I am so jealous of babies and toddlers who can go to sleep in strange contortions and all situations. Moreover, babies frequently and immediately go into (REM) Rapid Eye Movement sleep, the deep sleep that yields us the best rest. If you are waking up frequently in the night due to anxiety or post-traumatic stress, your sleep may be interrupted before you get to REM. Furthermore, if you are struggling with depression you may be sleeping too much without feeling rested or sleeping too little due to insomnia. All in all, REM can be very elusive when battling mental health issues, especially those resultant of domestic violence & sexual abuse. This means we can no longer leave a precious affair such as sleep up to chance.
What is good sleep hygiene anyway! It's a the conditions we practice for sleep, just what it sounds like. We must practice good hygiene around sleep the same way we practice good hygiene around our morning preparation for the day. Here are the top habits for better sleep hygiene:
1. Do Set A Bedtime
Remember as a child how much you hated bedtimes? This was probably a result of a bad case of FOMO or wanting to be like your older siblings. I challenge you to have a talk with your inner child and tell them why bedtimes are awesome. Bedtimes help your brain learn to start powering down. Also, work to keep your bedtimes consistent even on days that you do not work or do not need to wake up early for other commitments. Maintain your bedtime even if you barely slept the night before, even if you're unemployed, and even if you're retired.
2. Do Turn Down The Brightness
Try changing out light bulbs that are too bright or artificial in light. We are not nocturnal animals. Our bodies have been programmed over years of evolution to prepare to sleep when the sun sets. Our internal alarm clock is what is called an "Circadian Rhythm." You may notice that you feel sleepy or drowsy at relatively the same times of day. That is due to this internal clock, and this clock is interrupted by artificial lights from smartphones and other computers. I'm not saying that you cannot check an e-mail or look at your social media before bed, but I am saying that you should dim the brightness on your computers at least an hour before you attempt to sleep.... Okay, I AM also saying that you should not check your e-mail or social media if you can help it because this may be too exciting. Only visit web pages and read messages that invoke mild interest when preparing for bed.
3. Do Clear the Room of Distractions
The most common distraction is television. Just like smartphones, TV's trick our brains into thinking the sun is up, but if you have been conditioned to go to sleep with the TV on, you may want to program it to turn off in the middle of the night. The TV then may act less like a distraction and more like a cue that is part of your sleep ritual. Supposing that TV was not part of your childhood sleep ritual, then turn it off in the early evening, and relax with a different form of entertainment, maybe light reading like a fiction novel.
The next most common distraction that is brought to my therapy couch is uncontrollable factors like noisy neighbors or roommates. Try getting earplugs and sleep masks to block them out. Also, try assertively addressing the noise level through notes and conversations. You can also try delegating the responsibility of asking them to quiet down to an authority figure like an RA, the police, or your landlord.
4. Do Develop a Sleep Ritual
When we wake up, many of us have a routine of care, like eating breakfast, making our beds, brushing our teeth, combing hair, and attempting to match our sock. We likely don't even think about these activities because they are habits. However, these habits help cue our bodies to wake up and face the day. Practice deep breathing for a short, set amount of time. If you are spiritual, meditate, pray, water plants, or read a series of mantras. If stress is a contributor to lack of sleep a warm bath or shower at night roughly 20 minutes before bedtime may work for you. Eating a banana or other foods high in the amino acids tryptophan 20 to 30 minutes before bed may also help cue your body for bed. However, do not try to eat big meals. Avoid busying your body by digesting a large meal. Otherwise, your body will not busy itself trying to heal.
