Chasing the ZZZZs: Getting a Better Night’s Sleep

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Sleep rules us humans, with stakes on our memory, mood, weight gain, and balance, plus other cognitive functions and physical health. Being well-rested makes for easier stress management, emotional regulation, concentration, problem solving, and overall health and wellness. Sleep is vital in quantity and quality, and can be impacted by seemingly endless influencers including stress, diet, substances, exercise, schedules, and technology use. 

Good news: With so many factors, there are a myriad of tips for better sleep. Here are some areas to consider in your quest for more restful sleep.

Thoughts keeping you up? Write it out.
Maybe you’re replaying an argument, or thinking about an impending and difficult conversation. Or you’re running through all the things you didn’t get done today and/or reminding yourself of tomorrow’s must-dos. The thoughts are swirling over and over, weighing on your mind and stressing your body. In any case, little to nothing is getting resolved while you’re also aching for shut-eye. For these concerns, I encourage some clients to try writing, which serves somewhat as a physical dumping of worries, transferring issues out of one’s head and onto paper. It can have added bonuses as preparing for the next day - or your next therapy session. 

Test out one of the following methods and adapt to work for you in terms of when and how you do them. Some tools may be helpful to transition from a stressful work day into a relaxing evening, to complete as a bedtime routine, or to use throughout the day as the need strikes. 

Create a To Do list for the next day and/or planning out tomorrow’s schedule

Free association journaling: write out whatever comes to mind. 

Make bullet points for upcoming difficult conversations (e.g. addressing a conflict, holding a supervisee accountable, asking for a raise, giving feedback to your therapist). What are your concerns and questions? What do you want to make sure you convey?

Journal from a chosen prompt to reflect on the day and end on a positive note: 

What did you accomplish today? Some days this may include a job interview, major work project, or working out. Other days your list may include shower! walked the dog! drank water!

What are three things you’re grateful for today?

Best part of today?

Create and Stick to a Routine: 
Adjust to a regular sleep schedule: Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. Initially, this may mean setting an alarm on days you don’t work, and setting reminders to start winding down for the day. As your sleep schedule becomes more regular, as you find the right bedtime, and when you are getting the correct amount of sleep, you should natural tire around bedtime and awake without an alarm.

Find a bedtime routine that relaxes and readies you for sleep. This might be 30-60 minutes before bed, adjusting as you find what feels best for you. Aside from the typical changing of clothes and brushing of teeth, ideas include stretching, reading (paper book), showering/bathing, meditating, journaling, or prepping for the next morning (setting alarm, packing lunch).

Avoid naps to stay on track. If you must nap, try to keep it to 15-20 minutes to refresh without negatively impacting your next night’s sleep.

Watch What You Ingest: 
Don’t go to bed hungry but also don’t eat huge, heavy meals. 

Limit sugar intake (can stimulate the body), spicy foods (may cause heartburn), and large amounts of liquid (prompt bathroom needs) in the evenings.

Stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and certain medications can impact your sleep. Eliminate or limit caffeine and nicotine, and discuss medications with your medical doctor.

Keep it sober: While it may feel like a couple (alcoholic) drinks or using a bit of marijuana helps to fall asleep, both actually impact REM cycles, resulting in a less restful sleep. Try evening alternatives like hot decaffeinated tea to relax.

Move Your Body: 
Get in regular exercise, but be sure to finish a few hours before bed especially if you’re more vigorously exercising. Even light walks daily can improve your sleep! 

(Don’t) Watch the Screen (Time): 
You’ve likely heard this before. If you use screens, avoid usage 1-2 hours before bed, use tools that do not have a backlight, lower the brightness, and/or use the night screen feature to eliminate the blue light that keeps us up.

Make Your Bed & Room Comfortable: 
Use bed for sleeping and sex only - not playing on phone, watching tv, etc. Train your body associate the bed with sleeping.

Are your pillows soft or hard enough?

Is the room warm enough or cool enough? Keeping your room a bit cooler (~65 degrees Celsius) is known to improve sleep including falling asleep faster and staying asleep.

Use ear plugs, a noise machine, and/or a fan to generate white noise to block out a partner’s snores or pet’s midnight antics.

Blackout curtains prevent street lights or early sunlight from interrupting sleep prematurely. More translucent window coverings may help to awake naturally.

Talk to Your Medical Doctor
Consult your doctor: about your prescribed medications, if you are concerned you may have sleep apnea or unusual sleep or wake behaviors (“parasomnia”) such as sleepwalking or night terrors, and/or you have been unable to resolve your sleep issues on your own.

Lastly and importantly, be patient and give yourself grace.
Lacking sleep is hard on our minds, emotions, and bodies. Beating yourself up mentally will not resolve sleep issues and may actually make them worse. It may take time for routines to set in and for you to find a solid mix that works for you.

Some of my therapy clients report sleep problems which are often related to anxiety, stress, depression, grief, and life transitions. Together we explore their specific sleep concerns, patterns, and the above factors as well as process and heal the underlying stressors and traumas. Schedule a free consultation to discuss how therapeutic counseling may be helpful for you. (This offer is open to adults physically located in Colorado to consult for my services.)

*This blog post and website does not constitute medical advice. If you have ongoing sleep problems or other concerns, it’s recommended you consult directly with a medical doctor and your therapist. 

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