Sleep can be somewhat of an elusive goal for many of us. There are many factors that contribute to the, frankly, abysmal state of rest in our current society. Lack of quality sleep contributes to a multitude of negative outcomes for individuals, employers, and cultures, yet many factors about our modern society also contribute to unhealthy sleep habits.
For many of us, lack of good quality sleep contributes to an overall lack of a good quality of life. While there may be some things that are out of your control, like your work schedule or your children’s schedules, most of us can make a few small changes to work towards getting a better night’s sleep and a more restful morning.
I will be the first to say that creating a healthy sleep routine is hard. There are many factors that work against me when I’m trying to get a good night’s sleep. I don’t like to hop in the bed and go right to sleep. I have difficulty getting to sleep in perfect silence. I, too, sometimes want to veg out in front of a screen. My mind sometimes races with thoughts of all the crazy stuff happening in the world today. I like my glass of wine in the evenings. I’m tired but I can’t get comfortable. I’m naturally a night person but still have to get up early in the mornings. And on, and on, and on. I get it.
I also know that I feel so much better mentally and physically when I am well-rested. I manage my stress better, I make better food choices, I have more energy for exercise, my mood is better, and I’m more efficient with the tasks I need to accomplish. But don’t just take my word for it that sleep makes you a more healthy and happy individual.
Sleep is a biological need. We need sleep to pay attention, think clearly, perform physical activities accurately, and many other things. Evidence has been building for decades that sleep disruption contributes to weight gain, obesity and associated disorders, and hypertension.
Research also indicate that up to 40 percent of the adult US population sleeps less than 7 hours on weekdays, which has been shown to result in lower levels of alertness and attention. Chronic sleep deprivation may also contribute to excessive use of stimulants like caffeine.
Sleep deprivation is also linked to increased feelings of irritability, anger, hostility, and depression. The good news, though, is that getting quality sleep is also associated with positive effects on mood.
Many people know that they feel better when they get good sleep, but knowing exactly how to exchange poor habits for better ones can be daunting. Here’s a few tips for starting to make some changes that will improve your quality of sleep, even if you can’t always increase the number of hours you actually sleep.
- Assess your habits:
- Do you have a (relatively) regular bed time?
- You don’t have to adhere strictly to a regular bed time every single night, but have a general idea of what time you should be winding down in order to get adequate shut-eye for your specific schedule. If you have more flexibility on the weekends, it’s fine to stay up later and sleep in the next morning, just know how your body reacts to those changes and pay attention to what works for you
- Do you usually fall asleep with some kind of technology (tablet, TV, phone)?
- The evidence shows that blue light in particular, which is the light that comes from your tech, disrupts your sleep and contributes to sleep deprivation. If this is something you’ve made a habit of, it’s going to have to change if you want better sleep. Don’t worry, I’ll give you some strategies for shifting this habit.
- Do you budget enough hours a night for your sleep needs?
- Understandably, you may not always have control of your sleeping and waking hours due to work schedules or other obligations. While we’re all busy these days, you know if there’s some room for adjustment here or not. Yes, you should aim for 8 hours a night most nights, but if 6 or even 5 is what you’ve got, it’s even more important to make sure those hours are quality sleep hours. If you can adjust your schedule to budget a little more time for rest, then try to commit to making that change. Your mind and body will thank you in the long run.
- Do you drink too much alcohol in the evenings?
- Alcohol might help you relax a little in the evenings, but too much can disrupt your sleep. You may find yourself waking up in the middle of the night after the alcohol has metabolized in your system, which is a good indicator that you were actually passed out, not getting good quality sleep. You may also find yourself feeling hungover in the mornings, which is never fun.
- Do you have a (relatively) regular bed time?
- Define your problem areas:
- Do you have difficulty getting to sleep?
- Are you staying up late watching shows or using tech? Or are you struggling with negative thoughts at this time, re-living past traumas or overthinking mistakes you may have made? If this is what is happening, it’s so important to start practicing some mindfulness techniques during this time to calm your mind and prepare your brain for a restful sleep.
- Staying asleep?
- Are you waking up during the night? Is this because of nightmares, or physical discomfort? Can you identify potential sources of mental distress? If there are specific fears or stressors you can identify, journaling before bedtime can help you process and let go of these thoughts before bedtime. If you have recurrent nightmares because of past trauma or emotional factors, please consider going to see a professional counselor or psychiatrist. Processing through your feelings and distress with a therapist may help you release the fears that may be the source of the nightmares.
- Quieting your mind?
- Is your mind racing at night? Are you thinking about every little thing you need to do tomorrow? This is another area where mindfulness practices can help. Try making a list of what you need to do so you can know that you won’t forget anything. Or practice quieting your mind by using meditation apps that you can download and play from your phone
- Becoming tired?
