How to rest during stressful times | Part 2: the art of sleeping
If you missed the first instalment on the art of breathing, you can check it out here.
The ultimate way to rest has to be sleep. Sleep is so elusive to some and so easy for others. Sometimes we struggle to fall asleep. At other times we struggle to stay asleep. Or we do sleep and yet we don’t wake up rested and still walk around like zombies all day, our minds foggy and our bodies craving caffeine and sugar.
Common sleep advice for insomniacs is to make sure that you have a designated space for sleeping that is different to eating, working and entertainment. But during this time of quarantine, many don’t have that luxury anymore. We are also plagued by uncertainty about the future, perhaps too much alone time, not enough alone time. So this post is about how we create boundaries and rituals around our sleep to make sure we get more sleep or better quality sleep.
Until recently, we didn’t have a robust answer to the question of why we dedicate a third of our lives to sleeping which seemingly makes us so vulnerable and unproductive. We now know that sleep restores the immune system, balances hormone levels, lowers blood pressure, cleanses toxins from the brain, and more. Every night when we go to sleep, our brain reduces in volume so that its waste can be swept away from between the folds.
Matthew Walker, UC Berkeley neuroscience and psychology professor and author of the much acclaimed book Why we sleep, warns us that: “our lack of sleep is a slow form of self-euthanasia”. He lists 30 years of medical evidence that show linkages between lack of sleep with everything from ADHD to Alzheimer's, concluding that “Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day”.
Not being able to sleep can certainly cause anxiety - especially when you know how important it is to the healthy functioning of your body and mind. It’s not wonder that the sleep app Calm is in such rapid growth.
So how do we get more sleep or better quality sleep?
5 uncommon tips for better sleep
There are plenty of basic sleep hygiene tips which I cover below but first I thought i’d share 5 tips about sleep which you may not be as familiar with:
1 Learn to nap
Our present state of confinement has many lessons to teach us about resting. One of them is how to nap. Short naps allow our heart rate to slow down and our body to rest and digest, activating cellular repair. Daytime napping may seem like a synonym for vacation or laziness but it is actually proven to increase productivity, memory, creativity and concentration.
There are two kinds of daily naps you might like to introduce into your day:
Espoused by entrepreneurs who see it as essential for productivity as well as Mediterraneans who just see it as a human right, the short mid afternoon nap still has some rules. Lie down, cover your eyes and set an alarm for sometime between 10 and 20 mins. You need to find the magic number that allows you to wake up refreshed and not groggy.
2. Yogic-sleep or yoga nidra
This is my absolute favorite but typically takes about 45 mins. It is incredible at getting you out of fight or flight, even when you have the urge to just keep chewing at your metaphorical mental bones. It is a guided meditation that invites you to scan your body as you gently invite it to release tension. Here is a link to one of my faves, guided by a cello playing monk from Plum Village. Traditionally it is a form of body meditation so is really about restful awakeness. But it also works really well to put you to sleep if you are struggling.
2 Try Nature’s alternatives to Ambien
It's easy to see the appeal of a sleeping pill for someone struggling with insomnia. But sleep experts caution that whatever is happening after you take a sleeping pill, is not natural sleep. As Walker puts it in his book, people who have taken sleeping pills aren't awake, but they aren't actually sleeping either. They're sedated.
If you look at the brainwaves of people who have taken pills like Ambien, they aren't getting REM sleep which appears to be essential for dreaming, learning and brain “maintenance”. Over the long term, research indicates that zolpidem (Ambien) may weaken the brain cell connections associated with learning, causing memory damage over time.
REM sleep is the only time when our brain shuts off the anxiety-triggering molecule noradrenaline. At the same time, emotional and memory related centers of the brain are reactivated as we dream. This allows us to re-process painful and even traumatic memories in a safer, calmer neural environment.
And there are some indications that medication-induced "sleep" could be harmful. So what are some alternatives?
A magnesium supplement taken 30 mins before sleep like Calm will help release tension from tight muscles and allow you to drop into sleep more easily. Its added benefit is that it will also do wonders for anyone suffering from constipation.
