12 Tips to Achieve Sweet Dreams During a Time of Unrest
Do I really need to sleep? We hear phrases like “time is money,” “you snooze you lose,” and even the extreme “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” For many years, being the first person in and the last to leave exemplified a hard worker. However, society has recently become more aware that quality, sustained sleep plays a significant role in reducing health risk and improving immune system functioning, impacts weight—loss and gain—and even influences the appearance of wrinkles (there truly is something to beauty sleep!). Sleep also plays a vital role in memory, attention, focus, and concentration, which are very important for optimizing performance and making meaningful connections.
On the other side of the equation, insomnia affects an average of 10% of the population, and many other people find that there are plenty of things keeping them awake at night that leave them feeling tired and distracted most of the time. These could be short-term items such as a new baby, a new puppy, or a neighbor whose car alarm wakes you up every night, but there are other stressors (such as a virus pandemic) that threaten your finances, livelihood, and health and prevent your mind from shutting off. Regardless of the culprit, improving quality sleep is of utmost importance.
Here is a list of tips, tricks, and FAQs to help you fall asleep faster, sleep through the night, and wake up feeling rested!
Melissa Milanak, PhD
PAR Clinical Assessments Advisor-National Accounts
June 17, 2020
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Imagine if we were as diligent at making sure we are recharging our minds and bodies (putting ourselves “on the charging station”) as we are with our phones!
1. How much sleep do I really need? The societal gold standard of 8 hours is not actually a one-size-fits-all number. While the average woman has a shoe size of an 8.5-9, some wear a size 6.5 and some a 10. The same applies to sleep. Some individuals are short sleepers, requiring a shorter amount of time to be fully rested, while others need more. Much of this is dependent on how quickly we cycle through the different stages of sleep. And to debunk yet another misperception, we require less sleep the older we get. When we are young, we are working hard and feeling sleepy and never seem to have enough time to sleep, yet when we retire and have extra time to rest, our bodies wake us up at 3 a.m. This is the terrible joke that the universe seems to play on us! However, if you think of it logically, sleep is designed for repair, rejuvenation, and growth—as we age, our cells are changing at a much slower pace, and we are not hitting growth spurts in our 50’s the same way we were in our early adolescence—think of how much sleep a newborn needs vs. a 6-month-old vs. a 2-year-old vs. an 8-year-old, etc.
2. What is my ideal sleep window? Sleep experts want you to become an efficient sleeper, meaning that you should be sleeping the majority of the time that you are in bed. To determine your ideal sleep window, you first would determine how much sleep you are cumulatively getting on average in a 24-hour period (not time in bed, but actual time sleeping, including naps, throughout the day). As an example, let’s say it is currently 6 hours. We will then determine what is the earliest you must wake up during the week. Let’s say twice a week you wake up at 6 a.m. to have time at the gym before your day begins. With that information, we would set your wake-up time for 6 a.m. and work backward 6 hours. Your new sleep window is now 12 midnight to 6 a.m. For 7 days, you keep this schedule. If you do not fall sleep until 4 a.m., you still wake up at 6 a.m. and do not go to bed the next evening until 12 midnight. You are training your body when it gets to sleep. After 7 days, if you are falling asleep within 10-15 minutes, sleeping straight through the night minus a possible quick wake up for a bathroom break, and waking up the next day and feeling perfectly rested all day, then you have your ideal window. If, instead, you still feel sleepy, then after 7 days, you can add 15 minutes to your sleep window. You would adjust your bedtime to be 15 minutes earlier (11:45 p.m. to 6 a.m.). Do not change your wake time—that always stays the same. After 7 days, repeat and continue until you get to the point where you are falling asleep within 10-15 minutes, sleeping straight through the night, and waking up feeling rested all day.
3. Is a consistent sleep schedule/routine necessary? One of the most important things we can do to improve our sleep is to have a consistent sleep and wake time seven days a week. If you go to sleep one night past your bedtime, it is very important to still wake up the next day at your regular wake up time, and although you will feel sleepier throughout the day, it is important to stay awake until your normal bedtime. Consistency is the key! Do not extend your time in bed. If you have a night where you did not sleep well, do not go to bed earlier the next night trying to catch up on sleep. When you try to force yourself to spend more time in bed than your body needs, you will wake up more often and get less quality, sustained sleep.
4. Are naps a good thing or a bad thing? Just as you were told as a child not to eat a snack because it would ruin your dinner, so too will a nap ruin your ability to get a full night of sleep. While there is perceived enjoyment in taking a nap, napping actually impairs your quality sleep at night. Throughout the day, our bodies build up sleepiness the same way they build hunger between meals. When we sleep, we deplete that sleepiness just like our hunger is satiated as we eat our dinner. From the time we wake up until the time we go to bed, our sleepiness grows, and the amount of sleepiness that we have determines how long we are able to stay asleep at night. If your body needs 8 hours of sleep for full rest and repair, but you took a 2-hour nap during the day, you now only have 6 hours of sleepiness remaining, which keeps you from getting the total amount of restful sleep you need. If you absolutely cannot keep your eyes open and decide on that rare occasion to take a nap, then it is recommended that the nap be no longer than 20-30 minutes. This will provide you with a quick resurgence of energy without depleting your sleep debt to prevent you from sleeping through the night that evening.
