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Ockenden Manor and Spa

Ockenden Manor: The rise of the sleep retreat

This is what I learned from one of the leading sleep doctors in the UK

We all know the importance of sleep, but putting that into practice can be more of a challenge. No phones before bed, keep the room cool, have a good wind-down routine – I’m well versed in the golden sleep rules. But with it being too easy to fall into poor sleep hygiene and the dreaded 4 am wake-ups coming into play during stressful periods, my sleep routine is far from ideal.

Could a dedicated sleep retreat change things? Sleep retreats are becoming quite the thing, with hotels offering custom-built packages that aim to promote good sleep hygiene for a restful few days and equip those who attend with tools to improve their long-term sleep.

Think of it as pushing the reset button on your sleep patterns. The offering can vary, from packages with sleep-friendly extras like pillow mist and CBD oils to full-on physiological and psychological deep dives.

The most in-depth retreats have sleep experts at the helm. The Good Sleep Retreat at Ockenden Manor, led by one of the UK’s leading sleep psychologists Dr Maja Schaedel, is leading the charge in this respect, with an immersive retreat that aims to get to the heart of why attendees struggle with their sleep, helping them to improve general sleep quality, reduce night-time awakenings and make it easier to fall asleep in the first place, all within the tranquil grounds of Ockenden Manor country house hotel and spa.

Sounds idyllic, right? I went to Ockenden Manor to explore the facilities and sat down with Dr Maja Schaedel to ask my burning questions about sleep. The quest for better shut-eye isn’t simple – this is what I learned.

Never underestimate the power of a good winddown routine

Good sleep actually starts in the morning. Doctors say that getting out into natural daylight within half an hour of rising will not only help regulate our mood and boost productivity but exposure to sunlight throughout the day can also help us fall asleep faster.

In terms of a winddown routine, the key thing is to calm the nervous system down and help our body to feel ‘safe’ – that’s why over-stimulation before bedtime, or dealing with stressful situations or work demands, can really impact our sleep. I’m guilty of a late-night email tidy when things are busy, but knowing the negative impact that can have on my sleep makes me think twice.

As Dr Maya explains, “To sleep our body needs to believe that we are safe. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective and when we were cave people, we would have needed to be absolutely certain of our safety before falling unconscious for a long period of time to ensure sabre-toothed tigers didn’t eat us!

“A wind-down routine can be really helpful in this process as it can allow our sympathetic nervous system to disengage, and this means our body can start to relax and feel sleepy.”

The spa at Ockenden Manor

The spa at Ockenden Manor

During my stay at Ockenden Manor, my wind-down routine included a session in the hotel’s iPod floatation tank. Submerged in highly salted water in complete darkness, a flotation tank allowed me to quickly reach a more meditative state.

As a fair-weather meditator, I find it difficult to switch off my thoughts. But there’s something about the weightlessness in the tank and the soothing warm water that brings me straight into that dream-like snoozy state I get into right before I drift off. It’s that feeling you get on a warm day nodding off on a lounger.

“The floatation tank allows us a rare opportunity to experience a complete lack of stimulation – even touch to a large degree,” Dr Maya explains. “This gives way to us focusing inwardly on how our bodies feel and noticing what our minds do when they do not have the stimulation they usually rely on.

“The high salt content in the water enables us to experience weightlessness in a way that we would otherwise not have access to and this can lead to a sense of peace and calm.”

You need to deal with the root of the issue

It’s all well and good to invest in silk eye masks and pillow spray, or even book a floatation tank session or relaxing massage before bed, but the most powerful way to tackle your sleep is to keep stress levels low, thus reducing the amount of cortisol in the body.

“When we have a high level of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol running through our body, it can make it difficult for us to stay in a deep sleep,” Dr Maya explains.

“This is why proper relaxation and reduction of stress and anxiety is important for sleep. REM sleep is important for emotion regulation and alcohol suppresses REM sleep, so it can be useful to reduce alcohol or move drinking to earlier in the evening.”

We stayed in a luxurious spa suite with easy access to the facilities

Ockenden Manor, located in the picturesque village of Cuckfield and just a 10-minute taxi ride from Haywards Heath station, is an ideal setting for winding down and reconnecting with nature. Living in London, my day-to-day can be a hectic rush of tube rides and crowds, so being in a countryside location always brings a sense of calm.

The spa at Ockenden Manor is a real highlight and allows guests to connect with nature. The pool has swim-through access to the outdoors, with a jacuzzi on the terrace where guests can take in the views. Inside there’s a steam room, sauna, rainforest showers and a warm relaxation area where I made a dint in my latest crime thriller.

If you do wake up, go and do something else

One of my most frustrating sleep issues is waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep. We’ve all been there – when your brain seems to go into overload and the last thing you can think about is nodding off. Luckily, after an evening swim and flotation tank session, followed by a delicious meal in Ockenden’s restaurant, this was not an issue during my stay. However, when the unwelcome early morning wake-up call strikes, I’ve gleaned some tricks from Dr Maya.

She explained, “If your brain has “woken up” then it is a good idea to get up, go into a different room, read a book/look at the stars/get a glass of milk – something relaxing to bring your heightened levels of alertness down, before going back to bed.

“Another trick you can try is to “spot” your brain thinking and then instead of getting carried away with the thoughts, you can try to bring your attention back to the here and now experience of being in bed – such as focusing on the touch of the sheets, your breathe, and continuing to bring your attention back to your body if your brain starts up the thoughts again! Easier said than done but if you practice this it can really help.”

So did a sleep retreat help curb my bad habits? I learned good sleep takes time and it’s about being aware of your habits, bad and good. While getting my own sleep in check is going to take time, a trip to Ockenden was the refresher I needed.

What’s included in the Good Sleep Retreat at Ockenden Manor?

A group introduction to the science of sleep followed

A private in-depth assessment, review and consultation with Dr Schaedel

Breathwork session with Dr Schaedel,

A stimulating group gym class

A relaxing yoga session

Time for relaxation at the spa

An ipod floatation session, optional treatments

Nourishing breakfasts and dinners made with locally sourced ingredients from West Sussex

Package dates

Wednesday 23rd October to Friday 25th October 2024

Wednesday 27th November to Friday 29th November 2024

Need to know

Single occupancy starts from £999 for two nights in a Spa Suite (the ultimate tranquil room for a good night’s sleep overlooking Cuckfield Park)

Double occupancy starts from £1,633 for two nights in a Spa Suite with both guests booked on the retreat (twin or double occupancy)

You can find out more on the Ockenden Manor website.