There is almost nothing that can make us more vulnerable than lack of sleep. When we are sleep deprived our ability to cope with emotions, solve problems and act effectively is drastically reduced. Everything seems more difficult. On the other hand, when we are sleeping well and feel rested we are happier and more satisfied with our lives, relationships and work.
In spite of this, many of us experience poor sleep regularly (up to 75% of us according to one study) and most of us don’t know what to do about it. Here are ideas for improving sleep and getting the rest you need to be at your best.
Setting ourselves up for success when it comes to sleep, all starts with the body. If you are full of tension and have consumed a lot of caffeine or alcohol, or if you work on stressful projects right up until bed with no time to wind down, you are setting the stage for sleep difficulties. Instead, follow these guidelines to improve the chances of falling asleep and staying asleep.
• Limit caffeine use. For many of us a cup of coffee or two in the morning will not affect sleep. But caffeine has a long half-life, meaning it takes between eight to fourteen hours to clear our system. So, if getting to sleep is a problem, consider cutting back your daily consumption of caffeine. Eliminate caffeinated food and drink after about 2PM. Look for hidden sources of caffeine in soda, chocolate, tea, energy drinks and some pain relievers and weight loss products.
• Many of us drink alcohol to relax and it can make us feel sleepy initially. But alcohol also interrupts the sleep cycle and can cause mid-night wakefulness. Limit or eliminate alcohol two to three hours before bed.
• Are you tense? It is very difficult to get to sleep when we are wound tight. Use progressive relaxation (the slow tensing and releasing of muscle groups), box breathing, gentle yoga or stretching, or a soothing massage from a bed partner to relax the body.
• If you snore or wake up tired, even after a seemingly “good” night’s rest, consider a sleep study to rule out sleep apnea or other physical issues that may be impacting sleep quality. Consult your physician.
The sleep environment is very important. We have all heard of people who can sleep anywhere under any circumstances. But for most of us an environment conducive to sleep is a must. Here are some tips to make your sleep environment better.
• Make sure the room is dark and cool. Both temperature and light affect our ability to sleep. It is particularly important for the head and face to be cool, as this sends a message to the brain to begin shutting down for the night. A cold mask or ice pack around the eyes can help and will also work to reset the nervous system if you wake up and have trouble getting back to sleep. Be sure to protect your skin from direct contact with the ice pack.
• Try noise. Many people find that a fan, white noise machine or relaxing music helps filter out sound from beyond the bedroom and lulls us to sleep. A fan has the added benefit of keeping you cool.
• Recent research has revealed that our exposure to light, particularly blue light emitted by computers, cell phones and televisions can interrupt circadian rhythms and the production of melatonin (the naturally occurring hormone that promotes sleep). Exposure also seems to be connected to many illnesses including diabetes and cancer. So what can we do? Use dim red night lights instead of blue or white. Avoid bright screens two to three hours before bed. Get lots of sun or bright light exposure during the day. This will help you be more alert and improve mood, as well as increase chances for a productive sleep experience at night.
• Clean sheets can work wonders. Many people report they sleep better after they change the sheets. Try it.
• Don’t work or argue in bed. Keep the bed for sleep and sex only. Setting up negative associations with the place where we are meant to relax, unwind and experience pleasure can interfere with sleep.
Worry often causes difficulty when it comes to falling asleep or returning to sleep once we have awakened. It can be tortuous to lay in bed recycling all the things you wish were different in your life, our regret, failures and fears for the future. Most of us know that this rumination is fruitless. It is rare that a flash of insight or a problem will be solved during these sessions of anxiety. What can been done to silence the busy brain that won’t seem to let us rest? Here are some things to try.
• Learn to meditate. Many forms of meditation teach us to focus on the breath. When our mind is following the breath in and out it cannot be caught up with worry. When your mind wanders, as it will, just very gently bring yourself back to the breath.
• Do math in your head. Count backwards from 100 by 3 or 7. This technique keeps your mind occupied and allows worry thoughts to dissipate.
• Another similar strategy is to remember a pleasant movie from start to finish or revisit a happy day in your life and try to remember every detail.
• Use a “brain drain”. Keep a journal by your bed and write down everything you are concerned about. This lets your unconscious know that it does not need to hold onto these thoughts.
• Use a “God box”. Write down your worries and give them over to a Higher Power by placing them in a box or mailing them to the Universe in a book or other receptacle.
• Listen to a guided mediation.
• Read a calming or boring book until you can relax into sleep.
For more information read Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health by Michael Breus, Ph.D. Or visit his website.