By Rob Dobrenski, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist
People often assume that bad sleep simply means feeling fatigued the next day. The reality is, that’s just the tip of the iceberg: mood, concentration, work performance, and even learning are all impacted. In short, sleep is the cornerstone of mental health. And while a prescription for Ambien certainly has its place – I took sleep agents myself in graduate school – it is always desirable to implement as many natural strategies as possible when sleep is poor.
Consider these as potential “mind clearing” ideas before you hit the sheets.
This type of breathing, also known as Belly Breathing, helps to slow your heart rate and induce relaxation. I discussed how to do it before but below is a quick summary:
Lie on your back. Slowly push your stomach outward as you take in air through your nose. Try to keep your chest flat as you picture the incoming air flowing through your body. Slowly count to four as your belly rises and gently push out the air through your mouth as your stomach comes to rest. Note and enjoy this feeling. Repeat for one minute.
While you are doing this, try to visualize your heart rate lowering, the muscles relaxing, your body appreciating the rest it’s receiving. Too often our cognitions revolve around “How much sleep will I get? Will it be enough? How much longer before I have to wake up?” Instead, try to focus on what your body is doing as it begins its recovery from a day of activity.
Create Your To Do List Before Bed
Many people with hectic schedules climb into bed and immediately begin to ruminate on what they need to do tomorrow. Instead of creating mental checklists under the covers, take ten minutes before you go to bed to write down what’s on the agenda for tomorrow. The keyboard strokes or the pen-on-paper effect can help to clear your mind.
Build Your Worry List
A hallmark symptom of worry is poor sleep. Pair that with a busy schedule and the mind is racing around what is wrong with life and how to get things done. Jot down your worries before bed. Even if there are not solutions at your immediate disposal, this can help. I would recommend doing this an hour or so before bedtime, just in case there is a spike in anxiety as you notice the many things that are troublesome. The trick here, again, is to write it down, and add the following at the end:
I will deal with this tomorrow, during the day. Now is time to prepare for sleep.
You’ll be surprised how, with practice, you can train your mind to temporarily shut down troublesome thoughts.
This is a very hot topic in psychology right now. Research continues to emerge on the benefits of mindfulness in treating anxiety, panic, and other conditions that impact sleep. There are countless books and internet pages dedicated to mindfulness. I personally recommend “The Miracle of Mindfulness,” by Thich Nath Hanh.
Remember What is Currently Working for You
I mentioned this idea before but it bears repeating: poor sleep leads to frustration which, in turn, pushes us to hyperfocus on what is unsatisfactory in our lives. A list of positives in life can help us keep our thinking balanced. Balanced thinking has a powerful calming effect, which is always useful at lights out.