Several weeks ago, I settled into bed after a long day ready for a good night’s sleep. As I laid there drifting off into what I hoped was at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, I heard an incredibly loud noise outside my bedroom window. It sounded like a croaking frog, only it was about 150 decibels louder than a normal frog. Although I was jolted out of my slumber, I dismissed it as an anomaly and rolled over to get back to sleep. Then about 5 minutes later, the super-powered frog went at it again. And again. And again. I sat up straight in my bed, looked at my wife (who was also wide awake at this point), and vowed to get rid of the frog by whatever means necessary. I walked out onto the back porch ready to take this frog on mono-a-mono. Of course, the minute I got outside he went radio silent. I didn’t hear a peep out the frog for 15 minutes while I searched in every nook and cranny I could find. Finally, I went back into the bedroom and crawled back into bed. You guessed it: the minute I start to drift off to sleep, the frog goes at it again with this incredibly loud series of frog croaks. It was an awful night of interrupted sleep and I woke up the next morning tired and frustrated. To make matters worse, the frog stuck around for at least 2 weeks making a good night’s sleep almost impossible. By the end of this ordeal, I really was experiencing the effects of prolonged sleep deprivation. I was tired all day, couldn’t concentrate well, struggled with motivation, and was more easily irritated by just about everyone and anything. As a person who has enjoyed great sleep over the years, this was the first time I had ever dealt with sleep deprivation. Although I have worked with clients in the clinical office for years who have struggled with sleep disturbance, I never really understood how devastating the effects chronic sleep deprivation can be, until now!
The research on the destructive nature of poor sleep quality is mounting every day. In fact, a wave of findings over the past two decades has established just how crucial good quality sleep is. We now know that the effects on the human body of accumulating a large sleep debt mimic and can increase the severity of conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. It’s also clear that anxiety increases among those who fail to get enough sleep. Considering that only 10% of people report prioritizing sleep over other goals like exercise and nutrition, things need to change for us culturally. If you are experiencing some of the effects of chronic sleep deprivation like I was during my battle with the super-powered frog, here are some tips that will help you create better sleep patterns and build better sleep hygiene.
1. Know the basics of sleep
It should take about 10 or 20 minutes for the average person to drift off to sleep. Although there are individual differences in how long it might take you to fall asleep, what matters is that you feel like the bedtime routine is comfortable and happens naturally. If you’re not comfortable with how long it takes to go to sleep there are some simple strategies you can put in place that should help tremendously.
– Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark. Sleeping in a hot bedroom is not conducive to a good night’s sleep.
– Use your bed only for sex and sleep. Many people try to read in bed or watch television in bed as a way to wind down. This isn’t a good idea because your bed gets correlated with activities that stimulate you brain. The sleep environment should be reserved only for the one activity you want to come naturally in bed: sleep.
– Avoid caffeine after 12:00 noon. Caffeine is a stimulant and its main function in the body is to stimulate your brain. Because good sleep requires a calm brain that is ready to relax, caffeine is working against good healthy sleep.
– Avoid all screens, including televisions, computers, and phones, for at least an hour before bedtime. Although you want to avoid screens before bed so that you can begin to calm your brain and your body down, the research also indicates that the blue light that radiates out of our screens inhibits the production of melatonin, which dramatically decreases our neurological readiness for sleep. Some studies indicate that looking at your phone before you go to bed can delay sleep by an average of 10 minutes. Other studies indicate that nodding off in front of the TV is not any better. Light from the TV can go through your eyelids, which means that your brain is still being exposed to blue light. Accordingly, people who fall asleep in front of the television tend to have more fragmented sleep and more arousals throughout the night.
2. Know what to do if you wake up in the middle of the night
It’s one thing to have trouble going to sleep, it’s an entirely different thing to wake up on an off throughout the night. Many people struggle with how to respond to restless sleep and they tend to spend countless hours tossing and turning in bed worrying about the fact that they are not sleeping. The first strategy to combat waking up in the middle of the night is purely cognitive. How you talk to yourself in the wee hours of the morning is incredibly important. People who focus on thoughts like, “Oh my goodness, this is awful. I’m going to be so tired in the morning. I’ve got to get back to bed quickly,” will surely activate the anxiety centers of the brain. This neurological activation actually prevents you from going back to sleep. The thoughts you need to rehearse during the middle of the night should sound like this: “Yes, it stinks that I’m awake but I need to get out of bed until I get sleepy again. If I get out of bed and get in another environment I will ultimately get to sleep faster.” Then, you have to make the hard choice to actually get out of your bed. I cannot emphasize this enough: DO NOT STAY IN BED! Staying in bed leads to more tossing and turning, clock watching, and getting frustrated about not getting back to sleep. This creates more negative associations between the bed and sleep and correlates the bed with anxiety and stress. In short, staying in bed to “rest” is counterproductive. You have to stand up, move to another room, and do something you enjoy not involving a screen.
3. Know the power of weekly sleep
Adults really do need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night to ensure optimal physical and mental functioning. If you think that doesn’t apply to you, well…you’re wrong. Subjects who sleep 7 to 8 hours every night consistently score better on tests of reasoning, problem-solving, and verbal abilities than folks who don’t. You might think you’re functioning fine with those six hours of sleep every night, but you’re not. The good news is that you can make up a short term sleep deficit. If you typically get seven hours of sleep on a typical night that means you need to get about 49 hours of sleep a week. If you have a bad night of sleep, you can make up your sleep by taking naps or by grabbing an extra hour or two of sleep on the weekends. This helps the cognitive battle with insomnia. On a night when you are having a hard time sleeping, the reality of this ability to catch up on your sleep should help you stop globalization in your thought life.