Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Poor sleep is related to a variety of negative outcomes, including an increased appetite for high caloric foods, increases in depression, troubles with attention, poor mood regulation, decreases in health, low sex drive, and issues related to memory and judgment. Our society is poorly designed for ensuring that we obtain the necessary number of hours of restful sleep and you will need to be thoughtful and vigilant if you are going to get proper sleep.
Here are some strategies to improve your sleep:
Turn off the screen. For most people, the hour or two before it is time for sleep means lying in bed or on the couch, staring at their phones, likely while Netflix is also playing on their laptop. One of the reasons screens affect sleep is because they suppress the release of melatonin, which is your bodies natural hormone for inducing sleep. From your brains perspective, the screens trick our bodies into thinking it is still sunny outside and that it isn't sleep time. We need to let our bodies know it is night time and to prepare for sleep. For the hour before you go to bed, it is preferable to have the lights dim and to avoid all screens. If you require your phone, put on the blue light filter, as this will lessen the impact on your melatonin levels.
Do soothing activities. If you are not on your screen, what else can you do before bed? You need to prioritize activities that will lower your stress, soothe your body and ease your mind. We live in a fast paced, stressful environment and that can leave us feeling hyper-vigilant and wired all the time. Some activities that you could do are: have a bath, drink non-caffeinated tea, read a book that isn't too exciting, draw, listen to calming music, engage in mindfulness or deep breathing, listen to an audio book, write in a journal, or go for an evening walk.
Limit substance use. Substances like alcohol and some drugs, such as weed, will make it easier to fall asleep initially but could affect the overall quality of your sleep. This is especially true of alcohol. Usually by 3 or 4 am, once the alcohol has been fully metabolized, you will wake up and have a hard time returning to sleep. Similarly, weed can cause anxiety and paranoia, both of which can affect your sleep.
Dealing with your active mind. Many people use the time before sleep to think about stressful elements from their lives or they struggle to turn off the hamster wheel in their minds. Leave a sheet of paper next to your bed and briefly write out your top three worries and then write how you are going to deal with each. For example, the worry could be, "I'm scared about my presentation tomorrow" and you could respond by writing, "I will spend 20 minutes tomorrow reviewing my notes". You should also remind yourself that you likely aren't actually solving problems in your mind, you are probably just ruminating. Don't give your mind the permission to worry. Whenever your mind starts worrying about something, visualize a big red stop sign and yell STOP in your mind. Repeat as much as necessary. You will slowly train your brain that sleep time is not the time to worry.
Managing nightmares. If you struggle to sleep properly because you are having nightmares, there are several things you can do. If the nightmares are based on a trauma you experienced, it would be wise to contact a psychologist to help you process that experience. If you are having a persistent bad dream and you don't believe it is trauma related, one effective option is to spend ten minutes before going to sleep each night imagining the situations that you are finding in your dream. The twist is that you transform whatever the scary element is into something that is not threatening. For example, if you are often being chased in your dream, imagine turning around and seeing a cute fluffy bunny. Be silly and use your creativity. You can also imagine yourself as being big and strong and invincible. Repeat this exercise each night before bed and it should help reduce your nightmares.
Here are some helpful books I recommend: