By Coach KB
This third and final segment on improving sleep quality is probably the reason most of us aren’t sleeping. Addressing it will likely yield as many health benefits as those you will garner from getting consistent good sleep. If you have spent the last few weeks incorporating the recommendations from Part 1 and Part 2 and still aren’t sleeping, I would suggest taking a good hard look at the big factor whispering in your ear while your head is on the pillow. It was a big eye-opener for me when I realized how blind I had been to this issue. If you follow my Instagram you may have seen my recent stories trying to tackle a terrible bout of insomnia using the most common nutrition, movement, and lifestyle recommendations I give to my clients. In hindsight it was not surprising that none of them worked because the factor that was preventing me from sleeping trumped all the other amazingly healthy behaviors I was practicing. The arch-nemesis to sleep (and optimal health, in general) is STRESS.
My bout of insomnia occurred the two weeks leading up to my MovNat Level 3 certification in New Mexico. For various irrelevant reasons the two weeks prior to my insomnia I had not been able to train. As the date approached I got very nervous I would not be prepared. The certification represented many things in my personal and professional life and I did not want to let myself or my business down. Consequently, it consumed my thoughts and prevented my sleep all the way through - including the three nights during - my certification. The very night after I returned home and the certification was over I slept a full eight hours and I have slept well each night since (which was October 2). Go figure... Stressing about the event led to insomnia which led to more stressing about the event which led to more insomnia… and so the cycle goes.
Whether you have an acute stressor in your life like I did or you experience chronic stress as a result of work, family, health, nutrition, or other reasons, they can have a huge impact on your sleep. The vicious cycle thus begins, as a lack of sleep causes stress in your body. You can’t win until you remove the external stressors and manage the internal ones, but this is nearly impossible to do if you are not well-rested. First I’ll outline how the cycle works. You can jump into this chicken-egg scenario wherever it makes the most sense for you:
When you experience stress it causes a state of hyperarousal in your brain that makes it difficult to fall asleep. Instead we lie with our heads on our pillow and our thoughts spinning… Depending on the stressor we usually use that time to worry, problem-solve, make lists, imagine scenarios... basically take care of the business we couldn’t address during the day because of everything else going on. If we miss our hormonal window to fall asleep the next window opens, but this one lets in a flood of stress hormones to keep you awake so you can continue your process of stressing. Consequently, if you don’t sleep enough at night your body will also boost its levels of stress hormones throughout the day in order to keep you awake. If we go into our day exhausted it is likely that we will have less patience and then have additional stress as a result of poor decisions made out of exhaustion. Ideally our stress hormones are highest in the morning to wake us up and get us moving and then wane throughout the day to take us into a relaxing evening before a good night of sleep.
Given that we can’t wave a magic wand and immediately eliminate our stressors, I want to give you some practical tips to help manage your stress so you can get back to your natural hormonal cycle and allow you to sleep well throughout the night. These tips work best in conjunction with those from Part 1 and Part 2 so be sure to check back and follow up with those.
If you cannot fall asleep at night because your mind is racing:
- Journal before bed. I’m not talking about a “Dear Diary” situation (unless that’s your thing)... I’m talking about a brain dump. This can be pen and paper, dry-erase pen on your bathroom mirror, a Word document on your computer, or a voice-app on your phone (refer to Part 1 for how to use screens wisely before bedtime)... Just get out all of the thoughts from your mind so it knows you won’t forget about them overnight. Then review them in the morning and plan to tackle what needs to be addressed that day.
- Many of us work at night until we look up and realize what time it is and go immediately to bed. Set a pre-bedtime alarm clock an hour before you want to actually be asleep. This is a great time to utilize the brain-dump and then begin your nighttime routine of a warm shower, washing your face, brushing your teeth… anything that will signal your body that it is time to stop thinking and time to start monotonous, relaxing activities.
