Sleep problems – self help

Understanding sleep and problems with sleep

Sleep problems are very common and are often referred to as insomnia. One study in America found that only 5% of adults reported never having trouble sleeping.

A recent study found that as many as 30% of the adult population are affected by sleep problems. Sleep difficulties are particularly common in women, children and those over 65. In fact, roughly half of the elderly population complain of insomnia. Therefore to have trouble sleeping at some point in your life is quite normal.

How much seep do we need?

People can become very distressed when they feel they are not getting a good night’s sleep, which can make it harder to get off to sleep.

But what is a normal amount of sleep? How much sleep do we need?
The answer is that people vary greatly in their need for sleep. There is a popular idea that we all need 7 to 8 hours sleep every night. This is not true. Many studies have shown that people range between needing 4 hours a night up to needing 10 hours or more. Also the amount of sleep a person needs varies throughout their life. For example, a newborn baby spends 16-17 hors sleeping per day (although it might not appear like that to parents). As children grow older they require less sleep, possibly 11 hours around the age of five years and maybe 8 to 9 hours as a teenager. By the time someone reaches their 30s they may require less than 8 hours, and as time progresses this becomes less and less. Many people in their 70s require less than 6 hours sleep.

Not only does the need for sleep vary from person to person, and with age, it also varies depending on the level of activity. If someone has retired from work, they may be less active and therefore require less sleep. On the other hand, if they have a young family and are constantly on the go, they may require quite a bit of sleep.

Are there different types of sleep?
Sleep is not like a light bulb which is either on or off but has different stages, varying from light to deep sleep. At least five different types or stages of sleep have been identified.

Broadly, sleep is divided into what is called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep.

REM sleep occurs several times during the night and is where most dreaming is thought to take place.

Non-REM sleep is divided into four stages, each stage being a bit deeper, almost like a staircase of sleep.

Drowsiness         – REM &  non-REM stage 1

Sleep                       – non-REM stage 2

Deeper sleep        –  non-REM stage 3

Deep sleep              –  non-REM stage 4


During the night whilst asleep, people experience all the stages of sleep up and down in a sequence and in fact wake up several times.

On a typical night a young adult who sleeps well will spend about 5% in stage 1, 50% in the stage 2, 28% in deep sleep stage 3 and about 25% in REM sleep.

As with the amount of sleep we need, the type of sleep we have changes as we get older. Sleep in older people tends to be lighter and more broken, with more stage 1 and 2 sleep and more frequent wakening.

For a typical person aged 70, deep sleep takes up less than 10% of night’s sleep. Therefore, the older person reports waking more times throughout the night.

In summary sleep in older people tends to be shorter, more restless and more easily disturbed, but it should still be refreshing.

Are there other changes in sleep patterns?
Not only do we need less sleep and sleep becomes lighter and more broken as we get older, but I would pattern of when we sleep often changes too. It becomes more likely that we drop off to sleep during the day, so mood natural rhythm of sleep can be disturbed.

What causes sleep problems?
There are a number of reasons why sleep problems can develop.

Normal effects of ageing as mentioned, when people get older they tend to sleep less deeply and need less sleep. Not only this, but sometimes people develop a habit of dropping off to sleep during the day which again reduces the need for sleep at night. This is in itself is not a problem, but often not sleeping because it great cause for frustration and concern, which in turn leads to sleeping less well.

Medical reasons for descriptive sleep, medical reasons for poor sleep May or may not be related to getting older.  Some examples are

The need to go to the toilet during the night occurs more in later life. About 60% of women and about 70% of for men, aged over 65 get out of bed at least once a night to go out to the toilet. This can happen for other reasons of course, such as pregnancy. Getting out of bed at night isn’t always a great problem, but can be frustrating if it is difficult to get back to sleep.

Another medical reason is pain – this again can be common in older age with joint pains such as arthritis.

The emotional upset of loss or bereavement can affect sleep and again this may be more common in older people.

Some medicines can interfere with sleep, so it is worth checking with your doctor if you are on any tablets which may be causing disturbance in your sleep.

Stress, anxiety and worry- sleep is easily affected by how someone is feeling. If someone is worrying about something or suffering from stress, very often they will find it hard to get off to sleep.

Depression and low mood when someone is feeling depressed, disturbed sleep is common. It is quite useful for a depressed person to wake up early in the morning and find it hard to get back to sleep, alternatively to have difficulty in getting off to sleep.

Surroundings – can make a big difference to sleep. Example, a bedroom that is over heart of a cold, the bed 30 is too hard or too soft, that is too noisy too late can all make a difference to how well someone sleeps. Sleeping in a strange place can also affect someone’s sleep.

Disrupted sleep routine – people work with shifts which  change frequently often have difficulty sleeping

What sort of sleep problem do you have from the list below?

Getting to sleep – the most common sleep problem is trouble getting to sleep. For some people it can take several hours to drop off to sleep, but once that asleep the quality of sleep is good.

Staying asleep the next most common problem is a disturbed sleep pattern, with frequent waking in the middle of the night and difficulty getting back to sleep.

Waking too early – a third problem is waking earlier than you desired, again with difficulty getting back to sleep.

Poor quality sleep in addition, some people report sleeping lightly with restless, disturbed and inconsistent sleep.

Knowing exactly what sort of sleep problem you have can help when it comes to trying to deal with it.


Summary – sleep problems are very common and affect people in different ways. There is no ‘right’ amount of sleep as this varies between people and across the lifespan. Sleep problems can occur due to a number of reasons – as a result of age, medical reasons, emotional reasons, unhealthy surroundings, disrupted sleep routines. There are different types of sleep problem. It is also possible to think you have a sleep problem when in fact you’re still getting enough sleep but it is different from what you expect.


Overcoming your sleep problem

One of the first steps in overcoming sleep difficulties is finding out any possible causes and trying to look for solutions.

Is sleeping your main problem or is there another problem which may be causing you to have difficulty sleeping?

If there is another problem, is there anything you can do about that problem? Review these common reasons for insomnia and try to work out which if any apply. There may be different solutions for different problems.

Worrying about not getting enough sleep – Are you expecting too much sleep and worrying about not getting enough? Sometimes people lie in bed and worry about not sleeping. As we have already mentioned, worrying about not getting enough sleep makes matters worse. Thoughts such as “I’ll be exhausted tomorrow”, “I’ll never get to sleep”, “I must sleep, it’s ruining my health”, may run through your mind. The effect of this is that you feel tense and anxious and less likely to drop off to sleep, which in turn leads to more worrying thoughts. Solution : tryto remind yourself that loss of sleep will not hurt you. No one ever died through lack of sleep!

You know you will always fall asleep eventually. Lying calm and relaxed in bed can be as refreshing as sleep (and even more enjoyable because you’re awake t experience it!)

Don’t keep looking to see what the time it is – Try to put sleep out of your mind. Tell yourself you don’t really care whether you get to sleep or not. Have a daydream instead about something pleasant (for example a holiday, what you’d do if you won some money). Sometimes people find it helpful to lie and force themselves to stay awake. This may sound odd but often if someone tries to force their eyes open, the urge to close them and to go to sleep becomes very strong.

Relaxation may be helpful. There are many tapes available to buy also there may be booklets and tapes to help yourself sleep better.