My prior blog discussed the insidious but solvable problem of chronic sleep loss. Now we look at how to establish a rapport with our sleep nature. First, we need to examine our attitude about sleep.
Are we guided by prevailing Western cultural signals that sleep is down, unproductive time? Do we fret over losing our advantage or position? Our material, consumptive society bombards us with messages to excel in school, establish a profession, find that perfect employment, toil longer hours, or seek new horizons or challenges. Constant performance pressure and dodging threats activate the fight, flight or freeze responses and overwhelm our sleep nature.
Our brain craves sleep. How do we honor that? Sleep is foremost about intention and acknowledging sleep as a sacred process intrinsic to many life forms. The paradox of sleep is that we may choose to sleep but we are unable to command or will it to happen. The harder we try, the more sleep eludes us. Despite our best efforts, without instrumentation or monitors, we cannot subjectively determine the exact moment when we move from a waking to a sleeping state. Consider two individuals in a meadow, both of whom are tasked with capturing butterflies. One person thrashes about with a net while the other individual remains perfectly still and allows butterflies to alight on her shoulder. Catching ZZZs is like catching butterflies-less effort can be more productive and satisfying.
Mental recovery speaks to the need to let go of trying to control outcomes and embrace what is. Falling asleep is a surrender to our natural imperative to rest and recuperate after each day. In this frantic, constant movement world, stillness is a state not easily achieved. But in stillness and quiet we invite sleep to enter out being. To stack the deck in our favor, we can create positive conditions in the physical environment of our sleeping quarters and engage in various rituals or meditations to prepare for the sleep period. The transition from wake to sleep is not like turning off a light switch. We need to ease into the sleep phase. At least 90 minutes before bedtime we can initiate the process of disengaging from electronic devices and screens, lower illumination levels in our dwelling, refrain from strenuous physical workouts, as well as avoid alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. For many adults caffeine consumption should ideally ratchet down at least 10-12 hours prior to one’s anticipated bedtime. Lowering the bedroom thermostat to the range of 60-65F and keeping humidity levels above 30% can be helpful for many. But preferences for the so-called ideal ambient temperature settings do vary among individuals. You do not want a dry sleeping environment. Our nasal passages are happier when there is at least some moisture in the air we breathe at night.
During waking time, find opportunities to expose oneself in reasonable amounts to natural light while indoors or outside. Avoid strenuous arguments or discussions with others 2-3 hours before bed. Write down your concerns and pesky worries on an index cards, place in a recipe box or similar container on a shelf in the kitchen, away from your sleeping spot and re-visit those thoughts in the morning. The saying “Sleep on it” has valid scientific underpinnings-our recall and problem solving improve when we have an opportunity to sleep before we are tested or perform. Our brain is inundated with stimulation during the day-restorative sleep of sufficient duration (7-8 hours on average for adults) permits our brain to do housecleaning of toxins, remove amyloid and tau proteins that clog our neural connections, and literal pruning of unnecessary neural sprouts that arise during the daytime. Our dreams, crazy and illogical as they seem, reflect active processing while we sleep that clear the decks and readies us to accept and cope with the inputs of the new day. Once awake upon the new day, embrace natural light and regular habits of eating, exercising and socializing. If you can awake spontaneously at a desire time each morning without an alarm clocks and feeling reasonably refreshed, you are probably on your way to establishing a positive sleep pathway.
I close by saying that sleep is natural, but needs our informed personal resolve to bring about a more consistently satisfying slumber to help us weather the challenges of everyday living, the “Sturm und Drang”, described by 18th century German literary types. The key is balance: just enough technology, apps and bright stimulus rich environments during the waking period, counterposed with a dark, quiet, comfortably cool and secure sleeping space. Drain drama from your life and replace with peaceful repose.