleep," she explains. "Checking the time can play on the mind, as you begin to countdown how many hours you have remaining before you need to wake up in the morning."

Control the caffeine

Many of us are aware of how caffeine can stop us sleeping but it is worth considering that it is not just about struggling to sleep at bedtime but can also trigger us waking up in the night.

"Work out what your sensitivity to caffeine is and as a general rule allow 6 hours from caffeine to sleep in your 30’s and 12 hours in your 60’s," Wilson says.

Follow the 30 minute rule

When we reduce the triggers we then need to think about how do we get back to sleep when we wake. "The best way to do this is to follow the 30 minute rule," suggests Wilson. "If you are in bed for 30 minutes and are not asleep then you need to reset your mind."

Wilson says the best way to do this is listen to something. "A podcast, a spoken word book, meditation apps or music of less than 60 beats per minute are all great," he continues.

"If you sleep alone or next to a partner who doesn’t annoy you with their sleep, then you can do this in bed, with headphones, but if your partner being asleep winds you up, raises your heart rate and makes sleep harder, then it would be worth doing this in another room. Keep the lights off, listen to something and let your mind wander."

Check the temperature

Wilson says another common waking trigger is temperature fluctuations, particularly being too hot. 

"This can be addressed by steering clear of foam mattresses, having a separate duvet from your partner, as their body heat can make us too warm, and looking at the materials our bedding and duvet are made from; bamboo, alpaca fleece and man-made fibres like Smartfil fabrics are great," he suggests.

Watch: COVID-19 'significantly increased' insomnia in healthcare workers. 

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