I am awful at sleeping. Truly, horribly, health-deterioratingly awful. Though I haven’t always been this way, sleep issues have plagued me for the entirety of my adult life. Occasionally it’s an issue with falling asleep, but my biggest pain point is staying asleep. I can honestly not tell you the last time I slept through the night. It is commonplace for me to wake up 5-10 times in a single night, and no over-the-counter sleep aid or prescription has offered respite. There are likely multiple culprits at play, but I suspect every single one of you reading this blog can relate to one of these culprits: the stress factor. Work is stressful. Family is stressful. LIFE is stressful. And unless you are independently wealthy living on a remote island, chances are you are dealing with more than your fair share of daily stresses. Stress in small amounts is actually good for you – it has been shown to improve memory and attention span, and low doses of cortisol, the stress hormone, have beneficial immunity-boosting effects. But chronic stress – the type of stress that wears you down day-by-day, causes insomnia, lowers your immunity, and makes you prone to irritability and irrational behavior – is very definitely not good for you.
Therein lies the rub, as they say. Sleep is one of the best things you can do for your long-term health: it shores up your immune system, lowers your risk for serious health problems from diabetes to heart disease to anxiety and depression, and it allows your brain time to rest, recalibrate, and recover. Ironically, getting sufficient sleep has also been tied to reduced stress levels, but of course if stress is causing insomnia, where’s that middle ground?
Part of the issue is – I suspect – that much of the advice out there for minimizing stress and maximizing sleep just isn’t feasible for most of us. Spend more time in nature, they say. Steer clear of screens in the hours before bedtime, they advise. Make your bedroom your quiet sanctuary, they suggest. All great ideas, but if you’re anything like me, my daytime hours are filled with work obligations and evening hours are stacked with kids’ sports and the scramble to get dinner, bath time, and bedtime sorted before everyone collapses. Time in nature has to be scheduled, for the most part, and most nature trails where I live are awash with other peace-of-mind-seekers, which somewhat defeats the purpose. Screens are the bane of most parents’ existence, and yet we are all attached to our phones, and so many forms of entertainment – for adults and kids alike – come in digital form. Ideally yes, we can all unplug at 6pm. But the reality of modern living often dictates that we be accessible after hours. And a bedroom sanctuary? Maybe back when I was kid-free, pet-free, and single. But laundry tends to pile up, the kids don’t care about boundaries, and I collapse in bed at the end of the day, exhausted and stressed.
Not trying to be Debby Downer here, just taking a realistic view on what is and isn’t feasible for the majority of us with our busy lives. Fortunately, there are small tweaks you can make to your routine that will help minimize stress and make sleep more attainable. Tweaks that don’t involve moving to a remote island (though if you can swing that, you’ll be my personal hero):
· Don’t have nature trails in your neighborhood – or the time to seek them out? Use the hour your kid is at soccer practice walking around the park or field instead of retreating to your phone. Use your deck more – eat dinner outside or just sit in the quiet for 15 minutes before bed. If you have a little more time (and/or motivation) to do so, make a standing date with a friend to go for a walk outside once/week. Start small – 20 minutes – and commit
to each other to make it happen every time.
· Can’t unplug hours before bedtime? Unplug 15 minutes before bedtime. And keep your ambitions small. If you have no energy to read, simply sit in bed taking deep breaths for 15 minutes, focusing on nothing other than your breathing.
· Remove that tv from your bedroom, invest in low wattage lights, and consider hiring a cleaner even once/month to keep things tidy. Your bedroom doesn’t have to be the picture of perfection but removing clutter and softening the lighting will help calm your mind.
· Keep the caffeine in check. Trust me, this is very much a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do piece of advice, but even if you don’t think caffeine affects you, it does. No arguments. Limit your intake to the morning hours, or allow yourself only 2 full cups/day, and avoid other forms of caffeine in the afternoon hours – black teas, lots of chocolate, soda, etc. I’m not suggesting going cold turkey, but even reducing your daily intake incrementally will undoubtedly help you sleep better.
· To-do lists. I’m a big list maker – there’s something very rewarding about checking items off that list. Writing out your to-do list for the next day before bedtime may help quiet your mental chatter. Knowing you have a handle on your to-do’s may calm that anxious mind!
· Chat it out. Pick a loved one – spouse, partner, friend, sibling, parent – with whom you can talk through your daily stresses. Set a timer for 10 minutes and vent/rant/cry/scream about anything and everything stressing you out. At the end of the 10 minutes, tell yourself you’ve had your worry time and it’s time to let go. Allowing that stress only a specified amount of time may help you manage your emotions better.
· Prioritize. There are some things (many things, in fact, IMHO) in life that simply are NOT worth the mental and emotional energy stress requires. We all have different priorities in life, so I won’t begin to judge what causes you stress. But consider spending some concerted time working through your biggest stressors to identify what can be removed from your life. There is a WHOLE lot of self-inflicted stress in most of our lives, so figure out what truly makes you happy, what actually does need to be done, and – most importantly – tasks or responsibilities to which you have committed yourself that are superfluous. I even have a worksheet for just this process available to anyone 😊.
Ultimately, a little stress is normal and even good for your health, but taking some time to analyze how stress and sleep coexist in your life will contribute to a healthier future.