Series on Sleep - Part One

Sleep is a basic human need.

I have come to appreciate that consistent, restful sleep is crucial to my ability to live my life authentically. When sleep escapes me, everything seems to become a little more challenging. My mood takes a hit. I become more irritable, more vulnerable to sadness and worry. I simply cannot think as clearly or as effectively. Even if I am in bed for 8 hours, if good, restorative sleep is stolen by a fitful night, mindfulness and compassion become challenging. Automatic pilot switches on. I become more critical of myself and others, less patient, less flexible. Sleeplessness becomes a barrier to living my life in line with my values.

Research tells me I am not alone in this. Most of us are impacted by poor sleep at some point in our lifetime, and with it the cascading consequences including concentration and memory problems, emotional volatility, lowered immune and digestive functioning, to name a few. Not to mention the economic consequences of a sleep deprived workforce and our ability to simply be kind and decent to one another. Poor sleep is, and will likely continue to be, a widespread problem with far reaching consequences as our world continues to speed up.

So then, how to reclaim a restorative night’s sleep? Even though sleep is a basic need, it becomes a complex problem deserving more than one blog post. For this first post in the series, I am going to focus on setting up a nourishing sleep space that communicates to the mind and body “sleep happens here.” If your struggle with sleep goes deeper, I encourage you to seek support of a sleep professional.

Creating a Sanctuary for Sleep

The mind is constantly making associations: up and down, black and white, stop and go, etc. As a consequence, it is important to consider what subconscious associations our brain is making within our sleep environment. Does our bed/bedroom associate with relaxation and ease? Or are you jumping into bed and turning on the TV, only to find yourself eventually staring at the ceiling saying to yourself, “Why am I not asleep?” We first learn the skill of sleep (and it is a skill) when we are babies. As parents, we know that our little ones get to sleep best when they have a special routine to help them wind down from their day, and stay asleep best when they are put down in a quiet, dark room. We might help them relax in a warm bath and then read them a soothing book or sing them a soft song while in the rocker chosen just for this purpose. We usher them into sleep. We do this at roughly the same time each day so that their little bodies and minds can settle into this routine. We do this every night. 

When it comes right down to it, as adults we are really just big babies. We thrive on routine. But it is often too tempting to continue on with the proactive, problem-solving, rapid pace of our "doing" day until the next task presents itself: sleep. From this approach, sleep becomes the next item to check off on our to-do list. Slowly, our sweet, the comfortable routines we experience as babies slip away. So, is it really any wonder why insomnia and sleep deprivation is a huge problem for us? And I mean ALL of us. One of my first meditation teachers shared a story of a study she was involved in where researchers were looking at brain functioning of long-time meditation practitioners. The participants were asked to meditate for 8-10 hours a day and then researchers would image their brains. One of the confounds: the sleep-deprived participants kept falling asleep during their meditations. 

So where to begin?

First… be in your bedroom. Really be there. Look around your room. Notice what you see, smell, hear. Notice what sensations arise in your body. How would you describe these sensations? I will bring you into my recent experience for a moment: I see a pile of clothes on the floor and it brings about tension in my chest and shoulders. I see our soft, organic cotton bedspread and can feel that tension relax. I see the stark white-on-white of ceiling and walls and I feel a shortness of breath and a buzzing in my head. I see the soft warm light of a lamp I intentionally purchased for the space and I feel my breath release. I see my phone sitting on my bedside table and a pang of panic shows up.

Get the idea? What brings you a sense of comfort and ease? And what does not? Shortly after going through this mental exercise I did some research on “serene paint colors”. $40 and a few hours of manual labor later, our room is now the color of a “misty harbor.” My phone is now replaced by a small, dimly lit clock. Pictures that bring me a sense of joy now fill the blank space of the walls. Now I actually WANT to BE in this room. When I walk in, I experience a sense of calm and ease. This is all a little humorous for me to reflect on considering the hours (months!) we spent creating my unborn daughters nursery with these exact intentions. My loving and patient husband repainted her entire room twice before we found the perfect shade of green for her little sanctuary. In contrast, she was 20 months old before any paint went up on our walls.

Here are some ideas that helped me to get on with creating, and maintaining, our sleep space: 

Five-Sense Experiencing: Just as I described above, fill your space with the objects, colors, textures, and smells, that bring you a sense of calm and ease. These don’t have to be catalog-worthy changes that break the bank. They can be simple. Really pay attention to your heart and get creative. My favorite object in our room is the photo of my husband and daughter on a recent trip to Montana. I love the warm and comfy feeling I get just by looking at a blanket crocheted by my husband’s grandmother. Soft lighting is a must. Nature (live plants) can be grounding. Aromatherapy can be a nice touch. Essential oils like lavender or eucalyptus experienced through a diffuser or diluted on pulse points can be wonderfully soothing and send you off to sleep. A white noise machine or fan is a must for us. Light-block curtains or a sleep mask are a great way to keep things dark if you live in a bright or shared space. 

De-Clutter and Discard: (See: pile of laundry above). Removing clutter from our space is critical for relaxation. This is a continual intention and practice. And it is important to call it just that. As long as we have stuff, we will always have the need to declutter and discard. This comes directly from the inspired lessons contained in the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō. I was graciously given this recommendation from a friend and do not hesitate to pass it on. 

Consider that Screen: What impact does your TV, tablet, or phone really have on you and your sanctuary? There is some evidence out there to suggest that the lights from our screens are actually messing with our circadian rhythm and confusing our body and mind’s ability to sense whether it is day or night. Beyond that, the associations that I described above come into play here because of the mental stimulation brought on by the bright lights of the screen, the colorful ads, and any other materials we might be exposed to intentionally or unintentionally. These devices are likely not communicating to our body and mind “sleep happens here.” Especially if you spend a lot of time working on any of these devices during the day. Consider what the real purpose of these objects is and whether it would be helpful to replace them with something more conducive to sleep. Perhaps an easy and enjoyable bedtime novel instead of a TV program? Or a meditation audio recording instead of checking Facebook? I realized that the phone that sat next to me on my bedside table, intended to help me, was actually bringing me a sense of dread every morning with bill-pay reminders and text messages springing up with my morning alarm. You might try setting your phone on nighttime mode if you are not ready to banish it completely, but for me leaving the phone outside the bedroom was the only way to escape its grasp. Likewise, the TV's home is in the living room. These practices work for me. What works for you? 

Let the Bedroom be for Sleeping: Among sleep experts this is rule #1: The bedroom should be only for sleep and sex. The rationale behind this all goes back to making the most direct associations between sleep and sleep environment. That the longer you are awake and active in your bedroom (i.e. having intense conversations, working, studying), the more opportunity you brain has to create the association: bedroom = awake. As with any hard rule like this, there is a need for flexibility. For those of you living in a shared bedroom, a dorm room comes to mind, there are obvious limitations. Take an honest look at your space and get creative. Would you be willing to limit at least the space of your bed to sleeping? Can you choose a chair to study in, or even a different space altogether? Maybe limiting the hours of activity in your room and getting a roommate on board would be a helpful change. Even small changes, over time, can have a big impact. 

And Pets: Just a quick thought. What are your pets doing in your bed? Are they having a restful night sleep? Are you? Perhaps something to ponder on. 

Coming Up in Part Two: Setting the Stage for Sleep... Sneak preview: It starts the moment we wake up. 

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Caitlin ClarkeComment