How To Take Back Your Sleep
Have you had weird, wild dreams during the pandemic? That’s just one effect of a lifestyle shift that has impacted the way our bodies recover each night. Similar to mood and nutrition, but perhaps with even more profound impact, our quality and quantity of sleep has suffered greatly during this time of uncertainty.
In some ways it sounds counterintuitive. After all, we’ve had more time than ever to rest and relax. Gone are our commutes, early-morning school lunch making, setting of alarms, and just about everything else that shrinks our typical windows of sleep. But gone, too, are routines that may lull us into a peaceful slumber each evening.
Without a schedule we can count on, we may be binge watching TV late into the night to take our minds off of what is really going on. We may be waking up at 3 a.m. riddled with the worries of family finances, isolation, our children’s wellbeing, and deviations to what we once took for granted.
We may see our fears play out in strange, even scary dreams that we don’t know what to do within the morning. We might even be sleeping in later, but waking up groggier with less energy and motivation to meet the day ahead. And our eating habits? It’s a physiological fact that the more tired we are, the more our bodies crave sugar and carbohydrates. Thus, the unhealthy cycle continues.
Any and all of these behaviors can seem like the “new normal” for us; however, long term there are many consequences as a result of inadequate or poor sleep. Just as we must recapture control over what we eat and how we manage our stress and moods, it is also time to take back our sleep.
Regular rest is so critical to every part of our physical and mental health. While we sleep each night, ideally at least eight hours for the average adult, our bodies recycle. Cells turn over, the liver detoxifies, and our brains process thoughts and emotions.
During this nightly regeneration and restoration process our bodies intuitively perform a cellular cleanup of sorts, helping to preserve our inborn immunity. And this is what we need to maintain if we want to be resilient in the face of foreign invaders.
We require this respite each night to function at optimal levels the next day. There’s just no way around it: poor sleep, especially when coupled with poor nutritional choices and unmanaged stress, can leave us feeling exhausted, both physically and mentally.
That’s the tough news.
Welcoming Back the Night: 5 Ideas to Ease Into Sleep
The good news is that as we emerge from quarantine, slowly but surely we can start to take back our sleep. Just like the choices we make to eat a little healthier, exercise more regularly, and follow paths to better mental health, we can make decisions that will help our circadian rhythm return to its natural state.
Of course, some people struggle with sleep more than others. You may have a genetic predisposition to insomnia that has always limited your nightly shut-eye. Or you may be experiencing temporary upset due to dreams, snoring, or children who are up at night. Perhaps you’ve relied too long on sleep medications to regulate your slumber.
We all come to the night with different genes, histories, and circumstances. But we can enact some strategies for improving our sleep hygiene and assist in sleep’s return. The ultimate goal is to achieve both a solid window of sleep, but also ensure that quality rest — five 90-minute stages including that deep REM cycle — comes most nights. Here are a few ways to welcome back the sleep we all desperately need to feel renewed and hit the ground running, or at least walking to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, each morning.
Don’t eat too late.
It’s hard to fight off some after-dinner ice cream or popcorn and a movie, but eating too late impacts digestion and can make it harder to fall asleep. It’s best to give yourself a two- to a three-hour window without food before you go to bed. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a cup of herbal tea, but eating right before bed makes your body work too hard on digestion, leaving you feeling full, bloated, and maybe with some unwanted reflux.
Time it up.
Get back into a routine, both morning and night. This will help signal to your body a natural sleep/wake cycle that it can depend on. Give yourself no more than a half-hour leeway, with more flexibility on weekends, but try to keep your eight-hour sleep window pretty solid. I like 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. This gives me up to a three-hour window after family dinner and plenty of time in the morning to exercise and get to work before my children get up. That’s not the case for everyone, as some people are night owls, but do aim for some regular pattern.
This may be your most useful tool, and it can take some getting used to if you’re typically falling asleep with the TV on or checking social media until your head hits the pillow. If you want to sleep, you have to “invite” it. Long ago, cave men and women naturally fell into sleep as the sun set, the fire waned, and there was nothing left to do. Today, our electronics and connected world lead to massive FOMO around the clock. We have to decide to cut it off. We have to embrace the night with simple yet transformative rituals. Put your phone to bed — on silent or airplane mode and out of the bedroom. Go to your room, completely disconnected. Turn down the lights, light a candle, set the temperature cooler, prop the pillows perfectly, and pick up a book. After a few chapters, your eyes may begin to droop as your body signals sleep time. Give yourself a few weeks to get into this routine. Don’t expect a ritual to work the first night. It’s not a ritual yet. You’ll know it’s working when you start looking forward to bedtime while you’re still eating dinner.
List it and lose it.
One important addition to your bedtime ritual is finding a way to “offload” some of your stress. Anxieties from months of isolation may still be playing out in those weird dreams, but that’s a good sign: they mean you’re sleeping deeply! To pre-process some of this tension, try journaling about your day for five minutes, writing down three things you were grateful for during the course of the day, and/or making your nightstand to-do list for the next day so you don’t wake up in the middle of the night and wonder if you’ll remember something important.
Don’t fight it.
Finally, if you do wake up, a tendency that ideally will wane in its amount and length over time, don’t fight it. Staring blankly at the ceiling berating yourself about how and when you’ll fall back asleep may only prolong the process. Instead, under dim lights, write a little bit. Read a novel for a few minutes. Put your eye pillow on and meditate on your back. We cannot “make” our minds and bodies sleep. But we can welcome it and thank the biological processes that make it a possibility each evening.
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