I sleep really well. Sometimes. Other times, I engage in a familiar dance with interrupted sleep. For more than 40 years I have studied (anecdotally and scholarly) the notion of a “good night’s sleep.” Here is what I have gleaned from this adventure.
Joys of the night
Honestly, there is something very sweet about my time in the middle of the night. It is quiet. In my busy life, peaceful moments in the night are unscheduled and free. Lyrics to songs, fruitful problem solving, intense emotional venting on journal pages – all have been explored in these nocturnal moments.
What’s the big deal about sleep, anyway?
A recent study of sleep during the pandemic surveyed people in 13 countries (including the U.S.) and found 40% of the participants had problems sleeping. Even before the pandemic, poor sleep has been a common complaint for many.
One of my favorite books is Matthew Walker’s book, "Why We Sleep." He covers nearly every component of sleep, from physical aspects to costs to society of chronic sleep deprivation. Turns out, nearly every part of our lives is affected by sleep. Walker unequivocally makes a case for a good night’s sleep. This book changed my life and the way I think about sleep.
Matthew Walker’s 12 Tips for Good Sleep
I now make every effort to get as good a night’s sleep as possible. I accept that I have a delicate relationship with sleep and do not always get the sleep my body needs. But I do have a higher success rate than before I read this book. Even though I can still appreciate the quiet of the night, I also now know what more consistent good sleep feels like. Yes, it truly is all it is cracked up to be.
What wakes me?
Once I have addressed the obvious sleep disrupters, e.g., too much caffeine, scary movie before bed…, my sleep is most often interrupted by unresolved issues with someone close to me, or any kind of angst in my life (politics, a pandemic...), a deadline, an uncomfortable conversation… I call this Anxiety - complete with emotional, cognitive, and physical attributes. I see anxiety on a continuum: too much and it can greatly impede one’s life, well-placed anxiety can actually motivate one to action. How we deal with the anxiety makes all the difference!
Anxiety: the usual suspect
Turning toward the cause of anxiety can go a long way in reducing stress, in both waking and sleeping hours. It does not even have to be a major crisis to disturb my sleep. It could be simple problem that needs to be sorted out, such as an out-of-control garden. Developing a “plan of action” to address a concern can offer some relief and settle my mind. Even just organizing thoughts around a problem counts as a plan of action.
When I face the cause of my anxiety, it often means learning everything I can about the issue and exploring it from multiple angles, if needed. For others, that only increases their anxiety and actually does not help, as what can happen with a new medical diagnosis. This person might do better to face the fears she or he is having and acknowledge them without delving into specifics. The fears will be there whether faced or not, so might as well take a breath and bring compassion to the process. Making the time during the day to do this work can possibly head off anxious awakening during the night.
Lose the shame
I used to get angry and frustrated with myself when I was unable to get a good night’s sleep. In addition to being tired the next day, I had a layer of shame blanketing an already exhausting experience, e.g., What was wrong with me? The energy I put into feeling bad about my inadequacies were actually getting in the way of finding better ways to sleep. I have found help in exploring Shame via Brene Brown’s work and Self-Compassion through Buddhist teachings and the work of Kristin Neff.
Now, the morning after a night of too-little-sleep, I acknowledge that this day I will be a little softer, that I will not operate heavy machinery, and that I will be kind to myself. And tonight, I will invite my body and mind to experience a more restful night of sleep.
Another strategy I often use is to get up at my normal time of 6am and I pretend I got a perfect night’s sleep. I then continue on with my usual routines of the day. I am surprised by how often this actually works!
How music can help
For many people, listening to soft, relaxing music helps them transition to restful sleep. It doesn't work that way for me. I find listening to music at bedtime to be more engaging, even if it is slow and relaxing; I seem to prefer to listen than to sleep. However, listening to a beautiful piece of instrumental music as part of my bedtime prep can help me transition my active mind and restless body to eventual sleep.
I have found that when I make time to delve into music during the day, I am able to sleep better at night. I believe this is because I often use music as a way to express emotions. Even just a couple of poignant songs sung at full volume, or some intense rhythmic drumming can provide enough release of pent up emotions - emotions that may otherwise try to reveal themselves more fully when I am trying to sleep.
Don’t give up! Don’t stop trying to improve on your sleep. Accept that it may be one of your challenges in life. It is likely that your sleep patterns will change throughout your life and what helped you fall asleep in your 20s may not work for you in your 40s. Be CURIOUS about what might make a difference. You and your health are worth it!
Please drop me a line with any additional thoughts, revelations, and things that help you get a good night’s sleep.