Starting his in-depth look at Retune’s SCALES system for mental wellbeing, Tom Ryder talks to friends and colleagues to get their top rest tips
This article originally appeared in the Bishop’s Stortford Independent in May 2020
First of all, an apology. I had planned to write about the importance of sleep to mental wellbeing a couple of weeks ago, following on from my introduction to Retune’s SCALES system (Sleep, Creative, Active, Listen, Earth, Social). However, in the starkest of ironies, I have been unwell lately because I’ve not been sleeping enough.
Achieving adequate rest is fundamental to maintaining wellbeing and balance. If my life was a musical chord, sleep would be the bass or root note – if it is out of tune, the whole thing sounds wrong. In SCALES, the Sleep ‘string’ has a profound effect on the harmony of the other strings.
This rule is universal. But for someone like me with a bipolar diagnosis, it is especially key. Throughout most of lockdown I have been in the grip of a bipolar episode, my first for more than eight years. My sleep deteriorated, my thoughts raced, and I started to experience unwelcome bursts of elation, paranoia and delusion, meaning that for a short time I had to intervene by upping medication. Fortunately, I’m now past the brunt of it.
Bipolar episodes, which can feature both mania and depression, tend to be triggered by a lack of sleep, combined with stress. Like you no doubt, I’ve had plenty of stress lately (isolation, drastic loss of income, loss of taste and smell for two weeks to name a few) and once sleep started to Luckily I have a great support network, and I’ve managed to pull it back. I deleted social media from my phone and had a friend change my passwords so that I’m locked out. My phone is switched off and out of reach between 10pm and 8am, I’m doing plenty of reading to wind down each night, and I make sure that I eat regular meals and complete a daily bout of exercise. For me, a day that follows a great sleep is unrecognisable from one that comes after sleep deficiency. I decided to ask some of my friends and Retune colleagues what sleep means to them…
“Sleep is so important to me. While my husband could fall asleep standing up, I need conditions to be absolutely perfect: no noise, no light, correct temperature.” So says Annabel Smith, who is part of Retune and works in child and adolescent mental health. “I sleep with so much stuff to support this, including about four different pillows placed strategically around me. When I can’t sleep (which is often), I find the next day so much harder. I feel more anxious about things, less tolerant, and even a bit jealous of those that have had a good night.
“I’ve tried a lot of different things to improve sleep, but I’m not interested in using sleeping tablets. In recent times I have found that sense deprivation really helps, such as using an eye mask and ear plugs. The mask means there is no light that disturbs me as I fall asleep, or wakes me in the morning. The ear plugs really help me to switch off. I am hypervigilant, alert to every small noise, so I use the plugs when I can’t sleep. They took a bit of getting used to.”
Ian Tobin is a captain for a commercial airline, so always has to keep a keen eye on his sleep patterns. He has also recently become a dad: “Good sleep hygiene and high quality sleep form the foundation of any successful and productive day,” he says. “Sleep helps me to understand and digest events. Working in a safety-critical job, I often need to perform very early in the morning, or late at night. Being suitably rested is key to having the confidence to operate at the highest standard.
“With my 7-month-old son now in the mix, sleep is definitely something that needs to be managed carefully. Sleeping well kicks off positive spirals. I’m more productive and motivated to exercise, which leads to lovely happy hormones. I’m more pleasant to be around and, because I’m more worn out, I’ll sleep better the next night and the cycle continues.
He has a tip to share: “If you have to set an alarm for the morning, thinking or worrying about it going off can have an impact on the quality of your sleep. Set two alarms, say five minutes apart, on two different devices. I use my iPhone and my clock radio. That way, no power cut, battery loss or mis-set alarm can cause me to oversleep.”
Ian’s wife Aby is a physiotherapist in addition to being a new mum. She says that she has become acutely aware of how intertwined sleep is with physical and mental health: “After a solid night of sleep, my tolerance level is far higher, leading to better relationships, less anxiety, and more enjoyment of the day. On the physical side, sleep is when the body recovers. It is well researched that quality of sleep has a direct impact on chronic pain, and recovery and prevention of injury. Other than my husband and baby, there is nothing I love more than a good night’s sleep!”
She adds that, if you struggle with an overactive brain as you are trying to nod off, then white noise can be very effective. “It drowns out any external noise if there is any, but also takes away the complete silence. I fall asleep far quicker with it,” she explains.
Hailey Baker is a hairdresser and is also part of the Retune team. She lives in Bishop’s Stortford with husband Andy and their two young daughters Jasmine and Tilly. “Sleep is really important to my wellbeing; it means I can be my best self and operate at my best level,” she says. “If I don’t get enough, I find that the next day I chase sugary carbs, which is a false economy and detrimental to my health. I also find I will be short-tempered, impatient and irritable when I haven’t had enough.
“When I’ve slept well, I make better choices. I feel positive, proactive and energetic when I reach my quota. Sleep makes all the difference between a great and bad day.
“I like to ensure that my mind is clear before bedtime, and that usually involves planning the next day, clearing my thoughts and to-dos for the next day. I like to do some simple deep breathing, which relaxes body and mind. I also need the room at the right temperature, and look to ensure that I eat appropriately to the time I’m going to sleep. If I am hungry or too full-up, it will stop me from being able to drift off.”