How is your sleep?
"We don’t really think about sleep up until the point where we can’t get it."
- Tom Coleman, Sleep Expert
All of us, at some point, have found ourselves lying awake unable to switch off, wind down or calm a racing mind. People have more and more demanding lives in recent years, and our ability to deal with these demands has certainly impacted our ability to get consistent quality sleep.
Have you ever wondered why nearly every doctor or medical professional will ask you “how is your sleep?” within their first few questions. Sleep is used as a barometer or a thermostat to see how well we are dealing with stress and life. It can be disrupted for so many different reasons, so let’s now look at some of those reasons and more importantly, what we can do to manage them.
Physical components like exercise, coffee, light and routine will certainly influence your ability to fall and stay asleep. Stress, anxiety, worry and a racing mind are also very powerful in keeping people awake. Other areas include medical conditions, hormonal imbalance and what is known as “circadian misalignment” -think shift workers. We previously looked at many of these physical components and the importance of your daily activity, but switching off from all that activity is just as important.
Everyone knows that creating a healthy routine for our children is crucial. Food, play time, bath, pyjamas, brush teeth, bedtime story and sleep. Yet, as adults, many of us arrive in bed exhausted, wired, and tired. Our minds racing with thoughts; “What day is today, did I take out the bins, I have a very busy day tomorrow…”
The only way we seem to be able to switch off is to reach for the phone to mindlessly scroll until we fall asleep. We must teach ourselves to switch off, and wind down emotionally and mentally.
The same systems that control stress also control sleep. We cannot be stressed and relaxed at the same time. People will lay awake worrying, thinking about their job, their financial situation, an argument or other mental challenges and their sleep suffers. We must give ourselves a cognitive task, mental chewing gum, otherwise our minds will gravitate toward worry. We are hard wired to worry so we can look into the future and predict danger. This has served us well as an evolutionary advantage, but can be highly disruptive when it comes to sleep.
What can you do? Firstly, I recommend a conscious relaxation exercise. Your normal sleep routine should include a physical wind down like a shower, but you must ramp down activity in the thinking mind. Once you get into bed, you can bring your attention to your breathing and bring attention to your feet, letting go of any tension. You can squeeze for a few seconds and then relax. Then work your way up your legs doing the same, your hips, back, shoulders, neck and finally head. This will be hugely beneficial and help you truly relax. Scrolling on the phone is not relaxation, it is stimulating your brain.
Don’t mistake distraction for relaxation!
Only you can retrain the racing mind. Using visualization is another technique. Imagine a lovely holiday or your favourite walk in as much detail as possible. You can even tell your mind to settle down, it takes practice. You would never go to the gym once and expect results, so why would sleep or retraining the mind be any different? You will get better and find yourself falling asleep easier. Achieving sleep is about moving obstacles out of the way and creating the right conditions, the path of least resistance. The sleep will happen by itself.
If you have difficulty with wake episodes, you can start your sleep routine again. I know most of you grab the phone to check the time, get blinded by the light and then do the calculation of how soon you have to get up! Don’t do this, instead know that waking is normal and focus your energy on relaxation, not on sleep.
In my experience, the more people focus on sleep, the more elusive it becomes!
My top 5 tips for switching off and relaxation.
1. Switch off from all scrolling, emails, or messaging 90-min prior to sleep. You can still use your phone for meditation, relaxation exercises or music.
2. Have a journal by your bed to empty your mind of work, tasks, or anything else before you try to sleep. It’s like a mind dump!
3. Practice a conscious relaxation exercise like the body scan described above. Do this every night to wind down mentally.
4. Learn a breathing exercise to slow everything down and help you relax.
5. Have a wake strategy for times you do wake up and please don’t check the time or reach for the phone.
In a hyper connected world, we need to learn to learn to disconnect with the demands of life and reconnect with ourselves. Creating a relaxing mental and emotional routine will bring a sense of calmness and security to an overstimulated mind. Your body and mind will thank you and your sleep will improve dramatically.
You can read more from Tom Coleman here.