Sleep. So many of us have a love/hate relationship with this simple necessity.
On the one hand, we love it. It's one of the only vices that is actually good for us, and it's one of the only healthy behaviors we actually want to do. On the other hand, sometimes that bastard evades us like we're a bad ex. One of those exes whose texts oscillate between unacknowledged kissy face emojis and full-fledged meltdowns: "Are you mad at meeeeee? Why are you avoiding meeeeee?"
And you wonder, What did I do to sleep to make it leave me?
I get this question a lot. Like, a lot a lot. So much that I've made a career out of it.
It's possible that, like the questionable judgment of a 20-year-old, you have an unhealthy relationship with sleep. Maybe you stayed out too late, all the while it watched the clock, waiting in bed for you to come home. Maybe you didn't give it the attention it deserved, instead opting to play with your phone or ignore it to watch just one more episode of Friends. You took sleep for granted, not realizing what you had until it was gone.
The good news is this. Unlike most failed relationships, your relationship with sleep is repairable. And you don’t even have to stand in the rain with a boombox over your head.
It will take some work, however. But much like successful relationships, everything starts to get better when you do a little work on yourself. Also much like successful relationships, it hinges on a little something we call hygiene.
Hygiene is a word we use to describe healthy habits. We’re all aware of bodily hygiene (or, at least we become aware of it when there’s a distinct lack thereof), but hygiene comes in many forms. This post is going to focus on sleep hygiene, or healthy habits surrounding sleep and bedtime.
So, how do you salvage your relationship with your one-and-only true love, sleep? You can start with these three tips for improving your sleep hygiene.
1. Go to sleep when you’re tired.
Duh, right? Well, you’d be surprised how many times I’ve asked the questions, “When are you tired” and “When do you go to sleep” to hear answers that differed by four or more hours.
Why do we feel the need to push through that initial sleepy feeling? I’m not talking about the afternoon slump that seems to hit a few hours after you return from your lunch break. I’m talking about that initial push for sleep, the one that kicks in between 8 and 10 PM.
That tiny signal we usually ignore is our body’s way of saying, “Hoo boy, what a day. How about we hit the ole sack-a-roo, partner?”
It does this by releasing melatonin, our magical sleepiness-inducing hormone, in response to dim light. And back in the olden days, that was our bedtime. However, with the invention of artificial light, we’ve been able push bedtime—and ignore our biological clock’s initial signal to hit the hay—by several hours (and indefinitely in some cases).
This has resulted in a major shift in how humans sleep. It is estimated that the invention of the lightbulb has shaved off at least 1 hour from modern sleep as a function of delayed bedtime. Because as you know, even though you put off bedtime, you still have to get up at the same time for work the next morning.
So my first piece of advice is to listen to your inner sleep cowboy and head to bed when you’re tired. He’ll thank you in the morning.
2. Treat your bedroom like a sanctuary.
If you’ve seen my Pinterest, you know that I love, love, love bedroom décor.
The reason is because your bedroom should be some place you want to be. (Unless it’s some place you want to be all the time, in which case see #3.) The importance of this little tip can be illustrated in the following client stories.
The first client is someone we will call Amy. Amy came to me feeling like she didn’t get enough sleep because she would awaken in the wee hours of the morning and not be able to fall back asleep. When I asked Amy about her bedroom, she admitted that while she put a lot of effort into decorating her home, she never put that much effort into her bedroom. Her reasoning was that it was just her, that there was no need to make it appealing since she was the only one seeing it.
The second client we will call Kristina. Kristina’s problem was a sudden onset of awakenings throughout the night that made her feel sluggish and tired the next morning. When I asked Kristina about her bedroom, she said it was “not the cleanest, but it does the trick.” It was upon doing a bedroom assessment that I saw the truth: Kristina had brought her whole life into her bedroom. Art projects, books, dishes, dirty clothes, clean clothes, shoes, jewelry, an entire library of books and magazines; you name it, it was on her bedroom floor.
What do Amy and Kristina have in common? Not a whole lot, except their A. sleep problems, and B. a complete disregard for the sanctity of their bedroom.
A friend of mine likens sleep to an encounter with a deity. He says that we should treat it as such, with rituals that cherish the blessed experience we are undertaking. Even if you don’t buy into that, you have to admit sleep starts in the bedroom. So, we should honor that with a bedroom worthy of the occasion.
3. And treat your bed like a shrine.
Let’s break for a little quiz. Get a piece of paper and something to write with, and mark a tally for each of the following things you do in bed: Eating; watching TV; playing games on your phone; looking at social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter); doing homework; doing work-work; blogging; drinking coffee; meditating; fighting with your partner; talking on the phone; reading; staring at your ceiling wishing you could sleep; scrolling through Reddit for hours and hours.
If you suffer from sleep problems, AND have so much as one tally on your sheet, then you’ll want to read the following very carefully.
Just like your bedroom should be a sanctuary, your bed should be a shrine. This is because our brains very quickly create links between stimuli (like your bed) and responses (like sleep). Hooray, brain!
The problem is when your brain creates links between a stimulus like your bed, and a response like not sleep. Dammit, brain.
This is the unfortunate reality of many sleep issues. Over time, our brains stop associating the bed with sleep, and start associating it with things that aren’t sleep, such as eating, watching Netflix, having imaginary arguments with coworkers, doing the mental math of how many hours of sleep you’d get if you fell asleep right now, etc.
So, how do we relearn the stimulus-response relationship of bed = sleep? Stop doing things that aren’t sleep in bed! Well, with the exception of one thing. Seriously, the research says nookie is allowed.
This is easier said than done. Sometimes it helps to have someone holding you accountable, especially if your roommate or bed partner also engages in these behaviors. Sleep habits are contagious, so making the commitment to change your sleep hygiene together could improve your outcomes.
If you don’t have a bed partner, then make a commitment to yourself to make your bed a shrine for sleep. This means that food stays in the kitchen, reading is designated to a chair, and anytime you find yourself ruminating about not sleeping, get out of bed and go somewhere else. When you’re sleepy again, you can mosey on back to bed.
So there you have it. Natalie’s tips for winning back the one who got away: Sleep. Just make sure you treat ‘er right this time around.
If you want to learn more, check out my sleep coaching services.