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Not Sleeping Beauty

Anxiety ruining your sleep? A neuroscientist tells us how to snooze better

TextAlex Peters

From aromatherapy to keeping a journal, Dr Tara Swart offers her expert advice

If you’ve suddenly found in the past couple of weeks that you are sleeping worse than ever, take comfort that you are not alone. The combination of the chronic stress we are currently undergoing, being more sedentary than ever as we stay at home, more screen time, and the disruption to our usual routine can interfere with the quality and patterns of our sleep and create serious issues for many of us.

“A big disruption to our routine and an obvious stressor are not good for our sleep!” says Dr Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and former psychiatrist. She advises that we get creative in physically tiring ourselves out at home with things like online exercise classes. “Realising we are all going through stages of the grief/change curve also helps,” she says. “And keeping a journal of feelings such as shock, anger, denial, depression, trying to find meaning, and accepting, before going to bed is a positive strategy.”

Dr Swart is also a big advocate for aromatherapy and as an ambassador for Aromatherapy Associates encourages us to take advantage of the brain-body connection to train our brains into associating certain smells with relaxing and falling asleep. Here she explains more about the connection and gives her tips and tricks for getting a better night’s sleep.


“It’s important to look at the whole day when considering ways to wind down,” Dr Swart says. “Wake up at a regular time every day and no later than necessary or what was usual when still commuting to work.” She also recommends going to bed at the same time every night and ensuring that you get 7-9 hours of sleep. 


It is also helpful to keep your bedroom dark, quiet and cool (no more than 18 degrees celsius) and use natural, breathable fibres in bedding to regulate body temperature.

Dr Swart recommends Yoga nidra or psychic sleep exercises and a bath or shower before bed to regulate your body temperature.


For those people who are finding they are too anxious to sleep, Dr Swart suggests meditation, positive affirmations that directly address the cause of the anxiety, and gratitude lists as great tools for reducing anxiety. “Bathing and self-massage release the bonding hormone oxytocin that helps us feel warm, safe and trusting,” she says.


In terms of what to avoid, Dr Swart says you should be staying away from all digital devices and screens for an hour before bed. Limit caffeine usage in both amount and timing. “I suggest no caffeine after 10am as a quarter of that is still circulating in your brain at 10pm,” she says. Finish dinner one and a half hours before bed and avoid alcohol and sugar, particularly if you are feeling anxious.


Aromacology is the combination of aromatherapy and psychology and focuses on the effect that aroma has on our brains and bodies. “Studies have shown that the brain-body connection means that if a smell has an effect on you psychologically e.g. disgust or relaxation, then the response is physical as well as emotional e.g. to move away from the smell, or to relax your shoulders and release tension,” Dr Swart says. “These are accompanied by changes in the nervous system and our glands production of hormones such as cortisol as a stress response or melatonin for sleep.”

This means that you can create neural connections (AKA train your brain) between sleep and a certain smell used at the same time each night. “Anchoring a particular smell to the sensation of falling asleep creates a neural pathway that adds the sense of smell to the nightly ritual,” says Dr Swart. This smell then becomes another condition that our brain begins to associate with sleep, alongside it being dark and quiet. “You can then use the same smell or another one to accompany a progressive relaxation of the body to get back to sleep after an interruption,” she explains.

The best way to absorb your chosen smell is inhalation and application to the body. “Bathing products and pillow mists contain the ideal percentages for before and during sleep,” she says. “Other modes of delivery can mean the essential oil is quite diluted before impacting the brain.”

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