Yesterday I was in Portugal. Well, no, I was at my desk in my garden office but my brain was in Portugal, doing a Q&A session for students at the Oporto British School. It was a repeat invitation, always the best!
I managed to answer a lot of their questions but not all, so here are my answers to the ones I didn’t get to, plus some of the ones I did answer but which i’d like to answer again more succinctly.
Topics we’d agreed in advance were: sleep, body image and anxiety. I’ve written a book about sleep (The Awesome Power of Sleep), one about body image (Body Brilliant) and I’m writing one now on anxiety. Sorted!
2. “Is it normal spending an hour to fall asleep every night?”
I did answer these but I wanted to add some resources.
Quick answer: Sometimes spending an hour falling asleep is not uncommon but it’s not common to do so every night. And it’s certainly not pleasant or helpful. Fortunately, yes, there are ways to fall asleep more quickly!
Here are the main things to know: it’s all about what you do in the 1-2 hours before you get into bed and what you do once you get into bed.
The 1-2 hours before you get into bed
- This is your winding-down time, during which you can do as many Sleep Positives as you like and completely avoid Sleep Negatives. Here’s the list of both: Sleep Positives and Sleep Negatives.
- During this time you need a ROUTINE – in other words, the same things in the same order. The more clearly you build this into your evening, the more likely your brain is to recognise the pre-sleep routine and switch on all the changes your body and brain need to become sleepy. To create your routine, simply select a few (I suggest minimum 6) Sleep Positives and work them into a sensible order. Do them at the same time every evening. Then get into bed.
Once you’re in bed
- If you want, you can read or listen to an audio book or gentle music for a short while. Then turn your light off.
- Don’t try too hard to fall asleep. Just switch your mind into a relaxed groove, choosing positive, engaging things to think about.
- Things you could try with your eyes closed (especially for distracting you from stressful or intrusive thoughts):
- Mental games/challenges, such as counting games, finding animals with each letter of the alphabet
- Visualising a beautiful place, eg lying on a beach
- Imagining yourself as the hero of a story
- What would you do if you won a million ££?
- Planning something, such as a party or a presentation
- Making a list in your head, eg a shopping list, or things you need to take on holiday, or what you’d like to buy people for Christmas
- Things you should avoid:
- Looking at the time
- Worrying about not falling asleep – you’ll be fine!
- Lying there for too long – better to get up and go and potter about (no screens)
- Your worries – but remember that you can’t stop worrying just by saying “don’t worry” – you need to put something else in place of the worry. Hence the list of “things you could try” above.
3. “Some students are questioning the technique to fall asleep using counting and connection mental games. They feel it keeps their brain engaged for longer. What is your opinion?”
Again, I did answer this but it was an interesting question so I’d like to answer again. The question refers to another answer I’d given, in which I’d said that when you are prevented from sleeping by a big worry or anxiety, one technique is to play a mental game, puzzle or challenge, such as going through the alphabet finding animals or countries beginning with each letter.
My answer was that we have to be very self-aware and if something works for us, do it, but if it doesn’t work for us, don’t do it. Some techniques work for some people or at some times and not others. I certainly find these tricks help me. Last night, I got as far as the letter G in my attempt to find animals for each letter! But if it doesn’t work for you then there are lots of other things to try, including some mentioned above. The Awesome Power of Sleep has lots.
4. Does insomnia affect day to day performance?
Yes, it does. One or two rubbish nights won’t have much impact and if you have an exam or something very important the next day you’ll be fine because adrenaline will keep you on top form. But having several bad nights in a row are very likely to negatively affect you in several ways:
- Concentration is worse so your schoolwork is likely to suffer
- Your mood is likely to be affected – you might feel snappy and out of sorts
- Mental health can be affected – sleep loss and depression/low mood are connected. (This does not mean that sleep los causes depression, as it’s far more complex than that, but there’s a link
- Physical strength is lowered – you’ll run less fast etc
- You will tend to be drawn towards unhealthy food choices – you’ll snack more and opt for more sugar, salt and fat
- You’ll generally feel unwell and we don’t generally perform at our best when we don’t feel well
5. Why do we lucid dream?
Everyone is fascinated by dreaming and there is lots about it in The Awesome Power of Sleep, including the wonderful topic of lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is where we have a dream but are fully aware that we are in a dream. If you can do this (I do!) it’s very empowering because you never need to be afraid of bad dreams as you can control them and wake up any time you want to.
But as to why we lucid dream, no one knows! It’s just one of those things some people can do. And you can learn to, as well. Start by telling yourself just before you fall asleep that tonight, when you dream, you’ll be able to be aware of it and to wake up if you want to. It might not work at first but after a while it probably will.
Someone also asked why we dream at all. We do know a bit more about the why of dreaming. We know that without dreaming our mental health is less good, for example, so dreaming has some kind of mental health benefit to us. It seems to help us process bad events and fears. Much more in The Awesome Power of Sleep.
6. What is the optimal amount of homework, suggested by research, to avoid stress
There’s no research-based answer to that. It will be different for different people and at different times. Too much homework, for anyone, will certainly be stressful but what is “too much” will not be the same for everyone. I wish schools were able to set less homework than most of them do but it’s very tricky as teachers themselves are under a lot of pressure to cover so much material.
See also the answer to Q8.
We do tend to learn better (more quickly and more effectively) if we are enjoying ourselves, yes, and enjoying ourselves is less stressful than not enjoying ourselves. But it’s not always possible to enjoy our work. Work is important and sometimes we just have to do it even if we don’t like it! But where possible, it will be beneficial if teachers can find ways to make it fun – or if you can find a way to make it fun yourself!
8. How much can regular homework routines and fewer homework tasks help with lower stress levels in teenagers? Do you believe teachers should set more optional revision tasks rather than obligatory homework?
As I said in answer to Q6, too much homework will be stressful. As will too much work, pressure, anxiety, exercise, food… And, as I said, I wish it were possible for teachers to set less homework.
In my opinion the ideal homework would be to go over what you learnt that day and make sure you understood it, making a note of anything you weren’t sure about so that you can ask for help if necessary. “What do you feel you should practise from this lesson?” would be a great question. Keeping your notes up to date and filing everything away in an ordered fashion would also be a useful homework task. But would you do it??
And as for “optional” – again, would you do it? Some of you would but others wouldn’t…
9. Is there such a thing as anxiety nausea?
Nausea is a very common symptom of anxiety, yes. It’s not an illness but it’s unpleasant. It’s nothing to worry about but you would want to try to find a way to reduce it. Any of the usual techniques for reducing anxiety – such as breathing exercises, meditation, or doing some physical or mental distraction activity – will also help the nausea.
10. Will anxiety disappear over time?
Good question. Sometimes and sometimes not.
What is certain is that everything changes and how you feel now – including how anxious you feel – will not be the same tomorrow or next week or whenever.
But a person who tends to be anxious is likely to continue to be a person who tends to be anxious. So, those people (including me!) need to learn techniques to reduce and manage anxiety.
Thank you for your questions!
Good luck with your sleep, your homework, your anxiety and stress levels and take care of your bodies so that you can feel great about your health and strength, which are far more important and useful than anything else. Body Brilliant has some of the best reviews from teenagers of any of my books. Do take a look at any of my books – I wrote them for you!