Advice to help you cope with sleep problems

Man sleeping

By Mary Moriarty
Clinical Nurse Specialist/ Systemic Psychotherapist St Vincents University Hospital

Sleep is important for our overall wellbeing. People living with a cancer diagnosis commonly report that they have difficulty with sleep.

Treatment side effects, medications, worry about cancer and coronavirus, hospital visits and stays in hospital, as well as stress and other health problems can all impact on the quantity and quality of sleep.

When we are stressed and worried we may find it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep.

People who never had challenges with sleep problems often experience changes in their sleep habits when they are diagnosed with cancer.

Furthermore, people who have always had difficulty with sleep may find that their sleep pattern deteriorates. When we don’t sleep well we may find that we are more irritable, tired and it may be hard to concentrate. All of this can impact on our lives and on our relationships.

As sleep problems in people with cancer usually have more than one cause a number of different solutions specific to your unique needs may help.

This is why it is important to tell your hospital team if your sleep is challenging for you.

Right now if you are worrying about cancer and coronavirus your sleep may well be impacted.

Listed below are some more general things that you can try in order to help with your sleep.

  1. Familiarise yourself with some relaxation techniques to use in the evenings and organise a wind down routine before going to bed each night.
    Listen, watch or read about topics that have nothing to do with coronavirus. This is particularly important for the hours immediately before bedtime.
  2. Learn about Sleep Hygiene, see if you can make some changes to your sleep environment or your routines that might help.
    Here are links to some good advice from the NHS and the HSE.
  3. Be sensible about what or how you learn about coronavirus.
    Check official websites such as the HSE and the World Health Organisation. Limit your your exposure to media.
  4. As much as possible try to keep a normal routine throughout the day.
    Get some exercise, eat sensibly, do not drink too much alcohol, and avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening. Make sure that you do something fun and have a laugh during the day.
  5. Understand how day time naps may interfere with your night time sleep pattern.
  6. If pain or treatment side effects are impacting on your sleep there may be something that your medical team can do to alleviate the problem so it is important to talk to your Nursing or Medical team.
  7. Social distancing does not mean social isolation, so connect with other people by phone or video call and talk about your worries with someone you can trust.
    Writing down your worries in a notebook or making a list of jobs you have lined up for the next day can be helpful. If you wake during the night then write whatever is on your mind into the notebook and when the worry comes back into your head gently remind yourself that it is on the list and in your notebook to be dealt with tomorrow.
  8. Sometimes during active treatment people spend more time in bed during the day, perhaps on the phone, watching the TV or on a laptop.
    This may weaken your sleep-bed connection. Try to keep your bed for sleep and if you need a nap during the day try to take it on the couch and in the early part of the day.
  9. As much as possible we should keep a normal sleep routine.
    Going to bed at the same time each night, and getting up at the same time each morning is important for getting a good night's sleep and keeping a good sleep routine.
  10. Another way to help you get to sleep or back to sleep if you wake during the night is to can use some distraction techniques such as counting backwards in threes from 300 or thinking of names starting starting with each letter of the alphabet.
  11. Try not to criticise yourself or try to force sleep. 
    If it is difficult to sleep, be kind and gentle with yourself. Remember that you will get through the next day and that sleep will eventually come.
  12. If you are experiencing fatigue during active treatment arrange the most challenging activities for the time of day when you have the most energy.
    You can refer to the Irish Cancer Society booklet on Cancer and Fatigue. If fatigue continues to be a challenge for you when the active phase of your treatment is completed then Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been proven to be effective for the treatment of Persistent Cancer Related Fatigue.
Contact the Irish Cancer Society Support Line

If you have worries or concerns about cancer, you can speak confidentially to an Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurse through the Freephone Support Line on 1800 200 700.

Monday-Friday, 9.00am - 5.00pm

For more information

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1800 200 700

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