Sleep, stress and success – how yoga helps me manage my insomnia

Family life

Paid collaboration with Tempur

Insomnia has plagued me since I was a child. For as long as I can remember it’s been a part of my life. I get times when my sleep is relatively normal. But then I get other days, weeks and even months where I struggle to fall asleep or where I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. Then there are the nights when I don’t sleep a wink at all (and I say that without exaggeration).

Sometimes work or life stresses make it worse as my mind goes into overdrive thinking and worrying and won’t switch off. Sometimes exciting things keep me awake – I didn’t sleep at all the night before my wedding and I never sleep the night before a holiday. If I’m away from home and sleeping in unfamiliar environments I struggle to too. Sometimes insomnia takes me completely by surprise and there’s no real reason for it; I just can’t sleep.

There’s nothing medically ‘wrong’ with me; it’s just one of those things.

People say to me, “I don’t know how you cope. I need my sleep.”

And that’s just it; I need my sleep too! When I’m wiped out by insomnia, I don’t cope. When I’m tired, I get over-emotional and tearful. I get grumpy and snappy. I get clumsy and do daft things like putting my purse in the fridge instead of my handbag or I muddle up my words. There are times when I can see the effects of no sleep in my sallow skin and bags under my eyes that no amount of concealer will hide.

The links between lack of sleep and stress are well documented. We all know that stress is one of the causes of insomnia – but it’s a vicious circle. Insomnia, however it’s caused, can affect our mental well-being too. As parents, we know more than most the impact an ongoing lack of sleep can have on us – from those heavily pregnant days when you’re too uncomfortable to sleep and you wake up a dozen times a night to use the toilet; to the blurry eyed fog of being parent to a newborn up continually; to toddlers (and older children) who wake up at 5.30am despite you doing everything in the book to try to encourage them to stay asleep until 7am.

That’s one of the reasons I’m pleased to be working with Tempur – the mattress and pillow manufacturers who are ranked number one in the UK for consumer satisfaction. Tempur are supporting the Mental Health Foundation as their chosen charity for 2018.

The Mental Health Foundation have pioneered new ways of looking at mental health and improving the lives of people experiencing mental illness for more than 60 years.

And Tempur are raising awareness this year of the links between sleep and stress.

Good sleep and lifestyle habits help me manage my insomnia. I don’t think it will ever go completely but I have found ways to reduce it and to lessen the impact it has on my life. I’m sharing my top tips for managing sleeplessness in the hope they will help other people too.

If this is something you can relate to then please do share your comments and thoughts below either on how a lack of sleep affects your mental wellbeing or tips and remedies that help you get a better night’s sleep.

Create a good sleep environment

That famous saying about a cluttered house leading to a cluttered mind is never truer than when it comes to your bedroom. I try to keep mine as tidy and minimalist as possible because I know the clutter can add to my insomnia. My mind can’t rest when I am surrounded by mess or I know there are things to be put away. I don’t have unnecessary furniture or ornaments in our bedroom and large fitted wardrobes keep everything out of sight. We don’t have TVs or gadgets in the bedrooms in our house either. A good blackout curtain liner keeps the light from a nearby streetlight out. During hotter weather I keep the curtains three-quarters closed with the windows open during the day to keep the room cooler, and during winter months additional blankets and bed socks help. We wash and change bedding regularly and flip the mattress every few months. Ours is around seven years old now so we’ll soon be looking for a new one. An uncomfortable mattress is never going to help you sleep.

I try to stick to a regular bedtime and getting up time (as much as is possible with three young children and erratic working hours caused by running my own business). Evidence suggests that using mobiles or laptops before bed can negatively affect your ability to sleep. I had insomnia for decades before smart phones were invented so although I’m not sure how much difference it makes I try to read a few pages of a book every night rather than checking my phone.

I’ve never had much luck with remedies such as lavender-scented products and sleep creams. I don’t drink tea, coffee or any caffeinated/fizzy drinks (I don’t like them, if I’m honest) but I’m sure you know the advice is not to drink them in the run up to bed. I’ve sipped camomile tea and warm milk before bed but I don’t find it makes a difference. The advice to have a nice relaxing bath before bed just wakes me up.

I suspect these things would help people suffering from the odd bout of sleeplessness but as a life-long insomniac, they don’t make much difference to me.

