March is for restfulness.
This month, let's focus on
So, why choose sleep? Sleep deprivation is known to be associated with anxiety disorders, depression and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. In fact, sleep disorders affect as much as 50%-80% of persons diagnosed with mental health concerns (Check it out at Neurocore). Even if you are not suffering from a mental health concern or diagnosed with a mood disorder, sleep deprivation results in decreased focus, impairment in judgement and clarity and difficulty learning new material. Additionally, the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School tells us that sleep plays a critical role in a healthy immune system and metabolism.
The benefits of sleep are obvious to every one of us. We know what it feels like to get a good night's sleep and we know what it feels like to wake up after a terrible night's sleep and try to function the following day. Sleep is one of the basic necessities of health and well-being. We may know how vital sleep is, but we don't always know how to make the good sleep happen.
For the next four weeks, let's try some ways to increase the amount of sleep and the quality of sleep we can create for ourselves.
Of course, I'm hoping you will find something in the next four weeks that works for you, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. Follow the links included below for countless more recommendations regarding increasing both the quanitity and quality of sleep you are achieving. As we continue our journey of 12 Months of Wellness, I've chosen four components of healthy sleep habits that I am going to try out in my own life. Follow along and try some out! They might just lead you a little deeper, help you sleep a little longer, or accelerate you drifting off a little sooner.
Week 1: Bed = Sleep
We tend to use our beds for all kinds of activities other than sleep. We read in bed, watch TV in bed, check emails and social media, play puzzles, eat snacks and get after-hours work done. It is time to protect the bed! (Note that sex is not on the list, so feel free to keep on having sex in your bed).
Associating your bed with sleep is part of training our brains. We want our brain to see the bed and automatically think about sleep. In this way, we are setting ourselves up for sleep right from the first sight. You will find that your brain is already trained to associate other household items with physical responses. Walk into the bathroom and stare at the toilet. I expect that you will notice your bladder pressing on your mind and telling you it is time to pee!
Decide on another place in your home to complete activities that you have been doing in your bed. Make sure you open your computer at the desk or the kitchen table. Turn your phone upside down and complete your scrolling and texting prior to entering the bedroom. What do you do in bed that could be done elsewhere? What items might you move away from your bed or out of the bedroom that will signal your brain that your bed is for sleeping? I myself have coloring books, sodoku and young adult paranormal novels at my bedside, which I will be moving to the bookshelf in the living room.
Need a little convincing? Read this article on why some folks feel wide awake when they lay down to sleep. Or try this article that outlines cognitive-behavioral therapy interventions for improving sleep, starting with the importance of training our brain and body to associate the bed with sleep.
Week 2: Prepping
Routines, schedule and predictability are part of what make our lives boring, but also efficient. Our brains are always working to make habits and create patterns that will allow us to refocus on more pressing issues. We commonly have a routine for leaving the bed in the morning. Routines such as turning on the light, brushing the teeth, jumping in the shower, brushing the hair and getting dressed. It is time to create or refine the bedtime routine.
This week we will focus on the bedtime routine that already exists in each of our homes. Just as we worked to train our brains in week one to associate the bed with sleeping, now we will work on the associations we create for transitioning to the bed. I encourage you to add at least one component to your bedtime routine and try to stick with it. Let's work on cueing our brains for sleep!
Some ideas to create or add to a bedtime routine are as follows:
1. Empty your bladder - we have all experienced the pressing bladder that wakes us in the middle of the night. Avoid this distraction by emptying your bladder an hour before you plan to go to bed and then right again before bedtime. To be certain you bladder is as empty as possible, choose not to drink any liquid during the last hour before sleep. If you like, place a full container of water next to your bed to drink first thing in the morning (Consider choosing a container with a lid so you don't accidentally knock it over in the night). Do not take sips in the night if you wake, as you will undermine you determination to create an empty bladder.
