"Your life is a reflection of how you sleep, and how you sleep is a reflection of your life."
-Dr. Rafael Pelayo
Sleep is necessary to function, heal our bodies, and maintain balance. If sleep is as necessary as water to drink and air to breathe, then why is it that over one in three adults in the United States do not get enough sleep at night?
Dr. Lauren Whitehurst recently shared an essay written recently titled, What you and society can do to help yourself sleep better, in it, she suggests “We may not know how integral good sleep is to our health, or how to integrate good sleep as a practice in our daily lives.” If you're like me, you may have asked yourself a time or 2 why you can’t sleep, let’s explore some of the possible reasons.
The first may be alcohol use which many use to wind down at the end of a long day and help them drift off to sleep. Unfortunately, alcohol can interfere with your sleep cycle, especially the ability to reach REM sleep. If you drink more than one drink, it's likely you will wake up once your body metabolizes the alcohol causing you to have difficulty falling back to sleep. Another reason you may not be able to sleep is anxiety. If you're feeling particularly anxious your mind might not be able to disengage from your worries before you expect yourself to rest. Your mind might replay conversations or go over your To Do List for the next day. Not surprisingly, another reason you might not be able to sleep is stress. When you settle down, your mind is free to roam, and without the distractions of families, work, and other activities, your mind will give you plenty to think about and stress about. It also may be no surprise that diet and exercise affect sleep. While exercise is important and getting 30 minutes a day is recommended, working out within one hour of bedtime is not helpful. Additionally, eating a balanced diet and not eating close to bedtime may also make it more likely to get better sleep. Lastly, screen time affects your ability to get quality sleep. The light emitted from electronic devices such as computers, phones, or TV, can make it difficult for your body to produce melatonin needed to get restful sleep. Studies have shown, people who discontinue electronic use one to two hours before they intend to sleep are more likely to get better sleep, also additionally using a blue light filter when using electronics at night may also help.
You may be asking what are the long-term impacts of poor sleep. People who struggle with sleep may be more likely to struggle with anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. Sounds grim? Maybe, maybe not. In an article titled, Bedtime Routines for Adults, the Sleep Foundation suggests adhering to a healthy sleep hygiene routine. “Bedtime routines help your brain separate the day from the night, clear your mind and body of the day’s stresses, and relax into sleep”. Below are a few suggestions that may help you achieve better quality and more restful sleep.
1. Develop and stick with a consistent sleep/ wake cycle: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, setting aside 7-8 hrs. for sleep regardless of weeknight or weekend as constancy helps wire your brain to adhere to a sleep-wake cycle. If you’re not able to fall asleep in 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing like reading or listening to non-stimulating music, at the end of the 20 minutes, try again.
2. Limit activities in bed to sex and sleep. If you’re reading, watching TV, looking at your phone, or doing work in bed, your brain no longer associates bed with sleep.
3. Attune to your emotions: If your day was difficult emotionally, it may be helpful to allow time to jot down what you’re thinking and feeling in a journal so it’s not running around on a loop in your head all night. According to Dr. Bruce Freeman, “Naming an emotion allows us to pause and use our breath to help calm our physiology, taking us from a fight-or-flight state to one where the frontal lobe has a chance to kick into action and bring some sense to the situation that is spiking our blood pressure.”
4. Release yourself from your to-do list: if you’re a person who is juggling a million things at one time it may be difficult to keep track… or sleep if you are worried about dropping one. In the same vein as naming and taming, writing down the to-do list for the next day gives your brain a visual of what you have to do, it's captured and it's less likely to be running around in your head all night. I personally use a dry-erase marker on my bathroom mirror to write down and keep track of tasks, that way I don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night worried I may forget to do something, it’s there first when I wake up. I write it down, plus I get instant gratification when I get to cross something off the list.
5. Cut off electronics one hour before you’d like to fall asleep: according to the sleep foundation, using devices can interfere with sleep by inhibiting the production of melatonin which is a sleep hormone that helps you fall and stay asleep naturally. If you need to use electronics around bedtime, they also suggest using nighttime mode.
Hopefully, these strategies will help you achieve better and more restful sleep. I would love to hear any other suggestions you may have in the comments below.
Written by Pamela Chapman, LCSW
Pamela (Pam) Chapman, LCSW is a Denver-based psychotherapist with a private practice named Embrace the Suck Therapy, LLC. Pam specializes in helping adults who struggle with depression and anxiety, with a particular focus on trauma and PTSD. Pam's favorite clients are those who consider “feelings” the other F word, and who would rather have a root canal than open up about what’s bothering them but know they need to do it anyway. She believes in being uncomfortable by choice and making the decision to face what's happening head-on. She uses an eclectic therapeutic style with a lot of humor and a pragmatic reality-based approach to help people dispel the myths about seeking mental health services and begin to feel better.