My relationship with sleep over the years has been somewhat haphazard, to say the least, its fragmentation started when I had children. As with most new moms, sleep became a luxury, between breastfeeding and diaper changes. I found I became a “light” sleeper with a heightened awareness of the needs of this bundle of energy that lay in the crib beside me.
As a single Mom, and as my children grew older, I became accustomed to later bedtimes as I had the privilege of driving my teens to, or picking them up from social activities that often went past the 10:00 p.m. curfew. When I was not driving I kept busy with a multitude of tasks to fill my waiting hours, often taking a trip to Blockbusters to rent a movie (clearly this was before the age of Netflix). Of course on the nights I didn’t drive I could have gone to bed but there was no restful sleep to be had until I heard my teens climb the stairs safely to their beds. So, after the latest chick flick movie and the Blockbuster request to “be kind and rewind” was fulfilled, teenagers home safely, it was finally time for me to have some shut-eye.
Another life stage that affected my sleep pattern was my divorce. If you have been through this process you will understand when I say it is in the early hours of the morning that the uninvited guest of the most recent legal twist pays a visit, preventing a full eight hours of healthy sleep so desperately needed.
Even if you have not experienced similar life stage milestones, in our culture of “busy is best “, we rate sleeping as something that is not of great importance. A popular belief is that sleep robs us of time we could be doing more, we strive to accomplish what we feel are important tasks at the expense of our sleeping hours, working or spending time on social media into the wee hours of the morning. The term “I’ll sleep when I am dead” is a popular one and all too often, self-fulfilling as it has been proven without adequate sleep our lifespan is reduced significantly.
The World Health Organization cites sleep deprivation as a global health issue of epidemic proportions having serious negative impacts on our physical wellbeing and mental health including emotional regulation and our ability to handle stress, to name but a few.
So what are some benefits of the recommended 8 hours of sleep we need and why aren’t we taking it seriously?
Among other things sleep is the time when our body can heal, it helps us integrate learning and frees up space in our brains for new learning the next day. It supports emotional regulation and allows us to process memories and is vital, not only to cognitive function but our ability to create, it impacts how we relate with others and our measure of self-esteem. In his recent book, Why We Sleep, Professor of Neuroscience Matthew Walker writes about the impact sleep issues have on our health. Some suggested habits that can help us get a goodnight sleep are:
- Try to avoid using screens before bedtime, the blue light tricks our brain into thinking it is daytime even though we need and want sleep.
- Avoid caffeine; even one cup of decaffeinated coffee contains approx. 7mg of caffeine in it.
- Follow a routine at night, go to bed at the same time each night.
- Don’t exercise too late in the day, exercising secrets hormones in our body that gives us energy and will keep us awake.
- Eat a healthy diet with lots of vegetables and avoid eating large meals at night but don’t go to bed hungry.
- Spend time outside with natural light for at least 30 minutes a day.
- Avoid alcohol and other substance use, they may give you a quick fix but will affect the quality of your sleep.
- Don’t take naps after 3:00 p.m.
- Make sure the room you sleep in is dark, cooler temperature and free from electronic gadgets.
If you have difficulty sleeping it is recommended that you seek help from a professional sleep specialist, your GP can share a list of practitioners in your area and I invite you to speak to a therapist about the emotional factors that may be interfering with your sleep. Adequate sleep is an important part of self-care and together you and your therapist can uncover life stage challenges and identify issues that may be impacting your quality of sleep. With a combination of talk therapy and the use of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) techniques used specifically for insomnia, you can develop healthier sleep patterns.
Sleep is an important factor in our physical, mental and emotional health, I encourage you not to underestimate the power of those resting hours.