Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

TES Talks to ... Sleep Expert Jason Ellis

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

TES Talks to ... Sleep Expert Jason Ellis

Article excerpt

The professor of sleep science tells Jessica Powell why teachers are particularly likely to experience insomnia - and what sufferers can do to get a good night's rest

I get very upset when I hear phrases like 'You snooze, you lose'," says Dr Jason Ellis, professor of sleep science at Northumbria University. "Actually, if you snooze, you won't lose. A good night's sleep will make you more productive."

As a psychologist, Ellis has studied sleep for nearly 20 years. On placement in hospital as an undergraduate, he saw insomniacs going around the healthcare system receiving no answer to, or relief from, their body- and mind-shattering exhaustion.

And that was it: insomnia instantly became his passion.

Now director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research, Ellis is known, in particular, for his research into acute insomnia. And his findings in this area of sleep science could be incredibly helpful for teachers.

"I would define acute insomnia as short-term insomnia due to stress: so regular problems getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking too early for up to three months, despite having adequate opportunity to sleep," he explains.

Historically, little research has been done on the acute form of the disorder, with the spotlight too often falling on chronic (ie, long-term) insomnia.

However, Ellis believes this is an oversight. Acute insomnia can lead to the chronic form, which, in turn, has been linked with depression. Therefore, if you understand the acute phase you might halt a cascade of problems, he explains.

Classroom stress

It is the acute phase that seems to impact many teachers, he adds.

"Short-term insomnia seems to be quite typical in teachers, sadly. The occupational stress they go through is really fertile ground for it.

"Acute insomnia always has a stressor as its 'trigger', but this doesn't have to be a major life event. Instead it can be an accumulation of daily hassles that reach a pivotal point. Teachers spend a lot of time with the same class, so if there are problems it can create cumulative stress."

To reduce the impact of work stress on shut-eye, Ellis suggests "putting the day to bed before you go to bed". "I see a lot of teachers who merge daytime and night-time, working late," he says. "Try to create a 'moat' between them - an hour when you do something to unwind. You could write a list of everything you've done today and everything you have to do tomorrow to give you a sense of control and help you switch off."

Most of us need around seven to nine hours' sleep every night, says Ellis. And the repercussions of regularly falling short can be profound.

"If someone sleeps badly, their memory, attention levels, problem-solving and physical performance are diminished, as well as their ability to notice and attend to risk."

So what should you do if you've started sleeping badly?

"For the first two weeks, my feeling is that the best therapy is not to do anything at all to compensate," suggests Ellis.

This surprising advice is borne out of an interesting theory.

"I'm coming more to the decision that a short period of poor sleep is a normal biological response to stress. Our bodies create a fight or flight response and part of this is a change in hormones that stops you sleeping. From an evolutionary perspective, that makes sense. If an axe-man attacked, you don't want to sleep, no matter how tired you are. …

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