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Four puppies asleep on red armchair

SocietyJuly 4, 2017

Sleep makes you healthier and happier. Here’s how to get more of it

Four puppies asleep on red armchair

Getting Your Shit Together is a monthly column on everyday mental health from Auckland mindfulness educator Kristina Cavit. This month she’s talking about the life-changing magic of getting enough sleep.

When I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I can turn into a monster. Or at least the worst version of myself – a short tempered, irrational, hangry tall woman with crazy hair and a bad attitude.

My focus and motivation also goes out the window. And even though we glorify sleep deprivation, our productivity and creativity decrease when we’re tired. So if we want to get shit done, we need to sleep more. But for lots of us, that’s easier said than done.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one third of adults don’t get enough sleep regularly. Too many of us are lucky to get a few hours sleep after working three jobs, juggling kids, study, shift work and  all the responsibilities that come with trying to cover rent and exist in the 21st century. In the work I do with five to 18-year-olds, we start each mindfulness session in a circle where everyone checks in with how they’re feeling. Almost every day, 95 percent of students in the circle are tired or exhausted. And, because of that, the burgeoning sleep – or rather, get more sleep – industry is no joke. Sleep focused companies are making serious bank – they raised $300 million USD in 2016 alone.

Our phones now have sleep features which can track late night farts, your amount of tossing and turning, when you’re getting quality sleep and the best time for you to wake up. There are plenty of top-selling sleep books, popular with those in the corporate world who know there’s a good R.O.I when you get a little more shut eye.

The adverse effects of sleep deprivation don’t just wreak havoc on adults. I’ve had 15 year olds tell me that Sunday nights are their most stressful time of the week. They get stressed out thinking about all the pressures of the school week ahead, and that means they can’t get to sleep and start the week off dead tired and on the back foot. I work with five year olds whose anxiety around school and homework is having such a negative impact on their sleep that they can barely keep their eyes open in the classroom. According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 72 percent of 6 to 17 year olds sleep with an electronic device in their rooms, which parents say negatively impacts their sleep and therefore their ability to focus at school.

But how are our kids supposed to learn to disconnect and relax when the behaviour modelled to them by adults isn’t much better? Many of us grown ups don’t have a disposable income for an assistant to take over some of the workload, hire a babysitter, or even have the luxury of time to read a self-help book. And we’re not unwinding enough to get a good night’s sleep.

So, how can you get more sleep? Here are some sleeping tips that have changed my life.

Get disconnected

Apparently 99 percent of us smartphone owners sleep with them by our beds. It’s damn hard to rest when you  know you can be contacted at any time. We all know the sinking feeling of being woken up by the sound of a message coming through at an ungodly hour.

And yeah, sometimes we need to be available during emergencies, but this around the clock connection might be affecting our health in more ways than we know. By functioning in this hyperkinetic environment where we’re constantly connected, light, short sleeps are becoming the norm.

Having no screens an hour before bed might sound impossible, but if you’re serious about getting better sleep, this really can set you up for a relaxing night.

Blue screens reportedly mess with our melatonin production which controls our circadian rhythm (sleep / wake patterns). And after a while, they just make you feel wired and weird.

So what’s the first step?

If we make big CRAZY changes, it won’t last. So here’s some baby steps to help wind down:

  • Turn the phone to airplane mode (and avoid unwanted alerts)
  • Put the phone outside of your room at night
  • Replace it with a $15 alarm clock from Farmers (yes they still exist)
  • Don’t give in to the snooze button on your alarm! Set the alarm for a later time so you can get more sleep. Snoozing after waking up affects REM sleep which makes you feel way more tired.

Not having your phone right next to you in bed in the morning can change. your. life. Waking up and getting straight on the internet, reading the news, scrolling Instagram, checking your likes – or whatever your boss is complaining about – is a good way to set yourself up for a shitty day ahead.

These suggestions might bring up feelings of phone separation anxiety (it’s for real), but it can be the beginning of a blissful (and much deserved) long night’s sleep.

What did go well today?

There’s almost always a reason why we can’t sleep, and it’s often stress. When we go to bed many of us ruminate over things that didn’t go well, regretting past decisions or going over the overwhelming to do list for the next day. No doubt this stresses us out (when we could be relaxing!).

Before I go to bed each night, I say three things I’m grateful for from that day: for example, a lol conversation I had; the sunshine; my lunch; or a cute dog I saw prancing around. Why? Because it’s impossible to be stressed when you’re grateful. So I try to fall asleep with something positive to think about and end my night the way I want to begin my day.

Gratitude is not something we can be forced into. Sometimes it’s the last thing we want to do when we’re pissed off, anxious or feeling hurt. But by connecting to a positive feeling (no matter how small), it’s a way to be in the moment and let go of some unnecessary bullshit.

And if that stressful to-do list keeps running, write it down. Studies show that by putting our thoughts on paper, we can help us to see things more clearly and feel less stressed before bed.

Listen to your body

After a stupid yoga headstand I injured my neck and I didn’t get a good night’s sleep for a few years. I couldn’t turn my neck or sleep with a pillow. Five years later I was still waking up in the middle of the night with neck pain. Early this year my amazing physio (I love you Thai Leng) forced me into buying a pillow that was at the right height, size and density. I invested $30 in a memory foam pillow on sale.

Within a week my sleep improved and my neck pain pretty much disappeared. Seriously. A fucking pillow.

If you toss and turn a lot or have neck and back pain in the morning, check out what you’re sleeping on – it might be less about you and more about your pillow or bed giving you grief. Remember, lots of beds only last eight to ten years until they start losing their goodness and impacting on slumber.

Bed’s a sacred space for sleep and sexy times

Anything that requires too much thinking or emotional attention may be more energising than relaxing. Do all you can to help make your sleep spot as comfy as possible. Sleep experts believe in the importance of creating a bedtime ritual, making sure the light is fully blocked out, the alarm clock is facing away and the room is at the right temperature. Men and women have different body temperatures – apparently men are often warmer and need fewer blankets than women.

So, no matter who you’re sharing the bed with, make sure you have what you need!

And keep pets and laptops out of the boudoir. No matter how cute your cat is, you can’t have them on your bed at night if you want to get a solid sleep.

Learn from your ancestors

In Rongoā Māori (traditional Māori healing), mānuka bark is infused in water and taken internally as a sedative to help with sleep. Ayurveda, Chinese medicine and Greek medicine have many methods for improving sleep, like waking up at the same time each day (our bodies love rituals) making sure you exercise during the day, massaging your own feet at night, drinking green tea instead of coffee, avoiding cold water, spicy or fatty foods at night, drinking ‘sleepy tea’ or warm almond milk with cardamom and cinnamon before bed, going to sleep before 10.30pm, practicing alternate nostril breathing, taking herbs like valerian root, and blocking out all the light in the room.

One thing many ancient traditions agree on is simple breathing, relaxation or meditation for sleep. But if your mind is racing a million miles an hour, how do you actually do that?

For me, the simplest way to begin is to…

notice the rise and fall of my belly
feel my body move as I breathe gently

It’s not rocket science. Focusing on the breath calms your nervous system, lowers your heart rate and helps lessen those stressful thoughts that keep us awake. And thanks to research into the calming effects of following the breath, we know that it positively impacts our sleep.

I have had tonnes of students and clients completely turn their challenging sleeping patterns around using sleep meditations and yoga nidra (a process where you listen to guided instructions to become deeply relaxed and more aware of your sleep state).

Another tool that really works for me is progressive relaxation. You slowly scan through your body tensing muscles groups for about five seconds and releasing all the muscles bit by bit. You can do this before bed or when you wake up in the middle of the night to help calm anxious thoughts.

The first step is to lie down and find a really comfortable position. I take my arms wide, palms facing up to the sky to relax my shoulders. I like to start at my toes and systematically work up the body. To slow the relaxation process down, you can do one side of the body at a time.

Here’s how I do it:

  • Feet and legs (slowly curl the toes in, tensing the feet and the legs. Lift the legs up off the bed tensing for about five seconds, then exhale, release the muscles and notice the difference in the body when the muscles are relaxed.)
  • Squeeze your buttocks and push your lower back into the bed
  • Hand and arms (clench your fists, tense the muscles of the arms, tighten your biceps and lift them up off the bed)
  • Gently pull your shoulders towards your ears
  • Face (close your eyes and screw your face up into a tight little ball)
  • Mouth (open your mouth wide enough to stretch the your jaw and stick out your tongue. Exhale to release and relax the muscles of the face)

Often by the time I get to my head, I’m already out. And if I’m not, that’s OK too! Whatever our sleep pattern, we need to remember to be patient and kind to ourselves. Feeling guilty about not getting enough sleep and putting the pressure on to be a ‘good sleeper’ doesn’t help at all. The less judgemental you can be towards your own situation, the more relaxed you’ll feel in the long run. We’re not always going to sleep like logs and that’s cool – it’s OK to be tired sometimes. It’s how we treat ourselves that matters.

This column is brought to you by the Mental Health Foundation. The MHF is working to create an Aotearoa where we all feel good most of the time, whether or not you have experience of mental illness. It promotes the Five Ways to Wellbeing – give, be active, take notice, keep learning and connect – because these five amazingly simple strategies really will make a difference to how you live and feel every day.

Keep going!