Many of us (I daresay nearly all of us) will, at some point, struggle with getting enough sleep. Most people go through periods of life where adequate sleep is a very difficult thing, at least temporarily.
As a follow-up to my last blog, which discusses the importance of sleep, I want to explore some strategies that may help you achieve more as well as higher quality sleep.
But first...some disclaimers:
All kinds of circumstances can affect your ability to sleep well, on a temporary or more permanent basis. This can be anything from: having a baby (or puppy, as I learned this past December), dealing with a difficult period in one’s life due to grief or trauma, having physical pain that wakes you in the night, going through final exams crunch, or having an erratic work schedule. It could be a result of age and hormonal changes, or due to medications you may need to take. There are, of course, sleep specific disorders, such as sleep apnea, which could require medical attention. In these situations, gentle strategies like the ones suggested below may help a lot, a little, or not at all. No one method will work for everyone. You may need to try several things before you find what works best for you. Above all, it’s helpful to keep some perspective. Nothing you do or don’t do is going to be the end of the world.
Another thing to consider: in this modern world of instant gratification, it’s useful to remember that some changes need time. Some of these strategies I suggest simply can’t happen overnight (pun intended). Certain things, like developing a regular schedule or changing one’s living situation, need a lot of planning and will take time to implement. Others you can start today.
So begin what you can right now and then work toward longer-term changes. If you keep your mind focused on quality sleep as a serious goal, you can slowly start to implement one thing at a time. When you begin to regularly reach your goal of getting a great night’s sleep, it can become habit.
With that, let’s look at some strategies to earn a more restful night’s sleep:
Cool, Dark & Quiet
Set up your regular sleeping space for success. Noise, extreme temperatures and light are all factors that may cause you to lose sleep. Because we can’t control when the sun comes up or how loud your housemates or neighbors are, the best thing one can do is to rely on oneself. Here are some ideas:
TEMPERATURE: Be sure your bedding is appropriate for the season. Light sheets when it’s warm (or none at all), layers of blankets or clothing when it’s cool. Not all of us have oodles of money to spend on heating or cooling our home, so use open windows, fans, space heaters as needed and as you are able to afford. There’s not a universal 'perfect' temperature but the generally accepted ideal temperature is about 65 degrees Fahrenheit (about 18 Celsius). This may be up for debate if there’s more than one person in the bed. Again, knowing you don’t have total control over this, take what measures you can to create a better environment as close to this as possible.
LIGHT: Most humans are going to find themselves somewhat influenced by the rhythms of nature, with a tendency to want to sleep when it’s dark and be awake in the light. I have known people who don’t seem to mind sleeping in the daytime and are happily nocturnal. That works for them. If that’s you, you can probably skip this part. For the rest of us, we’re more likely to get the best shut-eye in the dark. One major source of light, of course, is the sun. If you’re down for a nap in the middle of the day, you like to go to bed before the sun goes down, or get up long after it comes up, try an eye mask. These are great because you can take them anywhere. Find one that fits you well and is soft enough to tolerate wearing overnight. Not everyone loves wearing these every evening, so another option is blackout curtains, or some kind of light-blocking apparatus over the window(s.) Again, it doesn’t have to cost a million dollars. You can even make one yourself if you’ve got some thick fabric and are handy with a sewing machine.
The next suggestion is one that often gets shocked or even angry responses. Again, find what works for you, but I know this has done wonders for many:
Remove distracting electronics from the bedroom.
Some people insist they just cannot get to sleep without the TV on, so different strokes for different folks…But if you’re open to it, this means getting the TV, computers, laptops, tablets, and even phones out of the bedroom. Now, you will find approximately 3 million excuses as to why you think you need these things nearby but you, in fact, really may not need them. Particularly when you’re sleeping. “Oh, but I use my phone as my alarm.” Get an alarm clock from a thrift store, preferably one that doesn’t glow at all. Make sure it has batteries to back it up in case the power goes out. If you’re really concerned about not getting up without the alarm then set two alarms. The last thing you want keeping you up is worrying about getting up. In other words, anything that glows or has a tempting screen to keep you up, get it out.
