It struck me this morning, when I struggled to lift my head from the pillow, that perhaps I'm not the only one who's been struggling to sleep lately. We are existing in the midst of a global pandemic that's been ongoing for almost a year, tipping the world we knew into chaos and currently spiking at its worst-yet rate in the UK. We are also in the middle of British winter; a notoriously difficult time of year, given the lack of sunshine, grey days, extra wet and cold weather, and low bank balances following festivities throughout December.
It's understandable, given all of those external stresses and pressures being put upon our bodies, that sleep may be eluding us right now. Our bodies are just full of adrenaline, pumping round in our veins and telling us to DO SOMETHING and RUN AWAY from the danger, yet we are being told to stay at home and restrict our contact with people who may provide us with the much-needed comfort of companionship. We have been told to exercise only once per day, outdoors, and had those environments taken away from us (gyms, yoga studios, training spaces) where we would usually go to burn off all the excess adrenaline in the warm comfort of indoors and find our way into Rest and Digest.
With our usual methods of relaxing having mostly been taken away from us, we conversely need rest so much more, but feel so much less able to sit still, let alone sleep. Our brains and bodies need sleep so that they can relax all the muscles in the body, release tensions, process the day we've had and any new information that's come our way, as well as prepare for the battle of tomorrow. Insomnia is a frustrating side-effect of living in a stressful world and can feel like a bit of a vicious cycle sometimes, with no way out, but if sleep is eluding you there are some things you can do to help yourself slip off into that oh-so delicious and essential Land of Nod. Here is a list of a few of the best tips and suggestions I have gathered over the years:
Establish an evening routine. The logic for this one is simple: our bodies are built around circadian rhythms that tell us when to get up, when to eat and when to sleep. The more regularity we instil within our daily habits, the more efficiently our bodies will function and respond to these rhythms. Fractious, un-repetitive actions put our body into battle with itself, fighting against the natural rhythms that it is programmed to follow. So, learn to work with your rhythm, instead of against it. If you are a morning person, plan to get up early and get your tasks for the day done with the dawn. If you are a night owl, let yourself lie-in in the mornings and schedule your you time for later in the evenings, when everyone else is asleep. Be consistent. It's much easier to get up at the same time every day, than to give yourself a different rhythm for two days out of seven. So, if you have to get up for work at a particular time, continue getting up at this time over the weekend, too. If you want to feel like you are still luxuriating and relaxing, simply hold off on changing out of your PJs, or get up and make a cup of tea to take back to bed with you while you do your morning crossword/instagram scroll. Now THAT's luxury.
N.B. If your life has been torn apart by the pandemic and, as such, you have lost all sense of
a routine, be aware that this may well be contributing to your difficulties significantly. Even
if your life feels empty of purpose, you can still provide yourself with structure. Get up at
the same time every day, go to sleep at the same time and set yourself tasks in your diary
that will give you the illusion of achievement, focus and rhythm. You'll be amazed how
quickly this makes a significant difference to your energy levels.
2. Avoid screen time before you go to sleep.
Our bodies are designed to respond to sunlight - it's a natural trigger to tell us to wake up.
This is why it's so hard to wake up on grey days and why we feel sluggish and tired in the
depths of winter - the animal part of us is telling us that the sun hasn't come out to charge
our batteries and it's not time to be awake, so we should conserve our energy. It therefore
stands to reason that if there is too much light in a room before we go to bed, our brains will
fight against the melatonin that's been sent around our system by our body clocks, signalling
the end of the day and time to sleep. This is one big reason why too much TV /Phone/
Device time immediately prior to bed can negatively impact the quality of sleep we have. So,
leave your phone downstairs before you go to bed and take some time between watching
that TV show and nestling down to sleep; perhaps have some stretches, brush your teeth,
read a little... prepare yourself and your eyes for sleep.
Another reason why screen time is so bad before bed, is that it fills our brain with
information and 'stuff' to process. We feel stimulated, filled with an urge to use the
information or make sense of it. Modern phones are brilliant and have lots of useful in-built
devices to help us minimise the impact of this; you can set certain apps to turn off
completely or cease notifications after a particular time of night. Or switch off notifications
altogether (why do we need to be instantly tapped on the shoulder every time somebody
sends us a message? Is it really in need of an instant response? And if it is, why haven't they
rung us or come to visit us in person? But perhaps I am straying into a subject for another
3. Stretch it out
You were probably waiting for this one... but there are some deliciously yummy yoga
stretches you can use to help send signals to your body that the working day is done and
it's time for rest and relaxation. I have created a short video, detailing a few of these
poses. Have a look below...
Inversions (where the majority of your limbs are suspended above your heart, weightless)
are particularly effective for signalling sleep, because your body is designed to recognise the
physical sensation of blood flooding your internal organs as a symbol of relaxation. When
you suspend your body in this way, it takes pressure off the heart, allowing the blood to
more easily flow back to it. It allows the muscles to relax. It relieves the tension and pressure
that is created throughout a day of walking around, fighting against gravity.
Loosening Fascia by rolling your feet on a hard, round surface (i.e. a ball) can help to relax
tensions being held in the muscles of the back body. Loosening the fascia has such a big
impact on how we feel overall, relieving significant aches and pains all over, because the
back body consists entirely of fascia - they run all the way from the tips of the toes, up the
backs of the legs, all the way along the spine and up to the crown of the head. They are the
biggest length of connecting tissue in the body, so loosening fascia in the feet has a ripple
effect all the way through the entire body. Loosening tensions helps our bodies to prepare
for rest in comfort.
4. Unpack your day
Don't take thoughts or unresolved issues with you to bed. Do what you can to finish discus-
sions, resolve arguments and finish your daily to-do list before heading off to sleep. Sleep
has so often escaped me at times where my brain was so full of tasks, deadlines, concerns
and fears that I felt as if I was carrying a suitcase full of paperwork with me and trying to fit
it into the bed with me.
There's no perfect answer to this and no one fix-all for everyone; we're all different, we think
differently and our brain's 'Off Switch' is not in the same place. Some of you may find that
physical exercise just before bed is the best way of offloading the to-do lists and worries.
I personally have two effective methods, that are tried and tested and work for me. The first
is physically drawing out a 'Brain Dump' and writing down all of the things that are causing
my brain to refuse to switch off. It's reassuring to know that all the things you cannot forget
are written down on a piece of paper, and this process can often be enough to help me relax
and sink into sleep on its own. If the brain busy-ness is really bad, then my second approach
is to journal my day - write down all of the things that have happened, the thoughts and
feelings that have come up - until I have emptied my brain enough to be able to sit in silence
and just breathe deeply for ten inhales and ten exhales.
I hope that some of these suggestions have been helpful and that you all manage to get some much-needed rest. Remember: just because you are sleeping and getting a full night's rest, it doesn't mean that you are being lazy or not trying hard enough. Sleep is the most essential part of a proper self-care routine. If you are unwell or in a particularly difficult life-situation (this likely applies to all of us right now), then we need EVEN MORE SLEEP.
So, no excuses. Get those pjs on. Whip out your eye masks. Pop on some white noise and slip into a deliciously long sleep. You deserve it.
P.S. I forgot to mention a nice warm bath, aromatherapy candles (particularly lavender), incense sticks and so many other little additions that can build up to a truly relaxing evening routine... Did you know that the reason we feel sleepy after a hot bath is because our body temperature drops dramatically as soon as we step out of the water, which is another natural signal to our brain that we need to re-charge ourselves. Bodies are amazing, aren't they?