- If you just naturally are a night person due to your personal circadian rhythm, plan to do something that will exhaust you or make you sleepy. For some people, exercise in the evenings helps them relax, for others it is too stimulating so listen to your body to determine whether this will work for you. Alternatively, pick out some reading material that will get your eyelids heavy.
- Do you have difficulty getting to sleep?
- Find your strategies:
- Personal Hygiene
- Some people are nighttime shower people, other people are morning shower people. Whichever you are, you can still benefit from a little hygiene routine to set you up for a good night’s sleep. Let’s be honest: a nice warm bath with Epsom salt and essential oils is the gold standard. Epsom salt helps you absorb magnesium through your skin, and magnesium helps you sleep at night. But we don’t all have time or ability to take a luxurious bath every night, so we can do some adjusting to compensate. If you are a nighttime shower person, try using aromatherapy in your shower by dropping a few drops of essential oils on your shower floor before you get in. Good oils for night showers are lavender and eucalyptus. If you’re not a nighttime shower person, you can still benefit from using lotions with essential oils, and taking time to wash your face and take care of your skin. All the attention to your body will help your mind feel better when you climb into bed.
- Relaxation tools
- Try a little self-massage. You can get a little hand massager and give yourself a neck rub, or just use a hand-towel that you’ve gotten damp, and then pop it in the microwave for 20 seconds or until it is warm but not super-hot. Be smart here and check the temp before you use the towel on your neck so you don’t scald yourself, but just a little warmth around the back of your neck can help you get into sleep-mode by relaxing those muscles a little. Also, those head massager tools that look like spiders give a really sweet head massage and makes your head feel warm and tingly.
- Meditation Apps
- There are plenty of different kinds of meditation apps out there. Just check out your app store on your phone and search for “meditation apps” and you will find lots of options. Some are free and others cost just a few dollars. There are apps that can specifically guide you to fall asleep, and others that just guide you through mindfulness exercises to quiet your mind.
- Journaling is a great strategy to use if you have trouble with thoughts running through your mind at night or are working through trauma or other emotional stressors. Getting your thoughts out on paper allows you to process and move past difficult emotions, and can provide a sense of relief through releasing difficult thoughts and feelings. You can keep a journal by your bedside, and when you find your mind or thoughts racing, grab it and start writing until you get it all out.
- Essential oils/Aromatherapy
- Aromatherapy is great for preparing for bed. You can use a diffuser to scent your bedroom, starting 30 minutes or so before you get in bed, so that your bedroom smells relaxing and fresh. Good oils for relaxation include lavender, chamomile, and peppermint. There are lots of recipes for diffuser blends on Pinterest and common oils are available in some grocery stores and even Target in the cosmetics section.
- Reading Guidelines
- In general, bedtime reading is something you want to aim to do from a physical book or magazine, rather than on an E-reader like a Nook or Kindle. This is only because of the blue light that emanates from our screens, which can stimulate our brains to think it’s daytime. Again, listen to your body. If your Nook doesn’t keep you up, and reading from it helps get you sleepy, go ahead and use it. But if you find it to be too stimulating, try reading from a good old-fashioned book with a lamp. Also, be mindful of content. If murder mysteries don’t bother you but help you get sleepy, go right ahead. But if you think they might be contributing to those nightmares you’re waking up with, maybe find something less prone to keeping you up.
- Personal Hygiene
- Make new habits:
- Decide what strategies you need to use based on your specific barriers to a good night’s rest and then set yourself up for success. Maybe you need to pick up a new journal or some aromatherapy supplies, or check out your app store to find some guided meditation apps.
- Remember that it take 30 days to really build a new habit, so give yourself a chance by committing to try these new strategies for at least 30 days and see if your sleep improves.
- Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, or if changes don’t happen immediately. Your brain needs time to adjust to new habits and get the full benefit of your efforts. Just keep trying, and listening to your body to find what works for you.
Sleep is essential to good mental health. In fact, for many of my clients, poor sleep is one of the most palpable and immediate ways in which their mental health manifests in their bodies. Stress and anxiety, overwhelming expectations at work, depression and trauma; all of these concerns can affect our quality of sleep and leave us feeling burnt out and exhausted. Sometimes, we avoid dealing with these other mental health concerns until our bodies just shut down and say “Enough! You are going to pay attention to me or you will be sick!” Our bodies frequently give us messages, but we need to pay attention to hear what our bodies are demanding of us. Sleep is an integral part of taking care of your mental health. Use these tips to create a strategy that works for you so that your sleep is restorative enough to help you feel your best, physically and mentally.