SOUND: Again, we can’t make the rest of the world be silent upon our behest so we have to work within our own personal ability to create as much quiet as possible. Firstly, if you own pets, consider not having your pet in the bedroom. Many animals are nocturnal, and the sounds they make may wake you up—and potentially keep you up. As well, animals in the bed may wake you up by moving around or creating excessive heat. I know, I know…some of you will not be willing to give up sleeping with your doggies and kitties. That’s fine. But if it’s an issue for your sleep, it’s an option.
Remove anything that produces annoying sound in your bedroom. I have a little aromatherapy diffuser that creates a gentle sound I don’t mind one bit. Plus, I use it with lavender or eucalyptus oil because I enjoy those scents in my sleeping area. A leaky faucet on the other hand, will irritate the crap outta me—probably because it reminds me there’s something that needs fixing. So until it can be fixed, I shut the bathroom door. Other things may bother you—maybe not when you’re going to bed but when you wake up in the middle of the night, like the sound of a ticking clock or the hum of some electronic device. Get them out of the earshot of your sleeping space.
I went through a period of time (this usually happened when I was very stressed, and more about this later) where every noise was an issue. I couldn’t just block them out of my mind; I couldn’t just wrap the covers over my head. And I couldn’t get rid of all of the sounds I heard—like traffic in the street or someone moving around downstairs. The one thing that really made a difference was wearing earplugs. I had to experiment because some hurt my ears. Also, be aware that there are certain kinds of earplugs that can actually damage hearing, so be sure you do research before trying them.
Lastly, try making a polite request that anyone living with you keep the volume down during sleeping hours. Hopefully those in your living space are considerate and won’t mind keeping the noise level down when you’re resting. Of course, be willing to return the favor as well.
Keep a Regular Schedule
Many of you will just say that this is not an option. If you have an erratic work schedule or are a student in an intensive program, if you’re pregnant or are the parent of a young one…well, there’s only so much you can do. Napping is a great option for those of you can do it. If you do need to take naps, be sure to schedule them in and stick to your schedule so you don’t miss them.
For those of you who do have some regularity in your school or work schedule, try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. This takes an enormous amount of discipline and self-control, because it’s just so very tempting to stay up and finish work, surf the net, read comments on your social media, finish a few chapters of your book, or get in just one more episode. This is when you’ll have to ask yourself what your priority is, and what’s going to lead to a healthier, happier you. If it’s another episode, so be it. If it’s another hour of sleep, make it happen. In other words, when it’s time to go to bed, GO TO BED.
Plan ahead. Keeping a regular schedule for sleep also depends on how organized you are in other aspects of your life. This takes planning and practice and again, discipline. Whatever your needs are before bed, you’ll want to make sure they’re met in a timely fashion. Chores, studies, work all need to be done and put away. If you’re not realistic about the amount of work you can do in a day, you may need to re-visit this and develop a different perspective or you may never feel you have the time to sleep. If you’re a social butterfly, end conversations well before bedtime. You’ll want to leave yourself some down time before bed, and do things that relax you. Everyone is different…you may need 20 minutes of down time or 2 hours. Whatever your time frame is, know that it is important to give yourself quiet time in order to wind down to sleep. You’ll have to take into account not just your work schedule, but also ask yourself if you’re scheduling in time to do the activities that you love and that make you happy. If you don’t schedule those things in, they’ll likely start to take precedence over your sleep. Balance is extremely hard but with focused determination and commitment, you can eventually find a better balance in your life so you can make room for work, leisure and rest.
Eating too much or too little before bed can disturb sleep. It’s difficult to sleep well on a gorged stomach. I’ve also been forced to wake up by a grumbling stomach at 4am when I ate dinner too early or ate too little before bed. Because I tend to eat small meals throughout the day, I like having a smoothie or something light an hour or two before bed. Other people prefer to leave 3-4 hours after their meal before they sleep. Again, it’ll take some experimenting but in general, try to eat a lighter dinner 2-4 hours before bed and see if this helps your sleep. What you consume also may affect your sleep. Alcohol, recreational drugs, caffeine, heavy foods and sugary desserts are probably not going to improve your sleep. Some people like to have a drink before bed because it helps them fall asleep, and it may, at first. But this article, which takes 27 different studies into account, reveals that alcohol actually negatively affects the quality of sleep by reducing REM sleep. Also, it’s dehydrating. Even if I only have a glass or two I often wake up parched in the wee hours of the morning. So in summary, choose light, easily digestible foods for dinner and avoid alcohol if you want to sleep well. Some people swear they’re not affected by caffeine and can drink coffee at 10pm and fall right to sleep, others can’t have any caffeine after 1pm. If you’re not sure, again, experiment. Perhaps try going without caffeine altogether if you’re really struggling with sleep.
