It seems that there is an epidemic of sleep problems and inability to actually relax out there. I’m going to share a few thoughts.
Sleep is important.
Not only does lack of sleep impair cognitive function, it can mess up your metabolism and cause all kinds of health problems. There is some evidence that the cognitive impairment is not just short term and that chronic sleep deprivation may contribute to certain forms of dementia. Furthermore, important things happen when you sleep. For example, your brain processes information you’ve taken in that day and makes some kind of sense out of it. Sleeping on it really does make a difference to difficult problems.
There are times in your life when you will need to figure out how to keep functioning with sleep deprivation. Boot camp is designed to ensure that soldiers can continue fighting wars for example. Anyone with small children is also going to have to do this for a while (length of time varies depending on your kid, your partner, and your ability to hire support). That said, there are a lot of people who seem to be treating sleep as a low priority, something they’ll get enough of when they have less work to do or something. This is not a good idea. Sleep is a foundation not a luxury.
Sleep can be affected by a bunch of different physical conditions.
A short list based solely on things people I know have been diagnosed with:
- vitamin or mineral deficiencies (B12, D, iron are most common but magnesium deficiency is associated with peri-menopausal insomnia),
- thyroid issues,
- sleep apnea,
- anxiety disorders,
If you are having trouble sleeping, wake and can’t get back to sleep, or still feel tired even when you seem to be sleeping for a good length of time, please please please go see your doctor.
There are also a bunch of things you can try yourself. Earplugs can reduce sleep disruption if you are a light sleeper. You might have to try several different styles to find one that works well for you. Weighted blankets can help with anxiety. Magnesium is absorbed well through the skin so epsom salts (a whole mug) in your bath might help (also good for anxiety). Experiment with your covers: are they too warm? Too cold? My partner and I have gone German style and each have our own single duvet because our temperature needs turn out to be significantly different and he sleeps much better with practically no blankets (even in a cool house). Meditation may help you learn to relax and improve your sleep. Giving up or reducing your alcohol consumption is often recommended because alcohol negatively affects your sleep.
Habit is important. Apparently sleeping at exactly the same time every day is more restful than getting the same number of hours at different times. This is one reason travel and jet lag mess you up so much. Having a regular bedtime and developing a routine for before bed will help. Once established, the routine will trigger your brain to relax for sleep. If your situation is pretty bad, it is also recommended not to do anything BUT sleep in your bed. Don’t read there. Don’t hang out and do computer stuff there. Train your body to think sleep is what happens when you are in bed.
When you wake up in the night, treat yourself like a baby that you are training to think of nighttime as sleep time. Do not turn on the lights, look at your phone/computer, etc. Stumble to the bathroom with as little lighting as possible. Pee. Stumble back to bed.
Ban perfectionism from your sleep habits
This brings me to the really important mental thing: do not let your gremlins tell you that since you aren’t properly sleeping you might as well get up and do something useful. As with so many things, your gremlins are wrong. Perfectionism needs to be banned from sleeping as much as from anything else.
Rest counts. If you can relax and rest, do that. If you can keep your eyes closed, keep your eyes closed. Breathe deeply. Relax. While this isn’t as restorative or cognitively helpful as REM sleep, it is much better than sleep deprivation. How relaxed you can get will vary a lot. Your goal here is to maximize the rest. Remember, resting your brain so it can process stuff is just as important as resting your body. Reduce stimulation. This is where meditation can be really helpful in training you to relax and slow down your run away thoughts.
That said, some people find that a bi-phasal sleep pattern works well for them. You can experiment with getting up and doing things and then going back to sleep later. You probably want to research that a bit first to make sure your sleep periods are long enough.
If you are currently exhausted or approaching exhaustion it’s going to take you a while to recover from that. As with building any habit, it will take a while to develop better habits. Your short term goals may be a long way from your ideal and that’s okay. Figure out one step you can take now to improve your sleep and take it. That might be talking to your doctor and ruling out any easily treatable conditions. Or deciding to buy an analogue alarm clock so you don’t have your phone in your bedroom. Or ordering ear plugs.
Sleep is a foundation for everything else you want to do. It is not a luxury.
This post was originally sent to members of the Academic Writing Studio on 22 March 2019. It has been lightly edited. In addition to helping you get more writing done, the Studio helps you juggle your myriad responsibilities so you are not so overwhelmed. In the period Planning Your Semester classes we prioritise basic self-care, including sleep, as a foundation for effective writing and an enjoyable life.