- During that hour you can also fit in 3-20 minutes of meditation. If you have never practiced meditation before, even three minutes can be enough to start. A good time to do it might be right after your brain dump. In my opinion, though, doing it in bed right before you go to sleep is a really good way to calm your mind as you drift off, although I think that is usually frowned up if you want to “truly” be meditating… I say who cares. No idea where to start? The HeadSpace app is wildly popular. Using an app means you will have your phone on your nightstand but if it means you can fall asleep at night it is worth it. If HeadSpace doesn’t jive with you there are several other apps and many other types of meditation (just google “types of meditation”). I have heard that transcendental meditation is great for people who can’t shut their brain off, but I have never tried it so I’ll let you play around and report back.
A bonus is that meditation can also help you deal with stressful situations as they arise throughout the day by giving you tools to redirect your reactions. #winwin
- Read a fiction book before bed that is neither a horror/thriller or a riveting mystery that you will want to try to solve. You want something that is engaging enough to take your mind off of your day but not so engaging that your brain has to stay too active.
If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep because your mind is racing:
- Your body is still close to sleep so sometimes all it takes is a focus on your breathing. This can be considered a type of meditation. Take slow, deep inhales through your nose that fill up your lungs three-dimensionally and equally slow, if not longer exhales. This type of diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve to lower your stress response. Other forms of meditation can also work; don’t hesitate to turn your app back on so you can turn your brain off.
- Turn on a fan or other “white-noise” device that distracts you from the silence, which makes our thoughts seem louder.
- Keep a boring book by your bed to read (with your blue light blocking glasses and nightlight) until you fall back asleep. I don’t recommend the same fiction book as above because you might not want to put it down.
- Perform the brain-dump described above. Keep a notebook and pen by your bed, along with your blue light blocking glasses and nightlight, and get it all out so you can go back to sleep. You can also use the voice-app method for this, but I don’t recommend getting out your computer or walking all the way to the bathroom for this, unless you have to avoid waking a partner.
- Change rooms. You really don’t want your brain to associate your bed with a place of wakefulness. If you can’t fall back asleep after about 15 minutes of trying, go sleep in another bed or on the couch or just practice one of the above techniques in another room until you feel sleepy again and then go back to bed.
If you wake up in the morning feeling sluggish and unrested:
- This might be as simple as ditching your alarm clock. An average sleep cycle is about 90 minutes, during which there are multiple stages, including the one you have likely heard of - R.E.M. If you wake up to an alarm, it may be interrupting you in the middle your deepest sleep. If possible, wake up naturally in the morning without an alarm clock; you will be more likely to wake up during the lightest part of your sleep. Not only will this be good for the reasons described in Part 1 related to Circadian Rhythm but it will hopefully reduce the stress of exhaustion throughout the day. If you must use an alarm clock because you have a very early job, consider using a “natural” alarm clock like the Philips Wake-Up Light with Colored Sunrise Simulation Alarm Clock.* The light turns on 20-40 minutes before the actual alarm and gradually increases from red to orange to yellow to bring you out of your sleep gently before any sound hits your ears, thus leading to a less stressful wake-up. It is pricey but there is currently a $20 off coupon on Amazon. There is a much cheaper version that has a $10 off coupon but the comparison specs lead me to recommend the first one if you can afford it. Your sleep is worth it.
*I have not personally used this clock but it has been highly recommended by several people that I know.
I can’t stress this enough (see what I did there?!): Whether you can’t fall asleep, you wake up at night, or you just don’t sleep well, you will feel sluggish and unrested during the day, leading to even more stress as a result of strained health, relationships, and work performance. All the tips I have listed above and in Part 1 and Part 2 are hacks to “manage” your stress, but none of them work to actually remove the stressors in your life. Reflecting on the very personal depths of your lifestyle, nutrition, and mindset can seem overwhelming and, honestly, is most often impossible to objectively do by yourself. I specialize in helping people manage stress and would love to work with you if you have tried implementing some of the relevant changes from this series and want additional support. Schedule your free 30-minute consultation here.