Uh oh. That dreaded word. Yes, exercise has been proven to improve sleep even for insomniacs. If you haven’t tried it yet…well it’s extremely unlikely that you’re reading my blog. Anyhow, if you haven’t, give it a whirl. In fact, it doesn’t take a ton of exercise to make a difference! According to sleep.org, even 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can improve sleep: ”As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can dramatically improve the quality of your nighttime sleep, especially when done on a regular basis. What’s more, exercisers may reduce their risk for developing troublesome sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.”
Timing of exercise can also be an issue. For some people, strenuous exercise in the late evening can make it hard to get to sleep. Ideally, try to schedule your strenuous exercise in the morning or early afternoon and if you do anything in the evening try to make sure it’s gentle enough not to amp you up for hours.
This is probably the most difficult and the most important thing to manage on a day-to-day basis. There are going to be so many things that want to steal sleep from you. I’ve mentioned some already, but you’ll get to know which are the most tempting for you. Being on the phone, chatting with roommates/spouses, binge watching TV series, finishing out that next level of your video game, reading an awesome novel, getting that last bit of work done, checking out your Instagram, cramming for a final exam. The list goes on and on. Ultimately, you’ll have to simply put everything away an hour or two before bed. Again, it will vary from person to person how much time you need in order to “wind down,” so for a little while start with too much time and then whittle it down until you find the right schedule.
Calm the Storm
Most of us humans aren’t built with an on/off switch. Bummer. If you lead a busy life, it’s going to be even more difficult to quiet your mind enough so those busy thoughts and worries don’t keep you up all night. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of information out there on managing stress, and a ton of different methods you can try.
If you are busy—and most of us are—it’ll help to plan out the next day. Check your schedule, write a to-do list, prepare meals, pack your bag and choose your outfit. Get everything together so you’re not worried about forgetting anything the next morning. Then all you need to do is grab and go. If you get up in time, you’ll have a peaceful morning to look forward to.
To improve your sleep, see if you can carve out at least 30-60 minutes of quiet, calming activities before bed. Try taking a bath, do some gentle stretching, journal, read some boring non-fiction (learn something and get sleepy!), use breath or gratitude exercises, meditate. In general, unplug! My ideal evening includes about 30 minutes of reading followed by about 20 minutes of meditation.
Ride the Wave
And sometimes, no matter how well you plan, how organized you are, how well disciplined you are, you’ll find yourself wide-awake at 3am. Perhaps you’ll be able to get yourself back to sleep—some people choose to practice yoga or meditation, I’ve used a phrase that I just repeat to myself that tends to get me back to sleep. Sometimes, you’re just going to be awake. If that’s the case, just go with it! No big deal. I’ve done some of my best creative work in the wee hours when I woke up for no reason. Yeah I’ll be a bit groggy in the afternoon and if I can take a nap, then great! Otherwise, I’ll probably fall asleep more quickly the next night. The point is, you just earned a few hours to do something delightful. Read, sew, meditate, write, take a walk, cook a fancy breakfast, take a swim, go for a jog, or just watch the sun go up. The point is, don’t beat yourself up about it. Don’t imagine how horribly your day is going to go because you got too little sleep. Worrying about it isn’t going to get those hours back.
Remember that perfect sleep isn’t going to come every night, but you can do a great deal to get your regular sleep to improve. Also, there are some events that are just worth losing some sleep over! On the regular, though, to increase the hours and quality of our sleep try a few of these things—maybe just one at a time—and don’t overwhelm yourself. Know that some habits will be difficult to break, but if you believe better sleep is truly a priority, it’s worth the effort. Whatever happens, try not to be overly critical of yourself. Tomorrow is another day.