ESSENTIAL STEPS FOR HEALTHIER SLEEP
By Cindy Fisher, MA, RCC
It is common for sleep problems to exist where there is pain, anxiety, depression or stress. The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to get better sleep.
Here are ten practical strategies for improving sleep.
1. Keep a regular schedule. If you choose just one thing to do to help you sleep better, make this the step you take. Always get up around the same time every day. Even on weekends. Even if you’ve only had one hour of sleep. Even when it’s almost impossible to get up. A regular waking time helps to strengthen the regular rhythm of your sleeping and waking cycle and will eventually help you fall to sleep at night.
2. Create a regular, relaxing bedtime routine. When you are racing around in your busy life, or feeling stressed and anxious, falling asleep is no easy task. Think of going from being awake to being asleep as a process. Take at least the last 45 minutes before going to bed to “wind down”. During this time, avoid bright lights, and avoid activity that will arouse your nervous system such as paying bills, working, arguing, watching stimulating television, (for some that would be the news), or solving problems.
Instead, every night, create a relaxing routine for yourself – hypnotic in its repetitiveness. Some ideas are a warm bath; last minute tasks such as letting the dog out, putting on coffee for the morning, making your children’s lunches, brushing your teeth; quiet music; reading a few pages of a book.
3. Learn to relax. Sleep is a deep state of relaxation. People who have difficulty relaxing, either physically or mentally, often have trouble falling to sleep or even staying asleep. It is a very worthwhile investment of your time to learn relaxation techniques. Begin with the Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique, then move on to Deep Muscle and then Visualization. Breathing techniques are also important. As well, you will want to learn techniques to help with slowing down your mind from racing thoughts.
4. Create an environment that promotes sleep. Your bedroom should be cool, dark, quiet and free of interruptions. If necessary, use black out curtains, ear plugs, eye shades or white noise such as a fan. If you have pets that wake you up, see about changing where they sleep. Make sure you have a comfortable bed and pillow. The lifespan of most mattresses is about 10 years.
5. Keep your bedroom for the 3 S’s – sleep, sex and sick. When you are having trouble sleeping, using your bed for daytime activities teaches your mind and body to associate your bed with being awake. Then, when you go to bed at night, bing! your mind and body become alert. So avoid such activities as watching television or reading on your bed during the day.
6. Exercise. The quality of your sleep has everything to do with how you spend your waking hours. You need to earn your sleep. Spending some time each day being active will help with falling to sleep and with sleeping more soundly. You will get the most benefit from a regular exercise program (rather than a sporadic one). The only caution here is to not to exercise too close to bedtime. Finish your exercise at least 3 hours before bedtime. Late afternoon or early evening exercise is optimum.
7. Take a look at your eating habits. Ideally, you want to eat a heavier lunch and a lighter supper. Finish eating at least 2-3 hours before your bedtime. Pay attention to whether certain foods, such as spicy ones, interfere with your sleep, then avoid them for your evening meal. Experiment with whether a light snack before bed helps. Pick a simple carbohydrate, or warm milk with honey (boiling the milk makes it easier to digest), or an herbal tea. You may want to make this part of your bedtime routine. Drink lots of water during the day, but not too much in the evening to reduce the need to get up through the night.
8. Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants and activate the central nervous system. To get good sleep, you want to calm the central nervous system. If you have trouble sleeping, you are best off avoiding them altogether.
Caffeine: If avoiding it isn’t possible, keep to 2 cups of a caffeine beverage daily and none after noon. Caffeine can effect sensitive people for up to 12 hours and stays in everyone’s system for 3 to 5 hours. Black and green teas, colas, chocolate, and a number of medications, all contain caffeine.
Nicotine: Smokers experience withdrawal symptoms when they sleep, which is a cause for poor sleep. Avoid cigarettes the last 2 hours before bed, and never smoke a cigarette if you get up in the middle of the night.
Alcohol: Many people think of alcohol as a sedative and use it to help them sleep. You may fall to sleep more easily, however the quality of your sleep will suffer. Alcohol causes a restless, disrupted sleep.
9. Don’t keep track of your sleep. What this means is don’t pay attention to whether you’re asleep or awake. The very act of having to “report” on your sleep the next morning requires that you keep track of whether you’re awake or asleep. To do this, you have to ask yourself repeatedly, “Am I awake?” in order to know whether you are. As you can imagine, this is just going to keep you awake. So don’t monitor yourself for whether you’re sleeping. Take the attitude that whatever happens is fine. Don’t look at the clock, don’t be concerned about the time, and don’t worry about how well you’ll function tomorrow. Ideally, you will not know by morning how many hours you’ve been awake or asleep. After all, it is what it is, so who cares?
10. Have a “non minding” attitude. When you can’t sleep, lay in bed with a non minding attitude. Simply laying there resting is restorative. Instead of trying to fall to sleep, which doesn’t work anyway, just allow sleep to happen. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, then getting frustrated will only drive sleep further away. So, lay there not minding whether you’re asleep or awake. Be aware of your sensations and thoughts in a detached, curious way. Take the attitude that you’ll get as much sleep as you’re going to get. As you lay there with an accepting attitude, knowing that whatever happens is okay, your stress will release. Sleep will come naturally when it comes. The goal is least effort with greatest results.
What are you going to do to get better sleep?