5. What is the ideal sleep environment? Quiet, dark, cold, and comfortable. Ear plugs and eye masks are just fine! Maybe it is time for some new blackout window treatments. If you have to have noise, make it consistent and static—not a TV or podcast, as volume changes and talking can wake you up. The same is true for music, as the crescendos may also wake you. Instead use something static like a white noise machine or a fan. Also, it is easier to sleep when it is cold, with recommendations that the room be cold enough that you need a cover.
6. Why can’t I read, watch TV, snack, or check my phone in bed? If you were to ask what snack most people would get at a movie theater, most would answer popcorn. We immediately associate popcorn with the movies. In the same manner, we want your brain to associate your bed with sleep, rest, and relaxation. That’s why it is important to stop watching TV, reading, checking phones, etc., in bed. Otherwise, the brain is not sure whether it should be awake or asleep when in bed. The same goes for not sleeping anywhere else like the couch or your favorite chair. If you are watching TV and notice yourself starting to nod off, sit with your elbows on your knees and your head in your hands—as soon as you start to nod off, your head will droop and wake you up!
7. Does a wind down routine really help? Yes. A deliberate bedtime routine can be very helpful. If you do not already have a routine, try this one for the next week. About 30 minutes before bed, start getting ready by washing your face, brushing your teeth, and changing into your PJs. Then do something relaxing like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. This cues your body and mind that it is time to get sleepy and prepare to go to bed.
8. How do I shut my brain off? One effective tip is to have a dedicated worry/processing time a few minutes before bed. Oftentimes when we go to bed and turn off the lights, it’s the first time all day that there are no distractions and we are alone with our thoughts. Similar to turning off your computer and getting a forced shut down message because a program is running, your mind can be processing even when your body is ready to rest. To avoid this, try taking out a notepad and pen about 10-15 minutes before bed (do not do this on an electronic device). Start with 5 minutes each night (set a timer so you do not quit early), then slowly build up to 10-15 minutes. On the right side of the paper, write your to do list for the next day. On the left side, pour out all thoughts, good and bad, going through your mind. Problem solve. Process. Let all of your worries out and don’t hold back. You may surprise yourself with what comes out. This is not creating worries; instead, it’s letting out all of the subconscious thoughts that float through your mind throughout the day. It will feel exhausting yet relieving at the same time, much like after a “scream to release pent up frustration.” You will be completely ready to collapse into your bed, so put down the pen and paper, knowing that everything will be there the next day, and you no longer have to carry it with you into bed. If your mind continues to run and race, get back out of bed and continue writing until it is empty and you are completely exhausted. Do the same if you wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts and ideas instead of turning on your phone or sending an email.
9. How does light affect my sleep? There is a “sleep switch,” a part of our brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), that receives messages from the optic nerve in our eyes. When we perceive light, a message is sent that we should be awake. Think of evolution—when the sun is out, we should be up to hunt and gather, but when the sun goes away, it is safest to go to our protective place to sleep and rejuvenate for the next day. Therefore, we should reduce the amount of light we are exposed to in the evening as a way to send signals to our brain to slowly wind down. It is the same reason why we should use a nightlight instead of turning on all of the lights when we wake up to use the rest room in the middle of the night, and the same reason why it is important to get as much light as possible when we wake up in the morning. Exposure to light at night, such as through electronic devices, can significantly delay our ability to fall asleep, just as too much light too early in the morning can wake us up before we are fully rested.
10. What should I do if I’m lying in bed wide awake? If you find that you are awake for more than 15 minutes, get out of bed and do something boring, and in low light, until you are sleepy enough to return to bed. The longer you spend in bed when you are not sleepy or are worrying, the more you will associate your bed with fear/worry/anxiety/frustration. Also, do not check the clock! This can add to your stress as you begin calculating how little sleep you might get and worrying you about how tired you will be the next day. If your alarm has not gone off, then it doesn’t matter what time it is because it’s not time to be awake yet. If you feel like it’s been 15 minutes, most likely it has.
11. Is a bedtime snack a good idea? While no one would say to go to bed hungry, it is best not to eat anything heavy right before bed so your body can use all of its resources to repair and restore your mind and body during sleep instead of diverting energy to digesting food. Additionally, limit the amount of liquid intake before bed to reduce your bladder waking you up in the middle of the night. If you do wake up in the middle of the night, do not feed your sleep! If we eat or drink something in the middle of the night, our bodies learn that this is a time to get nutrients and will begin waking us up at the same time every night to get needed nutrients. Therefore, while it is ok to have a small sip of water if necessary, do your best to reduce any intake throughout the night.
12. Does a nightcap, cigarette, or cup of coffee after dinner really matter? While alcohol may have an initial soporific effect, you actually do not get quality sleep and often will find that you have more awakenings throughout the night as your body is working to get back to balance with chemicals such as GABA and Glutamate. Additionally, while many think of nicotine as having a relaxing effect, it is actually a stimulant that can have a significant negative effect on your sleep. And then there is caffeine—did you know that it takes on average 7-8 hours for the body to metabolize the amount of caffeine in one cup of coffee? Therefore, if you have a bedtime of 10 p.m., you should stop consuming caffeine at 2 p.m. or earlier.