What Keeps You Up at Night?
And How to Get a Better Night's Sleep.
I don’t know why it is but all the characters that are born, develop, and live very active lives around in my head every minute of everyday become even more real to me when it’s time to go night-night. Bedtime. What should be a blessed time of rest and sleep is for me, a circus of people, places, and plots. As soon as my head hits the pillow-bam! They come alive in my head. I can see each character so clearly, I get new ideas of where their lives are headed and what needs to happen to resolve each issue. That’s why I’m sitting on my living room couch just shy of midnight this evening. Because they have come alive and there is no sleep for me until I write!
This is a blessing in my estimation. Better for characters to come alive in my head than for worries of “what if”, pain, or other kinds of torment coming alive within me when I try to sleep.
What is it that comes alive for you in the late hours of the night?
Or are you one of the blessed few who fall asleep almost immediately?
As a mental health therapist, more often than not the people I am seeing in my office struggle to fall asleep. If they do fall asleep without much hassle then the challenge is to stay asleep. This can usually be explained by a few things:
First, so many people (even me) have the habit of taking their phones to bed with them. They do the last scroll of the day to check in on the haps, all their friends, and make sure they didn’t miss anything during the day. Then they check the next day’s weather. Then maybe they see if they can guess the Wordle for the day. After that maybe they feel it’s time to charge the phone and get to sleep. After hours of screen time with a blue light that is telling your brain it is daytime and stimulating social/news reports and reels, we actually expect our brain to “shut off” for sleep. Nope.
Secondly, many of us have been drinking caffeine throughout the day and if not (I drink decaf), maybe we partook of just that extra amount of sugar that is going to keep us a little more wired. Even after the sugar high, followed by the subsequent crash, your mind still may feel a bit jittery. Yup. Me too. And yet, we expect, as we tuck our bodies into a nice comfy bed, that we should just fade away into sleep as if we had never eaten all the goodies then just laid around scrolling on our phone, rather than walking off the sugar high and allowing our body to relieve itself of the excess substance-stimulated energy. If it’s not abundantly clear, heading straight to bed after a sugar high, or even a full meal, rarely ends in a good night’s sleep!
And finally, the ever elusive relaxation that we all hope to experience when we head for bed cannot be experienced organically. We must be intentional to de-stress. Have you ever left work or school after an extremely stressful day, thinking all the home, “I can’t wait to get home where I can just rest and relax” only to find once you get there that rest and relaxation don’t just automatically wash over you when you walk in the door? Maybe there’s added stress when you get home, and even if not, it’s not a surprise because the reality is we must be intentional to relieve the stress from our nervous system. We accumulate stress and can very easily be thrown into survival mode where our nervous system is in a constant state of hyperarousal just waiting for the next shoe to drop or for the next crisis to arise. While this instinct might make some of us excellent first responders or play well in the courtroom for high profile lawyers, it wreaks havoc on our nervous system, wrecking our immunity to illness, and weakening our emotional fortitude.
If sleep weren’t detrimental to our overall health, and wellbeing, I wouldn’t be banging this drum so hard right now! These are very simple and obvious things that we all indulge in at times, or perhaps things we practice on the daily. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, there is good news!
If characters come alive in your head too every night there is a wonderful answer to that: take 10 minutes to write all you can, take a few deep breaths and get back to bed. It helps to get the ideas either on paper or in your computer/tablet/phone so that they are “taken care of” and you can sleep peacefully with that knowledge.
But if you were overstimulated by tech, just ate too much, had high amounts of caffeine/sugar, or have been living in survival mode for longer than you care to admit the solutions are a bit different.
Your bedtime routine can be easily tweaked. Take that last scroll, then put the phone to bed just before you get into bed. Aim to remove screens about 1 hour before you want to go to sleep.
Try to schedule dinner time a bit earlier. If that’s not the issue then choose lighter snacks in the evening such as almonds or apple slices. If eating late really doesn’t apply then pay attention to the amounts of sugar and/or caffeine that you consume in a day. Make efforts to reduce or even eliminate these substances and see how you feel.
Choose very specific and intentional ways to de-stress. While stress is reactionary and instinctual, relaxation is not. So find gentle activities that help you unwind such as walking the dog, playing table tennis with your spouse, or shooting hoops with your kids. Next, the #1 technique I teach ALL of my clients to use for de-stressing and lowering their stress hormone is to practice abdominal breathing. Breath deeply. Take a slow, and controlled breath in through your nose, expanding your abdomen on the inhale, contracting your abdomen on the exhale. This will activate the relaxation response, which releases chemicals to help balance your hormones.
It’s so interesting to me that the very thing that we need so we can feel like we’ve “come alive” after our alarm goes off at O Dark:30, is the very thing that can be elusive for us as our brains “come alive” in a different way at night.
Case in point: it is now midnight. I’ve emptied my brain of these thoughts and I will now share them with you. Once I have accomplished this I’ll take several of those deep breaths I was telling you about, then head for bed.
Sleep well, friends.
Until next time, I wish you peace!