We all know how important sleep is. You can tell how important by the number of phrases we have around that process: dropping off, catching some zeds, snoozing, slumbering, dozing, napping, catnapping, forty winks, kipping… You can sleep like a baby or a log or a dog. You can be dead to the world. You can be sound asleep (just ask someone who sleeps with a snorer (like me) what that’s like!). You can siesta or doze. You can have a little lie down. In English, there must be 50 ways to describe sleeping.
Our bodies are built to sleep for a third of our lifetime. Sleep deprivation is even used as an aggressive interrogation technique. They say that losing sleep makes you fat. We know how difficult it is to function when you feel short of sleep or when you have a disturbed night. Just ask parents of young children who don’t sleep through the night.
As you’d expect, when so much of every human’s day is spent trying to conserve energy and rest, a whole industry has evolved around helping people to sleep better. You can buy a whole range of products to help you drop off in so many different ways. Bookshops have shelves full of advice and guidance: much of this is helpful for some people, some of it is unnecessary, some is misguided.
But, let’s face it, from time-to-time, we all suffer from insomnia. It may only be for a short period of time or the period may drag on. But, as my mother used to say, “It’s only a phase!” Anything can be addressed by that simple, magical phrase. I don’t want to trivialize serious problems. Your issue may be caused by an underlying health problem for which you need to seek medical treatment. But the fundamental advice is: don’t worry, all things will pass.
My mother learned a few things in her 50+ years. So here are 5 tips direct from my mother to help you improve the quality of your sleep:
1. Relax: Don’t Worry
Expensive mattresses can’t buy you a peaceful sleep. That’s what I realized after spending a grand on Purple mattress. While a good mattress and pillow is important for a healthy sleep, there is much more to it.
Don’t toss and turn, worrying that you aren’t sleeping. Don’t harrumph around the bed, sighing and worrying. Don’t get worked up if you see the sun rise. Don’t get angry with your partner and take it all out on them. All that angst only makes things worse!
Get comfortable: calm down, relax, deal with it, and pass the time. Our physical bodies need rest just as much as our mind. So, even lying still, with your eyes open does you good. Call it meditation, call it mindfulness, call it boredom … just relax. It happens.
2. Take a Break
Even the most peaceful period in your sleepless night can sometimes benefit from a little break. A trip to the loo, peek through the curtains, a drink of water, blowing your nose… they can all help.
Don’t make a production of it, though. Don’t hunt around the kitchen for your favorite mug or raid the fridge for your favorite juice. Don’t go hunting for a new box of tissues. Don’t start waving to the neighbor across the street (who can’t sleep either!). Don’t wake up your snoring partner for a friendly chat.
Stay calm, loosen up, then slip back in between the cool sheets and settle back down.
3. Don’t Count Sheep
My mother didn’t advocate sheep counting. And she was an old wife with many tales.
She would have agreed with Oxford University’s studies that counting sheep is counter-productive. They worked out that people who counted sheep took longer to fall asleep. It’s simply too repetitive and boring to occupy enough cognitive space in the brain. I don’t think my mother knew what they meant by that. But she would agree it could lead to more distracting or interesting thoughts entering your mind.
Next time you resort to counting sheep, why not think about how many other things you could count instead. Take your mind off the time by making a mental list of all of the things you could count that would be more interesting than sheep.
No. Don’t get out of bed to find a pencil to write them all down. Just try to unwind by remembering them. We don’t care if you forget the next day.
4. Tell Yourself a Story
Everyone likes a nice bedtime story. Reading out loud to our children is relaxing, educational and primeval. Our cave-dwelling ancestors told stories around their fires: it’s an important part of interaction with the next generation; it builds a bond.
When you can’t sleep, you could sit up, turn on the light and open your book. Or turn on your kindle to find the last spot you’d reached.
But why do that? Why not tell your own story? What about the lady you met on the way home: where was she going? The boy who walked past your house with the bright blue rucksack: what was he carrying? The young lady who read the TV news: what does she do when the studio lights go out?
Choose any incident from your day, or the day before … what happened next. Remember, it doesn’t have to be exciting, it doesn’t have to be memorable, it doesn’t have to be intriguing…. And whatever you don’t write the story down. If you can’t remember it in the morning, that’s good.
5. Welcome the Dark
Phones, computers, laptops, TVs, DVDs, digital alarms … they all emit light. Some light is better for you than others. Our bodies are designed to be stimulated by and respond to blue light wavelengths. You can install an app to combat this effect depending on the time of day. But why?
There’s an easier way. Don’t turn them on just before bedtime. I know you want to check for that important email. But do it earlier. Give yourself a break as you wind down for bed.
After all, my mother never checked an email before her 80th birthday. That’s when she got an iPhone.
… as your eyes close…
So the next time you’re lying awake, worrying about not being able to sleep, just close your eyes, relax and cast your mind back to my mother’s little story. It begins: “Once Upon A Time…” like all good stories do … but where it goes next is up to you!