Sleep Hygiene: Techniques to Improve Sleep
One of the most surprising things of being a therapist for myself has been the sheer magnitude the impact of sleep has on all other issues. This is not to say that I am shocked that getting good sleep is important, but the amount that poor sleep magnifies other problems can not be understated. It is not uncommon for a client to be having problems in an area of life that has nothing to do with sleep or physical health, and a few nights in a row of poor sleep raise that problem from a moderate challenge to a seemingly devastating issue that appears overwhelming to face. For many people, getting good sleep is not easy and the modern digital world is filled with pitfalls that make our sleep both harder to get and poorer quality. This is where Sleep Hygiene can help many of us improve our sleep, so it does not contribute to worsening other problems in life.
Before proceeding, I will add a disclaimer that Sleep Hygiene techniques are very useful for almost anyone suffering from sleep issues. However, severe insomnia is a different level of problem that often requires both medical and psychological interventions. Severe insomnia presents as days of total lack of sleep or sleep totaling such shocking numbers as 6 hours per week at times. This kind of sleep problem often needs more than Sleep Hygiene techniques to be implemented and should always be handled by medical professionals trained in sleep studies and other such tests.
Sleep Hygiene- Not About Cleanliness
The term Sleep Hygiene usually raises some eyebrows for those who are new to it. People have shared with me that at first, they believed I was about to recommend they clean their sheets or make sure they don’t have bedbugs. While these are important, they have little to do with proper Sleep Hygiene. Sleep Hygiene is not really about the cleanliness of your bed or even your own personal hygiene, it is instead more focused around the habits and routines we are both naturally born with, and we create in regard to sleep. Sleep Hygiene practices are based around the idea that sleep is a process of basic biology but also is a learned behavior. We all need sleep and have the innate ability to sleep but sometimes our habits interfere with the natural biological process that makes us fall asleep and get restful sleep.
Before talking about the techniques of good Sleep Hygiene, we can start working on something that may seem related to the often-misinterpreted definition of having a clean bed. Making sure our sleeping setting is comfortable seems like common sense, but when we are having trouble sleeping it may be time to put more energy into examining if there are any aspects of our sleep environment that are not ideal. Temperature and lighting are some basic areas to start our examination. If it is too hot/cold or not dark enough we will struggle to sleep well. Sleeping with others may require some negotiation in these aspects but it is very important to find your sleep setting comfortable enough that you are not having thoughts of things being bothersome. Also look at the sounds you are used to sleeping well with and make sure there aren’t many deviations from this. If you have always slept with some background noise from a TV or the street outside, you may need to artificially create those sounds with apps if you are now in a setting where you cannot have that background noise naturally. Get the basics of getting comfortable set before moving on to Sleep Hygiene techniques.
Techniques- Practice Makes Perfect
Sleep Hygiene techniques are often seen as inconveniences when people start using them. We assume that lying in bed comfortably should be all we need to get the proper sleep we need. Unfortunately, many people can look at the results of their recent sleep and see that just being in a comfortable bed at the proper time is not enough to fall asleep and stay asleep. The good news is that often Sleep Hygiene techniques start off being inconvenient and hard to use, but as time goes on you will need them less and less and it may end up that you can stop doing the techniques and fall asleep without much effort. The techniques that I have found most successful with clients are:
- Avoid laying in bed for significant portions of time when you cannot fall asleep.
- Implement a routine 30-60 minutes before bed that is conducive for sleep.
- Give your brain ques that it is time for sleep.
Staying in bed for long periods of time trying to fall asleep is the first and most detrimental mistake I have seen people make regarding Sleep Hygiene. There is a myth that we all seem to believe until it is proven wrong, that forcing our eyes closed and staying in bed will lead to sleep. While eventually this may be true due to exhaustion, there is no reason to try to force yourself to sleep by sheer willpower. As difficult as it sounds, after 15-30 minutes of lying in bed without falling asleep we should get up for a short period and do something that is not very stimulating. My personal favorite that I use when I am struggling to fall asleep if folding/putting away laundry. It is quiet, low impact, and not stimulating at all and allows me to avoid the extremely stressful situation of lying in bed begging sleep to come.
The routine we have before bed is often overlooked. A lot of people may have certain clothes they change into, put on their favorite show, and lay in bed expecting that is all the routine they need. While it may work for some, if you are having trouble sleeping it could be a sign that you need to add to or change this routine. The old advice of avoid screens 30-60 minutes before bed is not wrong, but it is a little unclear as to what that means nowadays. Basically, good Sleep Hygiene recommends not doing anything stimulating like a game, watching something intense, or any challenging apps or puzzles on screens for at least 30 minutes prior to going to bed. Many people sleep just fine with their T.V on with low volume, so totally avoidance of all digital screens may not be necessary. But, our phones are the major culprit of causing bad sleep routines. You may be one of the multitudes of people who lay in bed with their phone inches from their face. This light as well as the stimulating nature of even something as simple as scrolling through social media or the news needs to be eliminated from your pre-bed routine. A lot of people also benefit from adding something before bed like using a massage pillow for 10 minutes, or the long-lived practice of reading a few pages from a book. Try adding these things to your sleep routine if you are struggling with sleep.
Lastly, our brain is programmed to look for ques about when it is to sleep. Our ancestors lived in a world where every night it was dark, cooler than the day, and quieter. Start creating an environment that has these ques for your brain at the time of night you want to wind down for sleep. You may not be looking to be asleep at 9PM, but if you want to be asleep by 11PM then start lowering the amount of light you are exposed to by 9PM. Turn volume down on whatever electronics you are using in the evening well before its time for sleep. The gradual increase in darkness and decrease in noise around you will tell your primal parts of your brain that it should be getting ready for sleep. We often don’t make these changes until the few minutes right before we want to be asleep, at our own detriment. The brain is programmed to sleep but it needs time to get into that mode and for most people it can’t simply switch from waking and active to sleep just by putting one’s head on a pillow.
If you struggle with sleep issues due to stress or other reasons, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.