When I hear stories of friends having trouble sleeping, I often think to myself, “Wow. I am so lucky that I sleep so well.” But, the truth is that there is a lot more to it than luck. There are reasons why I sleep well, and there are changes you can make to sleep better too.
1. Value sleep
Sleep deprivation is linked to depression, anxiety, cardiovascular problems, weight gain, an inability to concentrate, moodiness, poor immune system function, and car accidents. Getting enough sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your health, and one of the easiest ways to sleep more and sleep better is to make sleeping a priority in your life.
2. Learn to relax
When a human body is under stress, hormones are released into the body that cue the body to prepare for action. This release of hormones is commonly known as the stress response. When you are lying in bed wanting to sleep and, at the same time, have stress hormones communicating to your body that it needs to be alert, your system gets confused.
So, when I say “Learn to relax,” I don’t mean sit on the couch and watch TV. I mean learn to attend to the physiological changes in the body that occur with relaxation, such as a slower heart rate and breathing rate, lower blood pressure, and a decrease in muscle tension. As you improve your ability to intentionally relax, falling asleep will become much easier.
If you’re not sure how to begin learning how to relax, try practicing Restorative Yoga. It is one of the best ways to begin retraining your body to relax.
3. Create a sleeping environment that supports sleep
If you live in the city, it can be harder to control all aspects of your sleep environment, but do your best to create a dark and quiet sleeping space.
Why dark? – Even when your eyes are closed, your body can sense the light from down the hall or the street lights outside your window. This light can cue your body to be alert, which makes it hard to sleep. Some ways to address the light include:
• Wear an eye mask
• Turn off ALL the lights in your home
• Make sure your blinds can be completely shut
• Use dark curtains
Why quiet? – Just like light, noise cues your body to attend to what is happening in your surroundings. Possible ways to address noise include:
• Wear ear plugs
• Keep a fan on as soft white noise
• Shut the door and the windows
4. Set a Sleep Intention
When I am going to bed, I look at the clock and set a sleep intention. For example, I might say to myself: “It is now 10:30pm and the alarm is set for 6:30am, so I am going to sleep for the next 8 hours and I am going to wake up at 6:30am.”
This informs my subconscious that I am not interested in staying up for a couple hours to think about the day and that there is no point in walking me up at 3am to remind me of something I forgot to do because I am not going to get up and do it. I am committed to sleeping 6:30am.
5. Stay present and let your body rest
We’ve all experienced the frustration of a restless night. You have already been trying to sleep for 45 minutes, so you start to get restless and you start watching the clock more intently. 60 minutes pass, then 90 minutes, and then your focus shifts to how little sleep you are going to get if you don’t fall asleep as soon as possible. At the most, 6 hours, 5 hours, 4 hours…
The irony here is that the more we get stressed about not sleeping, the less likely we are to fall sleep because our stressful experience of not sleeping is flooding our body with hormones that cue us to be alert. It is a vicious cycle!
The trick to sleeping is avoiding the fixation on sleeping. Commit to a meditative practice of bringing your awareness back to your body, to your breath and to an appreciation of rest and relaxation. Set yourself up in a comfortable position. Make sure you are warm enough. Gently deepen your breath and consciously guide your muscles to relax. When your mind starts to focus on a lack of sleep, remind yourself that time spent actively relaxing is much better for you than time spent being restless and agitated.
Simply, soften into the present moment – whether it holds rest or sleep – and trust that both deeply support the healing and restorative needs of your body.