Few of us would argue about the importance of sleep in our lives. We’re quite familiar with the espoused standard that adults need about 8 hours per night. Despite our awareness of the importance of this activity, where we spend approximately a third of our lives, this facet of self-care is often easily overlooked. We tend not to worry too much about how much sleep or its quality until there is a problem.
Sufficient rest addresses the most immediate symptom of feeling tired; rest helps to energize us. As we sleep, our bodies repair from the activities of the day while simultaneously preparing us for the demands we’ll face when we wake up. During this time, our brains are impressively consolidating memories; on a neural level, processing the events we experience in our waking hours, keeping pertinent parts, and clearing out what is deemed extraneous. This clearing contributes to that refreshed feeling in the morning; for many of us, this is the time when we feel our mental clarity is at its sharpest, and indeed it is. Barring caffeine and medications aimed at improving focus, if we thought of your brain as a computer, it has the most RAM when you first wake up. That capacity tends to dwindle as the day goes on.
At various points, many of us will have some experience with insomnia. Broadly, insomnia is defined as difficulty sleeping. Most often, folks will find they are experiencing one of three types: difficulty falling asleep, struggling to stay asleep, and arising earlier than expected. The type of insomnia one is facing largely dictates what interventions are best. Consulting with a mental or medical health professional is a great first step in getting a tailored plan that addresses your unique concerns. However, there are several things we all can do (whether insomnia is a present concern or not) that can maintain or improve our efforts at catching those precious z’s.
Sleep hygiene focuses on the ritual we have around bedtime. Going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time every day (yes, even on “off” days!) helps your body settle into a routine. Many adhere to a bedtime schedule that often includes winding down from the stresses of the day and physically setting their space such that it encourages sleep. I would encourage you to consider your bedtime routine. Do you have one? How long is it? What does it involve? Does it give you sufficient time to take a step back from the stressors you face during your waking hours?
In addition to sleep hygiene, what we do in bed also matters. It may sound unnecessarily strict, but I tell my clients all the time, the bed is for sleeping and sex. That’s it! As much as can be helped, extraneous activities like watching television in bed, having your meals there, or just lying there scrolling through your phone, are activities better suited to other parts of your home. Restricting what activities happen in bed helps train your body and mind to see it as calm, predictable and comfortable space for sleeping.
Sometimes things impacting our sleep aren’t immediately within our control. Many of us have hefty worries we carry on our minds and spirits as we try to lay down to sleep. The answer to those challenges is less clear. Depending on your sensitivity, it may be beneficial to limit what types of information and media we consume in the hour or so before bed. There will be occasions where that isn’t good enough, and something else in the form of a distraction might be needed. That distraction could be engaging in a mindfulness meditation practice, encouraging our imaginations to conjure pleasant memories or exciting fantasies, while still others may prefer the distraction of natural sounds.
These suggestions are based on years of research and ultimately meant to be helpful, but we would be remiss in failing to recognize that everyone has different circumstances. Maybe instead of worrying about your routine, you’re understandably prioritizing ensuring your children have structure around their bedtime. Potentially your work commitments fluctuate, making it difficult to plan. You may have a physical condition that makes it harder for you to get a traditional full night’s sleep. If you cannot ensure that you go to bed at the same time every evening, it would still be helpful to shut down devices in your bedroom 15 minutes before bedtime. Making your sleeping space comfortable in terms of temperature, light, pillows, etc., never hurt anyone’s chances at a better night’s sleep. Whatever adjustments you may decide to make, I encourage you to look for opportunities to introduce structure and ritual. With issues around sleep, consistency is key.