Penny Brohn UK

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What can I read to help improve my sleep?

We know that a number of you are experiencing sleep problems in relation to your cancer diagnosis, whether that is due to a physical side effect of your treatment or caused by your concerns keeping your brain active at night.

There’s a close relationship between sleep and mental health. Dr Sue Jackson is a chartered psychologist working in Bristol, who specialises in the link between mental and physical health. Here she looks into sleeping problems and some books that can help to combat sleep issues. 

Up until relatively recently there weren’t really any good books on sleep aimed at the general public. There was plenty being written about sleep, but it was mostly in academic journals and scientific textbooks where it wasn’t easy to either track down or understand once you’d found it. Nowadays if you go looking for books about sleep there’s a wide range to choose from and the problem has shifted to finding something that will address your particular sleep issues. There is no such thing as a perfect book about sleep; all have various strengths and weaknesses, and the aim of this article is to try and signpost which books are potentially worth the investment of your time and money.

If you want a good readable reference book about sleep, then A Good Night’s Sleep by Lawrence L Epstein might be for you. It’s a very useful book that describes various sleep disorders and how they can be treated medically, although chapter 10 on alternative methods of managing sleep problems is not only very brief, some of the advice is incorrect. It has some of the best advice about managing shift work, and also about how to have a good consultation with your doctor on the topic of medications for sleep problems. It is slightly frustrating as it is an American book so the medications listed are all those available in the US, but the basic principles involved in discussing what medications might be useful are the same whichever continent you’re on.

Jim Horne’s book Sleepfaring contains some interesting information about sleep, including some information about sleep norms in our society and some reflections (based on research) about how much we actually need to sleep – it’s not uncommon for people to cause themselves sleep problems by trying to sleep too much! You might have heard of larks and owls (larks being those individuals who are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first thing in the morning, while owls tend to be livelier later in the day) but in The Power of When, Michael Breus explains the results of his research into different sleep chronotypes and how to work with them more effectively. The book starts with a quiz designed to help you identify your particular energy type before taking you through the different activities and making suggestions (based on research) about when to do them so that you’re at your most effective. There are some brilliant gems of useful information in this book, for example, this is the only book that gives some good advice on weight management that doesn’t involve going on a diet.

Lots of people report having problems with an over-busy mind at night with the result that they have problems getting off to sleep, or getting back to sleep if they wake during the night. If you’re one of them then The Sleep Book by Dr Guy Meadows is worth a read. It provides information on the five-week programme that Dr Meadows uses with his patients. If you’re interested in understanding one of the reasons why anxiety and depression might peak at night, then Mayer’s book The Mind Gut Connection describes and summarises where the science is up to. It’s a bit short on advice as to what to do about it, but that in part is because the science is at a very early stage. If you’re having problems with sleep paralysis or particularly vivid dreams, then Ryan Hurd’s book Sleep Paralysis has some good advice and simple exercises that can improve things based on his own experiences of having to come to terms with his very vivid dream-life.

I’ve heard from a number of people asking about CBT-i for people who are having sleep problems. (CBT-i stands for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia.) The problem is that there aren’t very many CBT-i programmes available in the UK. But there is a book you can read which contains a CBT-i programme for you to follow called Overcoming Insomnia and Sleep Problems by Colin Espie. While CBT-i might be a recommended treatment, it’s not suitable for everyone with a sleep problem as Espie’s book makes very clear; there are a number of questionnaires in his book which are designed to help you determine if CBT-i would be useful to you. If you get the book I strongly suggest that you do the questionnaires and follow the guidance that he’s taken the time and trouble to put in his book – it’s there to make sure you don’t come to harm by spending time and effort on the wrong things.

If the issue is not so much about sleep, but about improving your rest, then Claudia Hammond’s book The Art of Rest might be the way to go. Her book is based on the results of a survey of the 10 most restful things that people like to do. She reviews the research related to each one, and makes some useful observations and suggestions about the limits of what we know about how to rest effectively. Another book on the same topic is Alex Pang’s book Rest. His starting point is a review of people through the ages who have been particularly productive, and he draws out some useful ideas about how to manage your time and find properly restorative activities to promote a good work/life balance.

There are more books about sleep than this on the market, this is just a selection of the useful ones that I recommend to the people who come on my 6-week sleep programme based in Bristol. There is potentially a lot of information out there, and I know some of the people who come on my course can find it a bit overwhelming. Hopefully this article has given you some ideas about what might be useful to you.

For further advice on sleep, try out Sleepio by Big Health. They are offering their new CBT sleep programme free of charge to Penny Brohn UK clients for a year, as long as you sign up by 31st December 2020. You can find out more here.

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