By Megan Hanafee-major
February 16, 2023
I think every year one of my New Year resolutions is to get more sleep. I can’t imagine that I am alone in this. Sleep is one of the most important factors in our physical and mental health, it supports our ability to learn and socialize, and when we don’t get enough, it can ruin our whole day. Sometimes, it is hard to fall asleep, so we end up tossing and turning, or scrolling and scrolling until we can finally drift off. Other times, it feels impossible to stay asleep and we find ourselves waking throughout the night eventually wondering if we were truly able to rest at all.
There are tons of things that can make good sleep elusive, some within our control and others completely out of our grasp. Wherever you are in your search for a better night’s rest, here are some tips, tricks, and tidbits to help improve your overall sleep hygiene.
What is Sleep Hygiene?
Just like we engage in personal hygiene to keep our bodies healthy, neat, and clean, we can improve our sleep hygiene to support a better night’s rest. Personal hygiene might include showering, grooming, brushing our teeth, and other care tasks. Similarly, sleep hygiene includes a vast array of activities throughout the day and night to prepare for good sleep and make the most of our downtime.
While we may be used to the broad term of the “sleep cycle”, we might not know or understand the ins and outs of what a sleep cycle is and how to best support it. Our sleep cycles have four stages: N1, N2, N3, and REM (rapid eye movement) that we cycle through over and over through the night. A complete cycle takes about 1.5-2 hours, which is why people might feel unrested when taking an hour-long nap.
- N1 is the lightest sleep and occurs as we fall asleep. This is that twilight state between wakefulness and sleep where you feel groggy but somewhat conscious.
- Next, N2 occurs when your body lowers its temperature, your heart rate slows, and your brain drifts off into sleep. This typically lasts for 20 minutes or so.
- N3 is where the deepest sleep happens. Your muscles will be relaxed and your blood pressure will go down to allow your body to restore and get ready for REM sleep.
- REM sleep is when most of our restorative sleep occurs. This is when we dream and in order to keep us physically safe, our body immobilizes so we don’t move around and accidentally harm ourselves.
We move through each of these for one complete sleep cycle and the typical person will have 4 or 5 cycles each night. In order to optimize our sleep, we need to not just allow these cycles to happen, but support them.
When it’s time to get ready for bed, there are some things we can do to prepare for sleep. When we are little kids, we often have a bed-time routine. Bathe, brush our teeth, put on comfy pajamas, read a book, etc. We do this for children because it helps them transition from daytime to nighttime, mentally signals to their brain that it is time to get tired, and provides consistency. Even in adulthood, these are good things to put into practice. Making a bed-time routine for yourself will allow your mind to slow down and prepare for a restful night. Routine helps us because we can anticipate what is going to happen next. After getting into the habit of doing your routine over and over ending with sleep, your brain and body will eventually know when the routine comes to an end, it is time to drift off. Some things that can support a healthy bedtime routine are:
- Any grooming and other personal hygiene tasks
- Preparing for the next day by picking out your outfit, making lunch, or whatever helps to lower stress about the morning
- Reading a calming book (ideally not studying or anything that will get your heart rate up)
- Putting away and avoiding any screens for at least 30 minutes before getting into bed
- Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and foods that may make you bloated or uncomfortable for a few hours before going to bed
- Using your bed only for sleeping (and sex) – no studying, eating, watching TV, etc. if at all possible
During the Night
Since we cycle through lighter stages of sleep a few times each night, it isn’t uncommon to wake in the middle of the night. When we are sleeping well, we might wake up, adjust our position, maybe use the bathroom or get a drink, and go back to sleep. We may not even notice. When we are not sleeping well, these could look more like tossing and turning or waking for long periods of time before falling asleep again.
If you find yourself waking often and being awake for longer than a few minutes, this indicates difficulty reentering a new cycle. Although it feels counterintuitive, the best course of action is to actually get out of bed and do something else. If you are awake longer than 15 minutes, get out of bed and maybe even your bedroom if possible, and do a calming activity. It is best to avoid blue lights, bright lights, screens, and anything too stimulating. Reading a calm book, listening to music, stretching, or getting a glass of water are good options. Keep it low key, but it is best to leave your bed and only return once you get sleepy again. When you feel ready to try falling asleep again, return to bed and get comfortable. If 15 minutes go by and you haven’t fallen asleep, get back out of bed and do it all again. This will help train your brain to associate your bed with sleep and sleepiness and not restlessness.
Throughout the Day
We can get ready for a good night’s sleep during the day, too. Making healthy life choices will support good sleeping habits. Exercising, eating balanced meals, managing anxiety, and drinking enough water are all things that will help you sleep your best. As mentioned before, using your bed for things other than sleeping and sex can make it harder to fall asleep at night. So when you are tempted to snack while watching that new Netflix show, just move somewhere else so that your brain will pair being in bed with sleep and nothing else.
You can also create an environment conducive to good sleep in your bedroom to help your rest be deeper. This looks different for everyone, so take time to think about what you need in order to sleep soundly. Some people need complete darkness and find blackout curtains or a sleep mask beneficial. Others like a small light, so getting a nightlight works best for them. People might like certain relaxing smells like lavender, sounds like white noise, or fabrics like linen. Use some trial and error to determine what adjustments you can make to your bedroom to make it ideal for you.
Sleeping well makes everything better and feeling tired throughout the day can make even easy things difficult. If you are still struggling because of insomnia, anxiety, or other stressors, talking these over with your therapist can support a healthy night’s rest. We would love to work with you to help you meet your health needs including getting the sleep you deserve.
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