2. Light a candle - candles have many benefits in preparing ourselves for sleep. First of all, there are many scented candles you can choose that will include a component of aromatherapy in your night-time routine. Consider choosing lavender or chammomile scents to send a clear message to your brain that it is time to settle down (check out this great article at Develop Good Habits for more tips on improving sleep with a specific focus on essential oils). Candle light also helps create an ambient light that sends a signal to your brain to calm down and rest. The flicker from the candle provides a slow rythm for your body to mimic as it prepares to relax into sleep (check out this article by Canyon Ranch in Tucson that expands on the benefits of candlelight, or this article at Mark's Daily Apple that expands on the impact of blue light versus red light on our sleep patterns). Don't forget to blow the candle out before laying down to bed!
3. Play a soothing and monotonous melody - Music can serve as a wonderful distraction or re-focus for our busy brains. It also provides a rhythm for our body to attend to and sync with. Our bodies have been trained since before we were born to respond to the rhythm of the beating heart. It is natural that we would continue to respond to rhythms throughout our lifetime (check out this article on the impact of music on the brain). Choosing a soothing rhythm can help your brain transition from active state to relaxed and restorative state. It can provide a sense of security that allows you to shed the stressors of the day (check out this PsychCentral article that details some of the benefits of music on decreasing stress).
You may have your own music that helps create a calming environment, or you may wish to review some podcasts or YouTube videos that have been created for just this purpose. Given everyone's personal preferences when it comes to music, make sure you pick one that feels and sounds right to you!
Calming Music (personal favorite)
4. Meditate/Guided Imagery - we lead busy and full lives and our brains know it! Most of us have had the experience of laying down to bed and not being able to shut off the brain spin. We know we need to sleep, but our mind is racing with thoughts of the day, to-do lists for the next day, problems to resolve and on and on and on. Meditation can be a great way to power-down your brain after a long day of working hard. Since your brain wants to be thinking about something, give it something to focus on that will create a bridge to relaxation and calmness, thereby allowing your brain to transition into sleep. There are so many meditations available, so you may want to click through a few before you find one that works for you! Try listening to some of the following while you are making your choice, or pick several to change it up each night:
5. Write in your journal - just like evening meditation, journaling can give a direction to our activated brains and allow us to dump all of those spinning thoughts into a constructive and contained place. Journals come in all shapes, colors and sizes, just like their owners. Choosing a journal can be a fun, exciting and very personal experience. There is no right or wrong way to journal. Some people journal in lists. Some journal like a letter. Others journal in prose or poetry. Some journals have lines for neatness and others are completely blank pages. Some people follow the lines and others like to write diagonally across them. Maybe your brain thinks in pictures and you might find yourself wanting to doodle or draw in your journal. Whatever your style or need, you can make great use of journalism by letting go of journal-judgement and letting your pen do some walking across the page.
Week 3: Sleep Cave
Consider the components of your sleep environment. Scan through your five senses and pay attention to what is affecting each. What is the temperature in your bedroom? How much light exposure is there? How much noise distraction? How comfortable is your bed? What does your room smell like?
When setting up your idea sleep environment, consider the following components:
1. Darkness/Dim Lighting: Keep the lights low - darkness signals all kinds of changes in our brain. This includes the general signal that it is time to go to sleep, but also that it is time to start the healing process as well as chemical changes such as time to decrease cortisol and increase melatonin production. The Power of Positivity shares some interesting research and insight into how sleeping in darkness can affect our physical and mental health. Start waking up more rested and less stressed by turning down those lights!
2. Temperature: Keep it Cool - the best temperature for sleep is right around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Since our bodies naturally decrease in temperature as we fall into a deeper sleep, we can help this process along by starting the temperature in the room at a lower setting. The National Sleep Foundation shares some ideas about how temperature affects our transition to sleep in this short article.
3. Noise Pollution: Keep it Quiet - noises can startle us during the day, but add even a tiny unexpected noise at night and there are those of us who will jolt out of our sleep. Consider using a white noise machine to act as a consistent background and block out those pesky bumps in the night. Take a look at this article that outlines some research and more detailed information on those noises that steal our rest.
