I see them everywhere. I see them on buses and trains, with their heads bobbing uncontrollably. I see them holding onto steering wheels in cars while the traffic moves, sometimes at high rates of speed, other times in the slow, rhythmic stop-and-go traffic characteristic of cities. I see them in restaurants staring at their phones, mesmerized by the screen. I see them holding on to magazines and books with their eyes closed. I see them holding their babies. I see them in class trying to hold their heads up, fearing that if they move their hand from their chin they will fall onto the desk and fall asleep – not because they are bored, but because they are bone tired. When I ask my students, “If I shut the lights and told you it was naptime, how many of you think you could fall asleep?” almost all of them say they could. We are an exhausted society.
Sleep, while incredibly important for our physical well-being, is often put at the bottom of our priority list. First we have to complete our list of things we need to do (go to work/school, complete an assignment, get food/water, ensure that we have clean clothes to wear, and so on). Then we have to complete our list of what we want to do (talk to our friends, watch some Netflix, exercise, and so on). I know we also all have the unending list of things we should do – but if you read my first blog you know I prefer to change that list to needs/wants. In any event, sleep tends to go to the bottom of all these lists – it is something we do when we complete the things we need/want/should do – or something we do unexpectedly…we fall asleep while doing something on those lists.
Let’s go back a bit. I said sleep is incredibly important, but I gave no supporting evidence. We all get by, so what is the big deal, right? Well, sleep is restorative. It is where growth happens; as adults we tend to think “I’m grown, so who cares?” Our cells are restored during sleep; we would not need the soaps that claim to rid us of wrinkles or the shampoos that claim to give luster to our hair. Sleep would give us those things. Sleep refreshes us, helps us process and recover from the day’s events. It helps restore our energy for the next day. Lack of sleep, on the other hand, reduces our concentration, our attention, and our motor skills. It makes it more difficult for us to be patient, so our mood fluctuates and we seem angrier. If our concentration is reduced, our attention is less focused, and we seem less energetic, then we are also likely to be described as less motivated than our more well rested peers.
Most of us cope with our lack of sleep by increasing our caffeine consumption. (I will not entertain the use of more serious stimulants as an option here, although I am certainly aware of their use and impact. We will stick to a discussion of caffeine because it is legal and readily accessible, with no real constraints even with regard to age). It is in soda (even some that are not cola based), coffee, tea, chocolate, ice cream, some pain medications, energy drinks – including water that is marketed as energy packed. It is difficult to know how much caffeine we are ingesting a day; it is not a nutrient so it is not listed on the Nutrient Facts Panel; if it is added to a food as an ingredient, then it must be on the food products label (http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm194317.htm). The point is, very few of us are keeping track of our daily consumption of caffeine, but it is likely impacting our sleep patterns.
Caffeine is not “bad”. It certainly, like all stimulants, gives us a burst of energy, increases our optimism, making us feel like we can get it ALL done, helps us feel like we can concentrate on the task at hand. Problem is, our energy is not always focused. We sit down with that cup of coffee and our book to read. Then we jump up because we forgot our highlighter. Then we get up to get our phone that we forgot near the coffee pot. Then we…anyway, our focus is not always there. Sometimes we are so unfocused that the “fall” from the burst happens before we accomplish our goal. The solution? More caffeine. No, not really: the solution is more sleep. After all, it is sleep that actually restores our energy and helps us concentrate and helps us maintain an optimistic mood. I guess this is the right place to mention that caffeine, if we overdo it, does have some negative associations. It can make us anxious (our heartbeats will certainly increase), it can cause dehydration, stomach upset, and lack of appetite. If you really want to understand its side effects, try giving it up for a day. My students often try this as a challenge I offer them; they write about their withdrawal headaches, their irritability, their fatigue. They are miserable for the day. That has to tell us something about our over reliance on it.
So, back to the idea that we need more sleep. How can we really get more?
- We need to relax before bed. Clear our heads of what is bothering us. Children are great at that. We can be with them all day, asking about their day. They have nothing to say until they are in bed and then they “remember” about something they forgot to do, or got in trouble for doing. They call out to a parent, who comforts them. They fall asleep, sometimes the parent does not, taking the worry on as their own. Interestingly, many couples do this too. They wait until they are in bed and then say things like “Did I tell you I forgot to pay the credit card bill?” or “Did I mention that I’m going out of town this weekend?” Upsetting conversations do not belong at the end of the day or in the bedroom.
- Make the bedroom a relaxing place. Sending children to their room as a punishment only creates association of bed with “bad” and withdrawal of love. Those emotions are not compatible with sleep. Making the bedroom their playroom is also a problem, blurring the line between playtime and bedtime. For adults, too, bedroom associations of relaxation and intimacy are far more likely to produce a restful sleep than associations of arguments and rejection.
- Allow yourself time to daydream before bed. That can be much more relaxing than watching the news or even reading a book that keeps you wanting to find out what happens next. A good daydream allows us to escape from the realities we face, while affording the opportunity to put ourselves in the role of “winner”. We can accomplish anything in a daydream and, with enough rest, we could more easily turn those daydreams into realities.
- Concentrating on what you accomplished is more relaxing than concentrating on what you did not do during the day or what is left to do tomorrow. Thinking about what you did provides closure. I did make that phone call, I did send out resumes/do my homework (or some of it), I did text my friends. When we concentrate on what we did not do, it increases our anxiety, not only about the day we had and the decisions we made, but about what the next day will be like as well. Whatever we did do during the day, we did because it had value to us. If we accept that fact, then a positive closure follows, and so does a more restful sleep.
- If you have the same list of things you did not accomplish every night, make a note to figure out a better plan after you get that sleep. For example, if you did not do laundry 4 days in a row, maybe it is time to ask someone else for some help with it. Or maybe it is a chore you do not like and you can “trade chores” with a housemate. Or maybe you can save money somewhere else and pay to have the laundry done for you. Sleep helps us be more creative problem solvers.
- Turn down the lights – especially on your devices. The light mimics daytime and confuses your brain into thinking it should be awake. Less light, more sleep.
- Tackle the shoulds. Write them down so they do not continually play over and over again in your head. As we try to remember our list, we get more anxious and sleep evades us. So, write them down. Look the list over in the morning and make a real effort to convert them to needs and wants so the “should” can either be accomplished or discarded.
- Make a “happy book”. Put some fun pictures or nice quotes in there. Look at it before bed so you end the day thinking of good thoughts. Good thoughts can be elusive, and something concrete to look at can be very helpful.
- Did I mention reducing that caffeine during the day? If that is difficult, end the caffeine intake earlier in the day. Being able to drink a 20 ounce coffee before going to bed is a sign of caffeine tolerance; it means you need more for the same effect of energy. However, that tolerance is impacting the quality of your sleep.
- Blow some bubbles. Yes, you read that right. Blowing bubbles helps us take a deep breath. Then we need to release it. Then we can imagine our troubles floating away in the bubbles. It can be a great way to end the day.
I wish you restful nights and energetic tomorrows!
“A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow” ~Charlotte Brontë
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