This article was originally published on September 27, 2017, and updated on May 24, 2020.
Our self-compassion practice needn’t be complicated: sometimes it’s just about working at improving the quality of the things we are already doing, like sleeping.
I have already written about why we might wake feeling sorta crappy here. I’ve also written about how we might tend to ourself when we’re sleepless in the middle of the night and support ourself through tiredness during the day here. The part of our sleep cycle I want to talk about today is the bit about falling asleep.
According to Lisa Meltzer, an education scholar for the National Sleep Foundation and associate professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Health in Denver, anxiety is the main reason we have trouble falling asleep. “If you’re anxious and worried, it’s very difficult to relax and fall asleep,” she says. “When you’re not sleeping well, you’ll be more anxious and you’ll have a harder time regulating emotion. It feeds on itself.” Here are some tips for addressing anxiety during the day and helping you fall asleep at night.
During the day…
Support your melatonin levels
Melatonin is the naturally occurring chemical in our body that helps us go to sleep. We can support our melatonin levels in a number of ways:
- One way to boost your melatonin levels is to make sure you are exposed to plenty of sunlight during the day. Melatonin levels at night are dependent on a complete shutdown of melatonin during the day, so getting lots of light (which inhibits melatonin) during the day helps with melatonin production at night.
- While coffee beans have a high amount of melatonin in them, the caffeine in coffee counteracts these levels. As such, it’s a good idea to limit coffee consumption in the afternoon. Caffeine can also contribute to restlessness, irritability and anxiety, another good reason to limit your consumption.
- One study found that meditation or prayer helped boost melatonin levels. These practices also help address stress through giving us a familiar and neutral anchor for our awareness and a way to view our emotions from a vantage point rather than being immersed in them. It never hurts to have one of these daily practices!
Exercise during the day
As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can dramatically improve the quality of your nighttime sleep while also providing an outlet for the chemicals in your body that build up during stress – cortisol and adrenaline. Exercise is especially effective when done on a regular basis.
Setting the stage…
Hide your clock
Keeping track of the time during our sleeping hours increases our anxiety. Meltzer suggests putting the clock out of sight.
Keep your bedroom cool and dark
Darkness helps our body create melatonin. When your’e falling asleep your body temperature drops and some scientists suggest that having a cool room helps this process of falling asleep.
A Wesleyan University study found that sleep was improved when sleepers were exposed to the aromatherapy oil, lavender. If used as part of a bedtime ritual, lavender might contribute to that momentum toward sleepfulness. Using an aromatherapy diffuser during the night to emit a subtle scent of lavender may help you sleep.
Play nature sounds
Some people find that listening to the sound of waves rolling in to a beach or water bubbling by in a creek soothes them and helps them drift off to sleep. Some smart phone apps offer the sounds of nature in conjunction with binaural beats that can move our brain waves into frequencies that help us fall asleep and have deep, relaxing sleep.
Make your bedroom your sleep nest
Having a bedroom that is inviting, with soothing colors and relaxing decor helps our mind associate this space with sleep and relaxation. Having bedding that is cozy and soft against your skin helps the “soft animal of your body love what it loves” (Mary Oliver). Soothe your senses through touch, sight, smell, and sound.
Before you go to bed…
Some people find that taking melatonin in tablet form helps them fall asleep. Melatonin is available as an over-the-counter supplement in the US, but can only be purchased online from overseas sources in countries like Australia.
Also, some foods have high levels of melatonin like hot milk, goji berries, tart cherries, walnuts, almonds, pineapple, tomatoes, bananas, and oranges. Eating these in the evening can help your body’s melatonin supply.
Have a hot shower
This can have the effect of relaxing your body through the heat and soothing properties of shower water on your skin. Also, studies have shown that the sharp drop in body temperature from being in a hot shower to stepping out into cooler air helps with that body temperature drop needed for sleep.
Develop a bedtime routine
Humans are creatures of habit and we love a good ritual! Rituals can be activities that are pleasurable and predictable, where our body and our mind can relax and go along for the ride. Rituals help alleviate anxiety because they give us a sense of control. A bedtime ritual of brushing your teeth, flossing, showering, moisturizing your body, then climbing under the sheets every night signals to your mind and body that sleep is coming.
Avoid blue light leading up to sleep time
Blue light is emitted by smart phones, tablets and fluorescent and LED bulbs. Blue light is useful during the day when it boosts attention, reaction times, and mood, but has been found to hamper sleep by preventing the production of melatonin at night. “Light at night is part of the reason so many people don’t get enough sleep,” says Stephen Lockley, a Harvard University sleep researcher. The simple solution to this is to make sure your bedroom is dark and to avoid using blue light 2-3 hours before sleep time.
While you’re in bed…
There are only two things you should be doing in bed
You can probably guess what they are – sleep and sex. Work is done in the office. Television is watched in the lounge room. Thinking, worrying, planning and ruminating should happen somewhere other than in bed. If you find yourself doing any of these in bed, Meltzer suggests getting out of bed so that you don’t associate those things with the bedroom. Teach your body that lying in bed is associated with being asleep – a beautiful somatic self-compassion practice.
Keep your feet warm
A Swiss study found that the act of wearing socks to bed helped dilate blood vessels in that part of the body, allowing for more rapid heat loss and a movement of heat away from the core and to the body’s extremities. This, in turn, helped drop core body temperature which, when happening at the same time as melatonin production, induces sleep. And, how easy is it to fall asleep with cold feet? Don your fluffy bed socks!
Try a progressive relaxation practice
Progressive relaxation involves tensing parts of our body then allowing them to relax, and noticing how the contrast between the tension and relaxation feels. Progressive relaxation practice is recommended for reducing anxiety and helping us fall asleep. Try a gentle form of this practice as you lay in bed preparing for sleep.
Sleep is your Number 1 self-compassion practice. Studies have linked lack of sleep to a number of mental health issues. Getting good quality sleep may be the single best thing you can do to tend to yourself. Make this a priority. Tell yourself that, for the sake of your own health, your ability to fully show up in the world, and your ability to set boundaries and care for yourself, you are worthy of a proper sleep practice. Do yourself a favor – get some sleeeeeep!
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