5. Do Dress Your Bedroom for Sex and Sleep
Does your bedroom cause you unnecessary stress because it looks like an office, a kids playroom, or a disaster zone? If being in your room is over stimulating because paperwork is scattered all over the bed, then it will not signal to your brain that you are allowed to go to sleep. Your bedroom will literally prompt you to think of all the deadlines and reports that are due. If laundry and other chores are scattered all over the bed, then you will associate your bed with housework. If your kids scatter their toys everywhere you will not only be annoyed in your oasis, but you will also treat your sleep space as a common space for socializing with your family. Make sure the temperature is not too hot, or too cold. Meaning, ventilate, with an open window, and use an extra comforter in order to moderate being cold in the night. Put away all things that do not make you feel sleepy or sexy including pictures of your children's smiling faces. Make sure your bed is made in the morning, even if you just smooth over blankets and prop up pillows. It will seem more like a visiting a hotel than a war zone.
6. Do Masturbate Before Bed
In many previous blogs, I talk about why masturbation is great for mental health, and how it is a revolutionary act of self-love. Masturbation is also one tool you can use in solo-sex to release endorphins and balance the serotonin & dopamine in your brain naturally. You do not need to orgasm to receive the benefits of masturbation. Any amount of masturbation may increase pleasure. This sexual tool can be used intentionally as part of a sleep ritual that cues your brain for sleep. If you are fortunate enough to have a healthy partner, you might also use intercourse to receive many of the same benefits. However, our partners may not consistently be turned-on at the same time we are. They may not always be available when we want sex to fall asleep. Therefore, solo-sex is always a great fall back. Be careful not to make sex a goal, especially when it is with a partner. Partnered sex only works when we are interested in the pleasure of all parties, and when we are practicing mutuality. Remove any pressure.
7. Do Exercise More Often
Exercise can reduce stress in general. If you exercise somewhere in your day, not necessarily just before bed, you have a better chance of improving sleep overall. Exercise does not have to be strenuous. Yoga, a light walk, and dancing all count as exercise. Ironically, vigorous exercise in the evening can have the opposite effect of tiring you, rather over-stimulating you so that sleep can be difficult. For people with high-stress careers and long hours, I often suggest exercising in the morning because by the end of the day you may be too exhausted to follow through on any exercise commitments. For parents, I suggest, doin less int he morning when the goal is to get the kids off to school and more in the midday, including scheduling sex and exercise.
8. Do Sleep In Your Favorite Position
I know you're getting these tips from a sex therapist, but not those kind of positions! What I mean is that sleeping in the position in which you most frequently wake up will signal to your body that it is comfortable, safe, and ready for bed.
9. Do Limit Naps
People struggling with depression may want to look out for over-sleeping, or hypo-somnia. Sleeping to escape negative feelings, and sleeping as a way of giving into lethargy only prolongs depressive episodes. Sleep when used this way is an unhealthy coping skills. Naps should be limited to 45 minutes provided you can fall asleep normally at night. Anything more than an hour tricks your brain into thinking it is preparing for a deep sleep. Most people take mid-afternoon naps when our Circadian Rhythms kick in. Listening to your internal clock is usually fine in this case. However, you cannot make up for lost sleep by trying to regain hours in the middle of the day. Instead try to stay awake in the middle of the day. You will help your body to feel sleepier when it is time to sleep through the night.
10. Do Time Your Over-The-Counter Meds
Always consult a physician if you yourself have allergic reactions to medications or are unsure if a certain over-the-counter medication will negative impact your health, especially if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. That said, many adults benefit from melatonin and other natural sleep aids. Timing is everything. Melatonin will not work if you take the aid just before getting into bed. It works best if taken about 30 minutes before attempting to go to sleep.
If you follow all these steps and still cannot fall asleep within 30 minutes to an hour, then it is important to get up out of bed and find something ritualistic and relaxing. Some options may include light exercises like 20 push-ups or a brisk walk around the block to try and tire oneself out. Another may be to make a cup of non-caffeinated tea, which you know requires several steps thus creating a ritual and a sense of calm because the smell and warmth may ground you. Other people enjoy progressive muscle relaxation because it distracts from racing thoughts, and addressed muscle tension from the day. Some people read on kindles, or printed materials because it distracts.
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