FALL ASLEEP. NOW. A wise person once said: “Never in the history of calming down has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down.” So why do we expect our brain to just switch off when we tell it to go to sleep?
We roll into bed at the end of a busy day; whether at work, school, home, or out and about. Fluff the pillow, close the eyes, and demand that the thinking mind is silent for the next eight hours, please.
The brain has been highly alert and responsive for the previous sixteen hours and is preparing to do so again for the following sixteen hours.
Cut it a little slack, huh?
Cognition is “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses”. It encompasses many aspects of intellectual functions and processes such as attention, the formation of knowledge, memory and working memory, judgment and evaluation, reasoning and computation, problem solving and decision making, comprehension and production of language. Cognitive processes use existing knowledge and generate new knowledge.Source: Wikipedia
“But, it’s time to go to sleep now, so shush.”
Like many things in life, the more we resist something, the harder it pushes back. Resisting the monkey mind just leads to frustration and agitation. Trying to “clear the mind” is nearly impossible. Simply willing yourself to sleep is a fruitless effort. Instead, let’s look at some simple ways we can improve our much-needed slumber. If you want to learn more about cognitive functions, this link is a great resource.
1. Unprocessed data is like unfinished business.
8:00 AM: Too tired to think
Noon: Too tired to think
5:00 PM: Too tired to think
Midnight: How do dragons blow out candles??
How much time do you give yourself in the day just to THINK? We are ingesting data and stimuli from the moment we wake to the moment we go to sleep. Therein lies a clue to what’s keeping you awake at night. The brain is constantly receiving input, all day long, so it needs time and space to digest this information. If the only time you are ever still and quiet is in bed, then your brain is only then able to process thoughts and emotions from the day. Or worse, it could be adding to an accumulation of days or weeks of unresolved thoughts and emotions.
Do you find yourself filling your waking hours with busy-ness? Filling your downtime and in-between times with stimulation, such as tv shows, social media, cat videos, podcasts, music, clickbait articles, etc…
Whether the mind is anxious with worry, stimulated with excitement, or calculating and problem-solving, it can all lead to difficulty when trying to fall asleep.
CREATE CLARITY BY BEING IN THE MOMENT
How often do you just enjoy silence, or take in your surroundings? Ride your bike or scooter without earphones in? Eat a meal without doing twelve other things at the same time? Sit still and observe the world around you; observe your own thoughts? Take time to identify what your mind is fixated on rather than drown it out with noise and stimulation.
Allowing troubles to rise from your subconscious to your conscious mind in a safe space is far better than having them rudely interrupt your sleep in the middle of the night.
DOWNLOAD AND OFFLOAD
Although I’m very structured with my to-do lists and note-keeping, sometimes I feel overwhelmed when I’m operating at max capacity. So I take out a large scrapbook and a four-colour pen, and I just start writing. That’s my brain dump. No matter what it is, if it’s on my mind, I get it down on paper. It creates clarity of mind so that I can then turn these items into actions, or just know they are there. It’s very cathartic to scrunch that piece of paper into a large ball and discard it. I know I’ll sleep like a cat that night.
Journalling is a buzz word at the moment. But there is something to it: it actually works. However, I prefer to think of it as a brain dump. Thoughts, emotions and ideas can be expressed in a number of ways. Handwritten in a fancy wee notebook or scribbled in colourful markers on a huge sheet of paper in the middle of the floor. Doodled on the back of an envelope or neatly noted on Post-Its. Verbally expressed; alone or with a friend. Or a cat.
2. The dreaded “blue light” and things that go “buzz” in the night
No smartphones in the bedroom. Too unreasonable? Ok, keeping your smartphone in another room goes against our modern day always-on conditioning. So if you can’t bear to have it further away than on your nightstand, at least ensure notifications are turned off (or have on only ones that alert to an emergency), and that the phone is facedown for minimal disruptions to your sleep.
