Sleep is one of the most important aspects of recovery. Whether it's recovery from stress (physical or mental) or from an injury, sleep is there to help us speed the process and make it easier for our body to heal itself. If you are dealing with mental illness, sleep can help you feel more resilient in your daily life. I am the one who values sleep above all, but I also know how upsetting it can be when everyone around keeps saying how important sleep is, but you still can't do something as natural as falling asleep or staying asleep through the night. I can relate to this so much. And I am here to try to share some tools that helped me improve my sleep and hopefully can help you as well.
First and foremost, sleep disturbances are quite common. The numbers vary quite a bit, but at least 10-30% of adults have chronic insomnia.
It's also important to remember that not every night is going to be the same. Some nights you probably notice that you sleep much better than others, and you don't necessarily know why. I am personally very consistent with my nighttime routine. But there are nights when I still feel incredibly anxious and tend to wake up many times throughout the night, even after having done all my rituals. And sometimes I watch YouTube right before bed (which I don't recommend) and still manage to fall asleep without any problem.
What I am trying to say, is that there are factors that impact our sleep, that we can't control. And accepting that is one important step to "fixing" your relationship with sleep.
With this being said, I want to share with you things that are important for improving your sleep. Please keep in mind that insomnia can be caused by serious health conditions, so if nothing I am going to talk about today helps you, consult your doctor. Remember, that sleep is crucial for your overall health.
I am going to say something funny: my nighttime routine starts during the day. Yes, you have read it right. What is important for your body is to move. Exercise helps to reduce stress and makes you tired. It's a great combo for sleepiness! The more tired you are physically the easier it will be for you to sleep. And the key word here is "physically", because sometimes we feel like we are mentally tired, but once we reach the bed, our brain starts pumping thoughts.
Ideally you want to exercise 4 or more hours before bed. However, some people may benefit from exercising later in the day. See what works best for you.
Creating nighttime routine
Night routine is important because with time your brain will start associating certain activities with sleep. It will help you to relax and hopefully fall asleep faster. I have shared my routine before here.
When you create your own routine, keep in mind these 5 aspects: light, sound, feel, taste, and smell.
Make light and sound work for you
Try to avoid bright light before you go to sleep. Pay special attention to blue light as it suppresses production of melatonin (an important hormone that regulates sleep cycles in our body), according to researchers. Try not to use your computer or/and your phone at least one hour before bed. If you absolutely must use them, change your screens to yellow light mode.
Avoid loud sounds if you are someone who can be sensitive to it. Watch or listen to something quiet and calming starting from an early evening. Of course, sometimes it's impossible to control all the external factors. Just do your best. Use headphones and/or earplugs if you can.
Take a bath to feel good
Taking a hot bath or a shower before bed (ideally 90 mins before bed) is not just a trendy self-care ritual. It helps our core body temperature to drop, which in turn signals our brain to start the production of melatonin. Although more research is required in this field and not everyone likes or can take baths, warm water bathing is worth giving a try, if you can. If anything, it may help you relax.
Don't go to bed hungry, but don't overeat
So, when it comes down to food, you want to make sure you are keeping a balance. You can find a lot of information online that will say don't eat before bed, however general recommendation is not to go to bed hungry. I think everyone is different, but I simply can't sleep when I am hungry, so it works for me to have a little something before bed.
I usually drink herbal tea in the evening (no caffeine) and have a salad for dinner. If I am hungry by the time I go to bed I will eat something else. However, you do want it to be something light, so your body could rest and recover instead of working on digesting huge meal through the night.
Stretch your body and meditate
Stretching or light yoga can be greatly beneficial before bed because it will help you relax your muscles and "get in the mood" for meditation. I also use progressive muscle relaxation techniques, that I was recommended by my therapist. Sometimes I count it as meditation. I try not to overwhelm myself with rituals and also switch them up a little bit every day, so I don't get tired of them. So, I will do light yoga and meditation one-night, progressive muscle relaxation on the second night, longer meditation (about 30 mins) on the third night.
For "smell" I use essential oils. My oil diffuser is also a salt lamp which creates very nice relaxing atmosphere when I turn the main light off.
Initially I couldn't relax while trying to meditate at all. However, with time I was getting more and more used to it. I can lay still for quite some time now. So, if it doesn't seem to be working out for you at the beginning, try to give it some time, you will see that you'll improve over time.
The last thing I'd like to mention here is that if you can't stay asleep at night and wake up wide awake at like 3 am, try not to panic. Get out of bed and do something that will put you back to sleep, like reading a book. I know, it can be extremely hard to do that, if you tend to worry about not getting enough sleep and feel bad the next day, but I have been practicing this for a long time, and unfortunately (or fortunately) for me there is no other way to get my sleep most nights. I've learnt to respect what my brain and body need by listening to its cues. When I can't fall back to sleep, I go to my living room and read until I am sleepy again. Usually, I can go back to sleep within an hour. Try to train yourself to be ok with whatever schedule your body is setting for you. Not everything always goes according to the plan, even if you did everything you possibly could.
I wanted to include a small sleep diary, inspired by Anxiety Canada in this post to help you on your journey to a good night sleep. You can download a FREE PDF file below if you would like to track your progress and find out what sleep ritual works best for you. You can use the rituals that I came up with or create your own (using a second page).
I hope you found this post helpful. Let me know in the comment section below if you find the sleep diary helpful, and if you have any questions. Until next time on Pillows&Trees.
Click on the image to download your FREE Sleep Diary for improving your sleep.