The next pandemic? Sleep problems

Ahead of Stress Awareness Month, Priory experts on the things that affect quality of sleep - and how to change them

  • Anxiety is the chief ‘enabler’ of poor quality sleep, even after falling asleep
  • Alcohol is a bad ‘hypnotic’, making a person sleepy but dehydrated, so they wake up earlier or experience disrupted sleep
  • Light of any kind, including from phones, iPads, TV, can suppress melatonin, the sleep hormone, and throw out a person’s body clock
  • Heavy meals late at night will cause poor quality sleep by interfering with digestion and risk heartburn, and acid reflux which can worsen when lying down

A side-effect of the pandemic has, for many, been poor sleep – or poor quality sleep – and feeling constantly tired when awake.

The pandemic has thrown many people’s sleep patterns out of kilter, especially teenagers’ – with people spending longer in bed or going to bed later, or not being able to fall asleep or sleep properly at all.

So now is the time to recalibrate, and work on restoring sleep to its best quality, so people can emotionally and physically ‘reset’ when awake, say Priory experts.

Priory consultant psychiatrist Dr Niall Campbell says: “Anxiety is the greatest enemy of sleep, even more so than depression.

“People ruminating can be a real disturber of sleep. Even if you then fall asleep, you can get intermittent sleep, and often have bad dreams.

“Some people can have sleep apnoea (when your breathing stops and starts while you sleep) which can mean you are very tired the next day.

“And alcohol is a bad ‘hypnotic’ in that it may make you sleepy but it is dehydrating, so you wake up earlier, or in the middle of the night.” (Priory’s own figures show a significant increase in people inquiring about alcohol addiction treatment on the back of the pandemic; there has been a 44% increase in inquiries to its private alcohol addiction services between January-November 2021, accounting for 3,000 people and up from 2,000 in 2020.)

Heavy meals late at night will cause poor quality sleep by interfering with digestion and risk heartburn, and acid reflex.

Priory psychotherapist Lisa Martin, based at Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Manchester, says screens are a no-no at bedtime – mobile, TV, iPads or laptops.  Light of any kind can suppress melatonin, and throw out your body clock, she says. Melatonin is a hormone made in the body which regulates night and day cycles or sleep-wake cycles. The brain produces it in response to darkness, and being exposed to light can affect its production.

“Blue light exposure close to bed time from a smart phone, tablet or computer affects the hormones that control the brain, confusing it to think it’s day time. This affects hormones that regulate sleep. It can mean shorter, or poor quality, sleep, leading to waking up with fatigue.”

She adds: “A sedentary lifestyle can also, negatively, affect quality of sleep, often making you feel tired after waking up.”

12 tips for a good night’s sleep

Listen to music

Listen to a relaxing playlist of, for example, light classical music that induces relaxation and sleep. The best suggestion is a 30-minute playlist.

De-clutter your room and don’t time-check

Re-position your alarm clock because if you can easily view the time, it may provoke stress and anxiety if you are losing valuable sleeping time. If need be, turn it round and don’t be tempted to look.

Keep a regular schedule

Maintain a regular wake and sleep schedule, even at weekends.

Include physical activity in your daily routine

Keep active during the day as much as you can, but don’t exercise just before you go to bed.

Always avoid stimulants

No nicotine one to two hours before bed – it’s a stimulant. Caffeine, too, should be avoided before bed. It’s not just in coffee but also tea, chocolate and fizzy drinks. Avoid eating too late in the evening, or drinking alcohol which is dehydrating and may make you wake up and go to the bathroom frequently.

Don’t take naps

This ensures you are tired by the time you go to bed.

Don’t have a TV in the bedroom

Don’t watch TV in bed. It’s generally stimulating for the brain. The same goes for streaming on a laptop or scrolling on your phone. Charge your phone and devices outside your room, and don’t use the alarm on your phone as an excuse to keep your phone by your bed.

Don’t use your smartphone in bed

Their noise and light can interfere with sleeping. LCD screens on phones and tablets emit light that is blue enriched. This light influences the body’s clock (circadian rhythm) and delays the release of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin.

Consider scent

A scented humidifier next to the bed, with a setting of 30 minutes, is great for relaxation. You can use a favourite perfume if that works or spray the pillow lightly with lavender oil.

Drink chamomile tea 20 mins before bed.

Herbal tea can be soothing and calming. Hot milk is an alternative.

Make time to relax and unwind

A soak in a hot bath for example, or a 10-minute meditation and breathing exercises, will help.

Stress management

Try not to ‘catastrophise’. If something is causing particular anxiety, keep a notebook by the side of your bed and jot down whatever is inducing the anxiety, pop it into a bedside drawer and leave it until the morning.



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About Priory and MEDIAN

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services. We treat more than 70 conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions and eating disorders, as well as children’s mental health, across our nationwide network of sites. We also support autistic adults and adults with a learning disability, Prader-Willi Syndrome and brain injuries, as well as older people, within our specialist residential care and supported living facilities – helping as many people as possible to live their lives.

Priory is part of the MEDIAN Group, one of Europe’s leading providers of high quality mental health and rehabilitation services. The MEDIAN Group comprises 290 facilities with 5,000 beds caring for 28,000 people in the UK, 120 facilities with 20,000 beds caring for around 250,000 patients in Germany, and 15 facilities with 2,000 beds caring for 13,000 people in Spain, with more than 29,000 employees overall.

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