Are you one of the many Americans who don’t get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night? Be honest, did you just roll your eyes when you read that, even chuckle at the very idea that 8 hours could ever be available to you? Do you toss and turn, lying awake, counting sheep? Do you get pulled back to consciousness by your mind’s chatter, the night time horror stories?
You are not alone, my friend. The numbers are a little hard to nail down, but at least 35% of the population is diagnosed with insomnia. But I bet that even if you don’t have an official diagnosis of insomnia, you are wishing that you could squeeze more sleep from your pillow at night.
As it turns out, the physical health risks associated with sleep deprivation are high. Research has linked sleeplessness with obesity, diabetes and cancer, among a number of other maladies. The fun fact, however, is that we still don’t know exactly what sleep provides us; it remains a mystery. That might be one of the reasons that we can’t replace it with a pill. If you want the health benefits of sleep, you need to get sleep. It is irreplaceable and incredibly valuable, so don’t lose it.
MENTAL and EMOTIONAL HEALTH
I love helping clients with sleep because it immediately ties into our instinct for self care. It is an obvious barometer for our overall health. Our bodies make clear the desire for sleep, giving us all kinds of cues that we need to rest. We feel weary, irritable, we crave exactly the thing we need. The signs of sleepiness are unmistakable. If you ask me, this sort of clarity from the body is precious. Compared to all the other signals my body sends that could mean anything (“what is that bump, a zit or a tumor??” “Why does my stomach hurt, did I eat something weird or is it stress related??”), the feeling that comes with the need to sleep is real and primal and we know how to answer to it.
There is a strong connection between sleep, stress, anxiety and depression. If you’re up all night because your mind won’t stop racing, and then during the day you experience low energy and mood that you attribute to your lack of sleep last night, you know this connection first hand. The chatter in your mind is often a sign of anxiety, and the low energy can go along with feeling depressed. Recent research has strongly suggested that creating new thinking patterns and new behavior patterns is as effective in alleviating insomnia as were sleep medications.
It can be hard, really hard, to make new behavior patterns. If you’re routine includes TV in bed, and you relish the alone time spent with your partner for that TV hour, then you’re not going to be so excited to sacrifice it. Making little changes during the day so that you can feel better at some point in the future is simply not how we are wired to behave has human beings. We want what we want and we want it now! Coffee, a nap, screen time, we deserve these small indulgences!! And we also want a good night’s sleep. Is that too much to ask?
Unfortunately, it might just be. Counseling with a focus on mindfulness and mental change can help you decide your priorities and then commit to taking action to honor those priorities. More specifically, once you declare that you want to experience consistent restful nights, then you get to make the choices that will get you there.
FOUR TIPS TO GET YOUR Zzzzzz's
Are you ready to take some steps towards a better night’s sleep? Of course you’re ready! Read on to learn a few tips that you can start using right away.
- Your bed is for one thing only. This is where you get to teach your brain a new trick. Since it’s in charge of your sleeping, you want to make sure it understands that when you’re in the bed, it means it’s sleep time. If you’re not sleeping, get out of the bed. No phone, TV, or reading while you’re in the bed. Reserve that space for the activities you’re meant to have there, and you’ll cue your brain to activate those activities once you’re there. And yes, you’re still allowed to have sex in the bed.
- Regulate breathing: This is a big one, you guys, and I’ll probably devote lots more space to it in future posts. Regulating your breath means purposely inhaling and exhaling to a particular rhythm. By doing this, you communicate to your brain that it’s safe and OK to drop off to sleep. When you practice breath regulation, keep in mind that it’s a practice. You do it, and then you do it again and again, even if it’s not comfortable or helpful immediately. Just like you don’t expect to be a pro pianist the first time you sit down at the keyboard, you don’t expect your brain to reprogram itself to new habits in one shot. Be consistent. Your brain will get the message.
- Bubble your thoughts: This trick goes hand in hand with #2. As you’re counting your breaths, you might find that your brain is still trying to tell you it’s favorite bedtime tales. Mine are usually along the lines of “OH MY GOD DID YOU REMEMBER TO PAY THE CREDIT CARD BILL??” or “YOU FORGOT TO DO SOMETHING IMPORTANT, I AM ABSOLUTELY SURE OF IT, BUT I DON’T KNOW EXACTLY WHAT. BE ON THE SAFE SIDE, AND START FREAKING OUT NOW!!” So unoriginal. So what can you do about these tenacious tall tales? Take those thoughts as they come charging in, wrap them up in a bubble, and send them off, one at a time. That will release your mind and allow you to gently refocus it on those breaths.
- Get off the sleep aids: It is so tempting to drift off under the comfy effects of medication! There are a couple of problems with this method, though. One, you can become addicted, which means you’ll be forever dependent on a pill and it’s effects will become less powerful. Two, there is a difference between sedation and sleep. While medications can sedate, they don’t bring your brain into the restful, rejuvenating sleep it requires. The behavioral hacks I’m sharing here will be more effective, longer lasting, and safer.