4. Comfortable/Snug: Consider firmness, softness and pressure when thinking about comfortability of your bed. Different folks respond to different levels of firmness or softness, often depending on their medical needs. Some folks need the extra pressure that a weighted blanket can provide. Weighted blankets can increase production of serotonin, help you get to sleep faster and move into a deeper sleep. Consider this article, at Medical Daily, that discusses Deep Touch Pressure, achieved through weighted blankets.
5. Scent: There are many smells associated with sleep. Stinky feet and cat poop are not among them. What smells are coming from your bedroom or maybe the bathroom adjoining your bedroom? Do they help or hinder your sleep? You may need to remove some smells, or you may choose to add smells that enhance sleep. Consider this article when including new smells in your bedroom. A linen spray may be just what you need to ease into sleepy-time.
Week 4: Quality over Quantity
Try focusing on relaxation instead of sleep. While we are definitely focusing on sleep this month, we all know that there are times when sleep just remains elusive. You may have tried the tips in weeks 1, 2 and 3. You may have tried a whole host of other tips and tricks, but sleep is still evading you. In these moments, we may need to shift our focus away from the pressure of "I need to sleep!"
The pressure we put on ourselves to get to sleep (because we know its healthy for us to sleep and we've read all these articles that remind us) can be the very thing that undermines our ability to fall asleep, as we sink into a worry spiral around not being able to sleep and the resulting struggles we expect to have as a product of lack of sleep. So, let's try taking the pressure off. Perhaps if we are focusing on relaxation, we might trick our brains into shutting down long enough to drift into sleep.
As we choose to focus on relaxation, this means that we may lay quietly in bed and continue a relaxation exercise over and again, as we find ourselves bored, but calm. Keeping the lights low and the room quiet will continue to produce an environment that allows our body to relax. Focusing our brain on a relaxing activity will keep it occupied and in the direction of powering down. You may eventually bore yourself to sleep. If nothing else, you will be intentionally moving into a deeper and deeper state of relaxation. Try employing a Breathing exercise from February, a Visualization exercise from Week 2 or a Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
Some of us struggle with falling asleep, while others struggle with remaining asleep. You may find that you wake at midnight each night or around 3am. You still need more sleep, but your brain has woken up and will not return to a restful state. During these times, we want to also focus on relaxation instead of sleep. Employ a relaxation exercise while you remain quiet, still and in your dimly lit room. Do not reach for your phone or computer to "help go back to sleep." Try to use the skills you have been practicing remain calm and turn your mind away from fears about lack of sleep and toward restfulness. If you find that you have worked at this for more than 15 minutes, let yourself get up. Your brain wants to be awake and it may need to be active for a bit before it will give up and return to sleep. Instead of watching a show or scrolling through social media, try grabbing a novel, writing in your journal or pulling out your coloring book. Let yourself engage in a peaceful activity for 30 minutes before trying to return to bed and settle back into deeper relaxation mode.
End of the Month Thoughts: Struggling with sleep can be so very frustrating. I know that you may have already tried every idea on this list and find that sleep is still hard to come by. My hope is that at least one item might aid in your sleep transition and produce a deeper more productive sleep pattern for you. However, harnessing sleep is not always as easy as a 4 week plan and, for some, it can be a lifelong endeavor to find the right recipe. If you find yourself in need of additional support, consider seeking professional supports. Find extensive information, referrals and resources at the National Sleep Foundation.
Disclaimer: This article is provided for informational purposes and your consideration only. You are not required to engage in any of the ideas presented here. If you are suffering from a sleep disorder, or think you might be suffering from a sleep disorder, please contact your primary care provider. Do not attempt to engage in sleep modifying practices that have not been cleared by your primary care provider. If at any time you find that the practices shared here increase distress in your body or mind, discontinue the practice and check in with your provider for modifications or alternate recommendations.