If you read our introduction post, you're well aware by now that I (Corinna) am a nurse in the mental health field. It's one of my greatest passions. I love my patients, and I love making the world around me more aware of the issue of mental illness. So it shouldn't come as a surprise when, from time to time, I start casually slipping things into my blog posts that address different aspects of it. (Sur-PRISE!) And- voila!- it begins! I would like to start a mini-series that addresses different areas of mental health that directly impact each of us. But I'm actually coming at it from an angle that I hope will benefit our readers personal health as well. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four Americans will require treatment for some aspect of mental health in their life time. That's an astronomical number! And truthfully, even people who do not require treatment still deal with peaks and valleys in their own lives. Stressors. Bouts of depression. Anxiety.
So, I would love to hit on some tips and tricks we share with our patients that help ease individuals through difficult times, transitions, and every day life. Hence, I'm going to be writing a mini-series to address areas we all are lacking in and can improve on regarding our mental health.
Nearly everyone in this country has a sleep deficit. This is one area that impacts our mental health so significantly, and yet we pride ourselves on our ability to skate by with as few hours as possible. We brag about the pots of coffee we guzzle (yes, pots). So -*ahem*-allow me to share ten ways that we can improve both our quality of sleep and the amount of sleep that we do get (my coworkers are going to laugh when they read this. I'm stealing this directly from a teaching plan that I use for groups at my job.).
Real quick, I probably should give a few definitions to make this easier.
REM (Rapid Eye Movement): Deepest stage of sleep crucial to our body's healing and recovery. Without it, our night of sleep is greatly decreased in profit of health to our body. REM helps fight off sickness, including pathological AND mental.
Melatonin: a natural hormone produced by our bodies that induces sleep. The secretion of this hormone increases in the evening hours in order to encourage the brain to go into a sleep cycle.
Circadian Rhythm: a biological process that governs our bodies over a twenty-four hour period. Effects levels of energy and need for sleep. Can be reset (for example, a person moving to a new time zone or an individual starting a night shift position.)
Also, researchers state that the number of sleep hours needed by an individual varies greatly from person to person. Between 6-10 hours is the typical therapeutic window of time. (Anything outside this frame is abnormal and other medical contributions should be considered [e.g. thyroid disorders, bipolar disorder, etc.]) Learning how much time you need is up to you to find out. Sleeping less than the amount your body requires creates a sleep deficit and can contribute to depression, anxiety, intolerance to stress, and slow processing. However, sleeping MORE than the amount your body needs can contribute to each of these categories as well. So it is important to find that magic personal number and stick with it.
1) Keep bedtime and waketime consistent.
Yes. Even on days off and weekends. This is so very, very difficult. (By the way, am I the only one who finds the bed has increased exponentially in comfyness in the morning verses the the evening?)
Anyhow, the reason behind this is: our bodies have a natural Circadian Rhythm. We follow patterns of wakefulness and exhaustion (this plays into night owls verses morning risers and the time of day we start to nod off at work and feel the need for a nap.) By making the times we fall asleep and rise consistent, we begin to cement our Circadian Rhythm to the mold that best fits our lifestyle. If we consistently forces ourselves to fall asleep at 9 PM and wake at 7 AM, our body will naturally start to follow that pattern, shutting down at 9 and waking at 7. How cool would it be to wake bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 7 rather than hitting "snooze" 12 times?
2) Sleep in a cool room
So all those ladies out there who yell at their husbands for sleeping with the window open in January are going to be peeved with me (Sorry, Mom.). But sleeping with a cool room actually does help us sleep better over-all.
Our metabolism is created in such a way that our basal body temperature actually increases when we sleep. This is a natural defense mechanism that keeps us from freezing to death when we are unaware of our surroundings. BUT! if the room we fall asleep in is comfortable to us while we are awake, it is TOO warm for sleeping. Most sleep experts recommend keeping the room around sixty-eight degrees or lower for sleep.
3) Sleep in a quiet room
Ugh-Duh! you say. Well, that can mean different things. Some people need complete silence. Like "I can hear the water dripping in the basement while I'm sleeping on the twelfth floor" silence. To others, silence can be deafening. This is important to be aware of. Some people actually need a "white noise" to help them relax and fall asleep. This can be a fan (*raises hand*), ambient noises (you can purchase CDs with sounds of waves, brooks, animals chirping, etc.), or even sounds of their natural environment (I've had several people tell me they grew up in large cities and struggle to sleep without the noises of traffic and sirens. In which case, it is quite alright to buy a CD with these sounds and play it. That sound becomes silent background noise rather than deafening ringing of true silence.)
By the way, if you get used to sleeping to a certain sound, that sound becomes a trigger. If you are used to sleeping with a box fan, the sound of a box fan becomes a trigger for your body to produce melatonin and other sleep chemicals. Pretty cool, hey? Just try not to play your trigger at work...
4) Turn the clock around
Scenario: Becky wakes up at 3 AM. Becky needs to get up at 6:30 AM. Becky immediately rolls over and checks her phone (which doubles as her alarm) to see what time it is. She immediately begins to calculate how many hours she has left to sleep. Two things happen here. First of all, math. (Blech.) The calculation of time left to sleep actually begins to wake up the brain. And it now takes even longer for Becky to get back into that coveted REM stage. Secondly, the light of the screen starts to shut off the flow of melatonin and other essential chemicals to her brain, again pulling her even further away from the much needed REM stage.