Acceptance and state of mind

After years of getting upset and emotional about my inability to sleep, stressing about what I could do about it, and walking around with an “I’m so tired” mindset, one day I just accepted it and it has completely transformed things for me.

The way I see it, just as some people have asthma or high blood pressure or diabetes or whatever, I have insomnia. And just like people with all those other conditions don’t let it control their life, neither do I. I’ve accepted it’s unlikely I will ever cure it completely. It’s just one element of who I am. Instead of walking around thinking, “Oh, I’m so tired. When will I ever sleep again?!” I put on clothes I know look good on me, a shed-load of make-up, some loud, happy music and I smile. Because if you walk around wailing that you’re tired, you will indeed feel and look tired. If, however, you act like you’re fine, then you start to believe you’re fine too. Positive mental attitude, and all that. I’m not saying there aren’t days when I don’t feel knackered. Of course there are. No sleep and three energetic children is not a good combination! It’s horrible when you can’t sleep and I know it affects my emotions, my co-ordination, my patience. I just don’t dwell negatively on my lack of sleep or feel sorry for myself. I don’t usually bother telling people when I haven’t slept, as it just brings it to the forefront of my mind again. A part of me is exhausted beyond words. A part of me is walking around in a daze. But I’m keeping that little voice telling me how tired I am inside its box and am refusing to listen to it.

Getting out of bed and doing something else

I used to lie in bed watching the minutes roll by, working out how much sleep I would (or wouldn’t) get if I fell asleep at that moment. I’d worry about how I would manage to get through the day on that pathetic amount of sleep. And then one day I realised that lying in bed clock-watching and working myself up about not sleeping is not going to help anyone.

If I find myself lying awake for more than 45 minutes and if I don’t feel sleepy, then I get up and do something. Usually it’s reading a book or watching something on the TV but I have been known to bake or cook at 3am. As a working mum of three, I get very little free time and – despite the tiredness – I really appreciate this time to myself. Often, after an hour or so, I’ll go back to bed and fall asleep. Not always though. On the nights when I really can’t sleep I have discovered that a gentle yoga practice can help. Sometimes it will be enough to send me to sleep but even if it doesn’t I find certain breathing and relaxation techniques help restore and revive me in a similar way to sleep. Which brings me to my next point…


Cathryn Yoga

Yoga and breathing

I’ve been teaching yoga for around nine years now and my students are always telling me how well they sleep the night after their yoga class.

And while yoga hasn’t ‘cured’ my insomnia it helps me massively in managing it and in encouraging relaxation and sleep. Connecting the breath with the movement helps to empty and calm the mind. It also helps restore the body’s nervous system – re-setting the ‘fight or flight response’ which stimulates the stress receptors in our body. Stress isn’t just a state of mind; it’s a physical response within the body too. We need a certain amount of stress so that our bodies cope positively with and can recognise stressful situations. But constantly living in a stressed state can have severe health implications both physically and mentally. It’s little wonder people who are stressed struggle to sleep.

Yoga helps me rebalance my body and mind and certain poses and breath techniques help aid sleep. One of my favourites is ‘legs up against the wall, or viparita karani, while focussing on breathing slowly through the nose. Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing, also helps balance and calm the mind.

The full yoga breath is what I do when I wake in the middle of the night and it often does the job in sending me back to sleep.

Another favourite is a simple technique where you count backwards while focusing on the breath. Start at 100 and each inhale or exhale is a new number. Inhale 100, exhale 99, inhale 98, exhale 97 and so on. When you get to 60 (if you haven’t already fallen asleep!), each inhale and exhale is one count, so inhale exhale 70, inhale exhale 69 and so on. It’s similar to the classic ‘counting sheep’, but because you are counting backwards, your mind is less likely to wander. I teach this in my yoga classes, starting from 50, and so many people fall asleep before they’re half way through. It’s definitely one that helps me.

And the best thing with all of these is that you can do them in bed too.

If this is something you can relate to then please do share your comments and thoughts below either on how a lack of sleep affects your mental wellbeing or tips and remedies that help you get a better night’s sleep. Please comment below or you can tweet me on @cardiffmummy or join in the chat on the Cardiff Mummy Says Facebook page

This post is commissioned by Tempur but all thoughts and opinions are my own.


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