This blog is authored by Jenn Geiman, PhD, a member of the IntraSpectrum Counseling clinical team.
Sleep is rarely a topic my clients get excited to talk about in session. It is, however, one of the strongest factors in overall mental and physical wellbeing. Sleep can help us process worries, hold onto memories, make wise decisions, and solve problems. Without enough quality sleep, we also have higher rates of heart disease, higher blood pressure, and increasing risk for stroke and diabetes. Even if we cannot get perfect sleep, the more quality sleep we get the better we are at managing our emotions, dealing with change, and bouncing back when stressful situations happen.
You deserve rest and care – below are some things that might help you care for yourself by promoting restfulness in your daily life. Try keeping a tally of which of the following you do a little, a lot, or not at all. Which ones have worked for you? What are the barriers to participating in others? Remember too, systemic factors (environmental or societal factors that influence the population, such as poverty impacting a person’s access to safe sleeping space or necessitating someone work nights) that are likely getting in the way of your sleep too – try your best to have compassion for yourself as you go through the following:
- Try not to use electronics, particularly anything with a screen, for 30+ minutes before bed. It messes up our sleep-wake patterns. Looking at email/social media/texts can engage your mind (and thus wake you up), as well as elicit emotions that could impact your ability to wind down and fall asleep.
- Keep to the same sleep-wake schedule as much as you can. If you wake up around the same time every day it can help regulate those circadian rhythms everyone talks so much about. Similarly, going to sleep around the same time can get your body used to falling asleep and set up a routine that your brain can settle into.
- Try to use your bed for sleep (and sex, if that’s a thing you do) only, as much as possible. I know there are times and situations where you might not have this luxury, but to whatever extent you can, try to let your brain associate your bed with sleep and relaxation.
- Make your bedroom and/or bed as inviting as you can. If you have the resources, this could look like getting some comfortable bedding that helps you regulate your temperature. For some people, maybe it means having extra pillows, a weighted blanket, or favorite stuffed animals. For anyone, try your best to keep the area feeling clean (I love the feeling of clean sheets), safe, and comfortable.
- Be mindful of the substances you’re using and when you’re using them. Caffeine, medications, alcohol, nicotine, various other drugs – all have some effect that can influence the quality of our sleep. Try to cut out or decrease (even just by a little bit) substances that wake your brain up in the later part of your day. If you are prescribed medication, try to take them how your prescriber told you to unless you’ve been told otherwise (sometimes we don’t get told if there are effects on sleep – feel free to ask your medical provider questions about this). Remember that alcohol and a lot of drugs can mess up your sleep even if they make you feel tired, whether it be weird dreams or not being able to stay asleep.
- Brain dump some shit. Is your head full of thoughts when you lay down to go to sleep? It takes more mental energy trying to remember them and, honestly, if it’s bedtime then you’re not going to be very effective at problem-solving anyway. Get something to write on (the back of junk mail if it’s there, doesn’t make a difference) and any writing utensil. Give yourself a few minutes to jot down everything that comes to mind. New thoughts still swirling? Give it a sec and if it sticks around, grab your paper and write that thought down too. Rinse and repeat as needed.
- B r e a t h e. Our brains really like getting oxygen and it helps them calm down if we breathe slowly and deeply. My process for this is to inhale through the nose for approximately 4 seconds and exhale through the mouth for 4 seconds. Different approaches work for different people – if mine doesn’t work for you, feel free to look up and try others (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing, box breathing).
- Speaking of breathing, reducing one’s general stress level is something I would always recommend. I know this is a hard one that can take a long time, and investing in this goal will likely serve to improve your sleep as well. Among many other things, investment in trying to reduce stress levels can look like trying to keep up routines, regular therapy, positive self-talk, setting and maintaining boundaries, and/or trying to manage work-life balance.
- Check in with sensory stuff (“the five senses”). As much as you can, let your body have what it wants. For me that’s a very dark room or eye mask, ideally a little on the colder side with sheets that aren’t too covered in cat hair, a mouth guard for grinding teeth, and ear plugs if my wife is snoring. Also, if you have a clock near you while you try to fall asleep, consider covering it, moving it, or wearing an eye mask to reduce distraction.
Which reminds me, do you watch a screen to fall asleep? I know people have their reasons for this, and it really is not ideal for our sleep quality. If you can’t deal with silence, try either ambient, relaxing music without lyrics, white noise, or a podcast that has someone tell you a story in a slow, soothing voice.
- So, before I said you shouldn’t be on your phone… So what do you do for those 30+ minutes before bed? Boring stuff. If it can be a routine that helps tell your brain it’s time for sleep, all the better. Whatever it is that feels like good self-care would be great. Some examples might include: setting out your clothes for tomorrow, eating a light something if you’re still hungry, taking a warm shower before getting into bed, setting up a morning beverage ahead of time, taking nighttime medication, brushing your teeth/flossing, basic skin care routine, reading a book that isn’t so interesting you’ll read it all night, and a nice, easy word search.
- Incorporate movement. As long as it’s not too late in the day, moving your body around and stretching your muscles can help with tension, nervous system regulation, and nervous energy release. If you are unsure what would be good/doable for you, consider talking to a health care provider if you can so you can make more informed decisions. Extra points if your movement can coincide with you being outside and/or in natural light more often.
- Related to healthcare, consider letting any other providers know that sleep is hard right now. They could suggest a sleep study, order labs to see if there are any hormonal issues or vitamin deficiencies, suggest medication, or refer you to a sleep specialist.
- Finally, if you are really finding it difficult to fall asleep, consider getting up and wondering your space/getting a drink of water/going to the bathroom before you lay down to try and sleep again. Try to resist looking at any screens during this time too. Once you’re back in bed, try to relax and remember that even if sleep takes a while, the act of resting is still a worthwhile use of your time.
Now that you’re sleeping, there was one other thing I wanted to add: if you’re having nightmares, you might have a hard time going back to sleep or going to bed in the first place. These are sometimes difficult to contend with, but there is some research that supports the use of relaxation techniques to help manage nightmares. Ultimately, this is probably something that it might be helpful to seek support for (e.g., therapy, nightmare-related medication, consultation with a sleep specialist).
I hope at least a few of these ideas are new to you. Remember to be compassionate toward yourself, try one or two new things at a time, and feel free to process through this list with those who care for and about you. Sweet dreams!
This blog is authored by Jenn Geiman, PhD, a member of the IntraSpectrum Counseling clinical team. IntraSpectrum Counseling is Chicago’s leading psychotherapy practice dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community, and we strive to provide the highest quality mental health care for multicultural, identity, kink, polyamorous, and intersectional issues. For anyone needing affirming and validating support, please click here or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.