Another beautiful wind-down ritual is to make yourself a herbal brew 30 mins before you go to sleep. Here are a couple of options:
Tea for restless minds
1 part Chamomile (soporific nervine)
1/2 part Passionflower (soporific nervine)
½ part Oatstraw (nourishes the nervous system)
½ part Skullcap (stops circular thinking)
Instructions: Steep for 5 mins and add honey to taste
Golden moon milk
1 cup of any milk (nut or dairy)
½ tsp of turmeric (anti-inflammatory)
a pinch of cardamom (carminative)
2 peppercorns (help with absorption)
½ tsp of Ashwagandha (adaptogen)
Instructions: Simmer for 5 mins, add honey to taste
Note: a good online resource for buying herbs is Mountainroseherbs.com
3 Keep a gratitude journal
Our mind loves to preoccupy itself with unsolved problems, worries about the future and regrets. One of the most powerful antidotes to this is keeping a gratitude journal. It’s very simple. Take a notebook and a pen and before you go to sleep reflect on 3 things that you are grateful for that happened that day.
4 Do some stretching before bed
For most, quarantine has transformed how and where we work out. However you decide to move your body during the day - from walks to home workouts or just dancing in your underwear, some gentle stretching at the end of the day can also help signal to the body that it is time to wind down. If you want some guidance, check out yoga with Adriene on YouTube. It’s free, simple and feels like doing yoga in your pjs with a lovely neighbor and her dog.
5 Ease your subconscious load before sleep
If you find your brain too active at night, where your dreams are leaving you exhausted come morning, it is also possible to lighten the load on your subconscious mind before you fall asleep so that your dreaming may be more peaceful. A traditional technique that I learned from a healer in Peru involves revisiting your day in reverse before you fall asleep. As you encounter blessings, you say thank you, and as you encounter moments of friction you make peace with them. Often you will fall asleep before you have the time to even make the whole way back to the start of your day.
Basic sleep hygiene
In addition to my tips, there are some basic healthy sleep habits that you should adhere to if you really want to ease your insomnia and invite a gentle dream state:
> Keep a regular sleep routine
It’s a myth to think you can just catch up on sleep on the weekends. Fluctuations of bedtimes and hours of sleep cause stress to the body much like jet lag. If you've had a week of late nights and early mornings, you may think you can just make up for it by sleeping until noon on Saturdays and Sundays. Unfortunately, as chronobiologist Till Roenneberg explains in his book, "Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired," it's best for your body to keep a consistent schedule. You can throw your body off even more by trying to catch up on sleep over the weekends, which can make it harder to sleep during the week.
> Avoid caffeine after 3 pm
Caffeine has an average half-life of five to seven hours. This means that if you drink a cup of coffee mid afternoon to perk you up, that caffeine will then stop you from winding down and falling asleep at 10 pm.
> Avoid alcohol
Night caps can be very attractive when it’s hard to switch off our hyperactive minds. But while alcohol may help you fall asleep, you will often find yourself waking up a few hours later, dehydrated with your mind racing once again.
> Avoid screen time 30 mins before sleeping
How many nights have I crawled into a bed at a decent hour and then mindlessly scrolled Instagram, looked up and realized it’s already midnight? Too many.
There is now undeniable evidence that the blue light emitted by our phones and laptops trick our brain into thinking it is still the middle of the day which stops us producing Melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. Yes, there are now a number of apps/settings that adjust the light on our devices for the evening hours (like the f.lux plug in) but screens still remain very stimulating because of everything we do on them. The CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, said that his biggest competitors weren’t the other streaming services but sleep. The best thing to do is to put away all screens (ideally charging outside of the bedroom) 30 mins before your ideal sleep time and journal or read a book instead until your eyelids get heavy.
If you can’t sleep, try and resist the compulsion of going straight back onto your phone, buying random shit off Amazon or seeing what new dances are popping on Tik Tok. Yes, I’m guilty of both of those and more. Instead, write down your repetitive thoughts, read your kindle, listen to a guided relaxation.
We will get through this. One breath, one nap and one cup of tea at a time.
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