So, turn the clock around or better yet, cover it up. For two reasons.
First of all, it will help us remember to turn away and not calculate how much time we have to sleep. Trust the alarm to wake you up and allow yourself to sleep. Secondly, the light of the cell phone or digital alarm clock won't interfere with the flow of those chemicals we need. And the more unnatural the light (red, orange, etc which digital clocks are frequently guilty of) the more it wakes up our brain. Even if it's just reflecting off the wall or the ceiling.
So cover that clock! This is so hard to teach ourselves to do. But it can be done. And I speak from experience when I say it allows for much improved sleep.
5) Use the bed only for de-stressing activites.
I think this tends to be an issue more for young kids and college age students. I was very guilty of this. But adults can be guilty of this as well. The bed should not be a place that we work on homework, balance the checkbook, or sit and run our online business from. No! Bad.
When we do this, our brain begins to associate the bed with these activities. With stress. So when we lay down to sleep, our brain will instead think of the test that's happening tomorrow and we start to stress, stress, stress.
The bed and bedroom should be our retreat. Our place of peace. So use it only for activities that will help us relax such as reading, journaling, devotions...sleep.
6) Garbage in
Be very mindful of what you are ingesting prior to sleeping. Specifically, be mindful of the following: caffeine (a stimulant), nicotine (a stimulant), and alcohol (a depressant which prevents you from reaching REM stage in the night). Also, sugary, fatty, or greasy foods. I have many people tell me, "I can't sleep without a bit of alcohol/nicotine/whatever! It calms my nerves." That may be. BUT! It also prevents REM stage from happening. If we train our bodies NOT to need these substances, we sleep better in the long run. You may have difficulty sleeping for a few nights to a week. I'm not denying that. But in the long run, the benefits way outweigh those few nights of getting used to not ingesting those substances.
Some foods also help us sleep better. Eating a snack high in protein can help us get into REM more quickly. And some foods actually have chemicals that help us sleep. Turkey contains tryptophan (hence crashing after a Thanksgiving Day meal). Milk does as well (this is why your grandma always said to drink a glass of warm milk. The heat releases tryptophan.)
7) Avoid daytime naps
If you must take a nap to get past being up all night with a sick dog, or whatever the case may be, limit it to thirty minutes or less. Otherwise the brain confuses the nap with nighttime sleep, and all manner of tossing, turning, grumbling, groaning, and pillow punching ensues that night. Also, the nap taking shouldn't occur after three PM. Anything after that the brain also confuses with the night time sleep pattern.
8) Garbage In...Again
Be careful what you watch or read. Watching the newest episode of The Walking Dead, Dexter, or the CNN news may not give you nightmares, but it sure as heck wakes up the neurons and the raging chemicals, hey? And this carries through into our sleep preventing us from having the full chemical release to help us hit REM. Or it can, indeed, cause us to have disturbing dreams. So try to keep thrillers, mysteries, and anything remotely horrific as far from the time of sleep as possible- at minimum one hour.
9) No pets in bed
Ahhhhhh! Chill out!
This is always the one that gets the angry responses. The biggest reason for this is brain studies have shown that we lump pets into the same category as children. Our subconscious mind spins all night keeping track of where they are, if they're safe, if we're going to roll onto them. Yes, even the 900 pound St. Bernard we will worry about protecting from ourselves rolling onto them. We simply interpret animals differently than humans. We sleep poorly because of the protective factor. And they also tend to kick, thrash, toss/turn, and over-all hog the bed. So there's that.
10) Use Relaxation techniques
So now that I've given an exhaustive list of what NOT to do, here's a couple things that can help sleep better.
Pray. If you're having difficulty sleeping, prayer has been shown through research studies, and personal experience, to be a huge way to help destress and unwind.
Deep breathing. Focus on breathing. It helps calm the nerves and slow the pulse. Using the "3/3/3 Rule" can help. Breathe in for the count of three through the nose. Hold for three. Out for the count of three through the mouth.
Progressive muscle relaxation. If you notice your muscles are tight and tense, and that knot in your shoulder just doesn't want to give, this technique can be helpful. Start at the tip of the head with the forehead and tense each muscle group in turn and then focus completely on relaxing that muscle group. Work your way down the body until you end with the toes. You should feel pretty relaxed at this point. I'm unsure if it's because of forcing your muscles to relax or if it's because you basically just had a full body work out...
And lastly, guided imagery. I love this one. I had someone tell me once that they imagine sitting on the couch in front of the fireplace in their grandparent's cabin which is something they loved to do as a child. They bring this image to mind every night and it has become a trigger. They feel safe, warm, and this has become their "sleep spot." Picturing yourself on a beach, laying in a field, or laying by a creek all work as well. Work as many of the five senses into it as possible. The more detail, the better.
So there you have it. Part one of the mental health mini-series. Is there anything that you have found that aids in sleep (other than Ambien. Come on now, guys.) Feel free to share! Someone else may greatly appreciate the tip.
Photo Credit: childrensmd.org