The same goes for TV. There’s an abundance of research that demonstrates how artificial light — television, computer, smartphone or tablet — immediately before bed can disrupt sleep cycles. Sure, we might fall asleep midway through “just one more episode” of our current Netflix binge. But if we don’t slip all the way into the deeply restorative REM sleep, we may not feel fully refreshed by the time we wake up in the morning. Here to explain this better are a couple of links:
Link 1: https://www.sleep.org/articles/is-it-bad-to-watch-tv-right-before-bed/
Link 2: https://www.stronginstitute.com/resources/sleep-hygiene-tips-for-the-rei-sleep-program/habits-that-support-optimal-sleep.html
3. Routines, consistency, and bedtime rituals
Reading a book can be a great way to redirect your attention from any persistent worries, assessments or calculations that your mind is fixated on. Personally, I prefer to read fiction before I go to sleep as it’s like escapism which helps to recalibrate my mind. I find non-fiction to be too stimulating and idea-inducing. Just make sure that the content of your book is not triggering or inclined to give you nightmares!
Many of these ideas for falling asleep are obvious and self-explanatory, but do we actually practise them?
- Not drinking alcohol right before bed. Just like watching TV, it may fool us into thinking it’s aiding us to fall asleep, but it can prevent us from entering into REM sleep.
- Not drinking too much liquid before bed to avoid getting up in the night. I know some people can’t go all night without a toilet-stop, but consider whether that’s due to a behaviour that could be altered.
- Tidying up: Whether it’s clearing the bench, washing dishes, putting the clothes from your day in the wash basket, putting shoes away — what small tasks would signal to your brain that it’s time to start shutting down for the night?
- Preparing for the following day with the future you in mind. Consider what your brain might be anxious about during the night. What should I wear tomorrow? Did I set the alarm? What time does the bus leave? Have I packed my notes for the meeting?
- Aim to go to bed at a similar time each night to get your body into a good sleep-wake cycle. Personally, I always feel better rested when I have consistency in my sleep-wake times, even more so than the duration.
- Go to bed early enough so that you get enough sleep before you have to wake up. Most people generally need 7-9 hours per night. Just know what suits your body best.
- Monitor the temperature in the bedroom through airflow, blankets/duvets, clothing/lack thereof. Have the room not too warm; not uncomfortably cold.
- Sleep in a darkened room. Shut curtains if there’s a streetlight or moonlight shining in, and avoid lights shining from LCD alarm clocks and TV standby. (Even better, remove the TV from the bedroom, but hey, I’m not the boss of you.)
Now, if you find yourself still mindlessly scrolling through social media an hour after you went to bed, see if you can figure out for yourself why you can’t get to sleep (insert eyeroll).
4. Saving the best for last: Meditation to help fall asleep
Following on from #1, a meditation practice is even more effective at creating clarity and ease of mind.
Simply sitting with yourself in the appropriate setting and observing your thoughts and emotions can be a life-changing practice; said without exaggeration. Yet, like anything that’s good in this world, the practice itself doesn’t come easily.
At times, just being still and observing whatever is arising can be torturous. But if you were to go to the gym and lift heavy weights, you wouldn’t expect it to be easy, would you? Over time, with practice, would those weights get lighter? No — but you would get fitter and your muscles would get stronger. And that is a great analogy for meditation.
I’m empathetic to my yoga participants who find the last five minutes of class the most challenging. Sometimes they berate themselves for “not being good at it” and saying their minds were “all over the place”. They feel frustrated at themselves for focussing on their to-do lists and emails, planning and mulling.
I get it! I’ve been there. And at times, I’m still there. But, here’s the thing.
I believe that there is value in persevering with the practice, no matter how distracted your mind is.
Because, in the act of observing all of these things that are going through your mind, you are cutting through the overwhelm. Your brain is beginning to acknowledge and process everything. If you can get through even just five or ten minutes of “torture” per day, it will enable you to be more resilient and less reactive throughout the rest of your day. And, over time, you may just find that you can sleep easier.
Here are some excellent meditations to help you to fall asleep, by the amazing Tara Brach. She has created three different meditations of varying duration.
THE FINAL WORD ZZZZZ
I’d also like to recommend that if you are suffering from insomnia or disordered sleep, please see your doctor. Chronic sleep issues can be very serious and I am in no way offering medical advice.