There are several Irish proverbs prompting sleep as a health provider. My favourite one is Tosach sláinte codladh: deireadh sláinte osna – The beginning of health is sleep: the end of health is a sigh.
Lets start at the end first. ‘The end of health is a sigh’ – that all too often automatic signalling of resignation or exasperation, that deflated feeling. The fact is, we need energy to be healthy, we need motivation to keep well – the depletion of either is the undermining of our vitality. How do we get that vital spark back, how do we rejuvenate? Sure diet can help, physical exercise can help, a positive mindset can help but as this proverb prioritises – sleep, that’s the real starting point.
As humans, we are under the rule of circadian rhythms, daylight pings receptors at the back of the eye that cause a serotonin surge and thus wakefulness, while evening light and darkness degrade serotonin and trigger the production of melatonin – the drowsy neurotransmitter that prompts rest and sleep. It is hard wired in. Sleep is a matter of pattern following – active by day, restful at night.
Anxiety, depression, overactive thinking, over stimulus, napping in the day or staying up through the night, any alterations in the normal pattern of these neurotransmitters quickly interrupts the healthy balance. Some medications and some food and beverage choices can also disrupt the pattern. And the thing is, Sleep is not just rest, it is recuperation – it provides both a psychological detox via dreams and also cellular restoration as he body recharges. It is a pillar of mental and physical wellness.
Sleep It is often the first place that our anxiety begins its health havoc. Worry displaces calm, and turbulence makes it difficult to rest easy. The toll then on restful and rehabilitating sleep, makes the new day, one begun on the back foot. We are trying to catch up even before we have begun energy expenditure, we are a bit foggy or irritable even before we fully wake up to our worries and daily complications. Lack of sleep deepens our reactive nature and in losing our capacity to respond accordingly, to be bright and alert, refreshed and ready for the day, only deepens our experience of today’s anxieties. It becomes a vicious circle, lack of sleep worsening how we feel and behave around anxious triggers and anxious triggers depleting our quality and quantity of natural sleep.
While we are active throughout this book in trying to diminish those triggers, addressing sleep directly will certainly help your anxiety. The following action plan will certainly help with better sleep. Meantime, don’t use your current lack of sleep as another fret point instead see improving it as an overall health move – to improve mood, yes, but also energy, motivation, general wellbeing and healthy functioning. A good thing to do.
Action: sleep hygiene – Reasserting the discipline of sleep.
Avoid daytime naps – even though you may be tired keep the sleep for night time. Daytime naps are closing your eyes to the light that resets your serotonin levels and circadian rhythms, so you are only adding to the chemical imbalance and internal clock disruption.
Get some daylight in; it can be a lunch time walk, a morning jog, a spot of afternoon gardening or any physical activity that physically puts you in the way of some sun exposure. The exposure doesn’t need to be more than 10-15minutes to ping the right receptors to start the chemical rebalance. The activity reinforces alertness and reminds the brain and body that activity is daytime and later we can programme that night is rest time.
Cut off points are important so avoid stimulants after evening time – caffeine, nicotine etc. can keep you alert/awake. Of course, there are more than one type of stimulant; the blue light from phone screens, laptops and devices can ping that daylight receptor and so also trick the brain that it is daytime and keep the wakeful chemicals in play. While you are fearing missing out you are setting yourself up to miss out on sleep. Similarly, binge watching late-night Tv or engaging in rumination or late-night worry is just amping up your alertness and cognitive activity at the wrong time. Start to lessen that a few hours before you intend to go to bed.
It is good to develop a bedtime ritual – to programme the mind to accept that is bedtime. This might be having a more focused transition period than just switching off the tv/devices, try adjust the lighting and generally dialling back the stimulation a half hour to hour before bedtime. Prep yourself for bed – that may be brushing your teeth and getting into pyjamas but it can also be simple triggers like the glass of warm milk, reading a book, having a mindful meditation – any winddown action that sets the mood to downtime.
It is important to set and keep a regular bedtime and maintain the same wake up time. Even if you don’t sleep through it all, the return and repeat enforce the rhythm of going to bed in low light and getting up to bright light so that your body experiences the consistency and starts to adjust the right neurotransmitter production and functioning to coincide with the appropriate phases. That’s setting the alarm clock at the weekends too, at least until a regular pattern develops. You can bank sleep later.
Modify your bedroom, make it more conducive to sleep. Think cave, switch the primal pattern follower on. Go dark – bright light (artificial or daylight) inhibits the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, so lower wattage bulbs yes but also blackout curtains, a darker bed spread, even a less bright wall paint. It will not be depressing it will be cosy, a cave fit for purpose. Get cool – don’t have the radiators on or the bed warms in, cooler temperatures put the body into rest mode. Its ok to pamper with a good mattress and great pillows. I am sure the best caves had the best bear skins so the luxury of comfort is good – it is something you can sink into, release yourself to, wrap yourself up in and welcome sleep.
Finally, actually welcome the sleep. Enjoy the process of getting into bed. Tell yourself you are going to have a good night’s sleep, ok you won’t get far trying to talk or think yourself there but some simple NLP will help; ‘I am ready for bed’, ‘I am sleepy’ – let your brain hear the prompt and your intent. Feel the comforting embrace of the bedding, acknowledge the comfort of the darkness too, accept the replenishing aspect of rest and sleep, acknowledge this is down time and well deserved.