When I was in graduate school sharing an apartment with three other girls, I told a friend from my graduate program that I’d been really tired during the day and was having a hard time sleeping.
One day, she visited me in my room. “Does your room usually look like this?” I looked around and saw the books and mock client files scattered on and around my bed, “No wonder you haven’t been sleeping. You have all of these people and their problems in bed with you every night!”
I had never thought about that, but she was right. Because I didn’t have a desk in my room, I resorted to studying on my bed. Too often, I immersed myself in studying the complex emotional issues of people I was preparing to help and didn’t set a boundary around my personal sleep time. After a late night of reading and reviewing cases, I would clear a small space to lay down on my bed. And then, not surprisingly, I laid awake with a racing brain and anxiety about the things in the files right next to me.
That very night, I made a few changes. I cleared my bed of all of my studies and kept them in piles on the floor as far from my pillow as possible. I created a gap time between finishing my studies and going to bed by taking a few minutes to stretch and meditate and pray before climbing under the covers. Almost immediately I noticed an improvement in how I slept.
Though it seems like we are resting when we sleep, our body is actually performing critical work to keep us healthy and resilient.
When we don’t hold our sleep time and the environment in which it happens as important, it is far too easy for things to disrupt or takeover that important process.
Here are seven things to consider as you create a high quality sleep environment.
1. Sacred Space
We need a space that is set aside for sleep. Ideally, your bedroom should only be for sleeping. You may be in a small apartment or home that requires you to have a desk or another practical piece of furniture in your room. For some families, the bedroom also serves as the place where TV is watched or the computer is used. One of my clients even had the family’s washer and dryer in a closet in her room.
I recommend to my clients that if they can, they move the desk, the TV, the laundry baskets, the work files and the computers OUT of their bedrooms. Having good sleep is more about training your brain than any of us realize. It is too hard for your brain to trigger rest and relaxation when you try to sleep in the same space that you were just fretting over paying your bills. Whatever your circumstance, you can place a boundary around your bedroom at bedtime that makes it a sacred space for sleep, even if it means you set a time when you stop doing all other activities and prepare for rest.
2. Your Bed
This one’s pretty obvious, but absolutely critical. Make sure that your mattress is supporting your body well. Just like Goldilocks and the three bears, a bed that is too soft or too hard can make it difficult for your spine to be supported and cause muscle and joint pain. Experiment to find a mattress that is “just right”. And don’t forget the pillow. Choose a pillow that allows your neck to be supported and consider adding one for your knees if you are a side sleeper. Pillows and mattresses can get worn and lose the shape that used to fit your needs, so keep an eye on when it’s ideal to replace them.
Wear clothing to bed that is loose and allows your skin to breathe. Clothing that is too tight restricts movement and can cause the body to overheat. The same goes with not wearing enough clothing to bed and being cold at night.
Noise may make it hard to sleep, but there are ways of blocking disruptive sound by using ear plugs or making arrangements with family members to keep the noise levels down at bedtime. White noise machines do a great job masking sounds and creating a backdrop that triggers your brain to prepare for sleep.
Research shows a potential link to insomnia and body temperature, making it worthwhile for us to consider taking a closer look at how we set our thermostat each night.
Experts in sleep science study the effects of temperature on how the body moves through the sleep stages. As you progress through the natural sleep cycle each night, your body needs to drop in temperature in order to pass into the deeper sleep states. According to H. Craig Heller, PhD, professor of biology at Stanford University, “if you are in a cooler [rather than too-warm] room, it is easier for that to happen.”
But make sure that it’s not too cold. Mid-night wakings occur more easily when the room temperatures are too extreme. Make sure that your covers are in layers so you can adjust the temperature and warmth as you desire through the night.
Common sense is the best guide when choosing your bedroom thermostat!
6. Keep it Dark
Photoreceptors in the eye give our brain messages about the outside world and use this to create our circadian rhythm.
Light is a signal to the brain to be awake.
Dark is a signal to the brain to sleep.
Though this may seem obvious, most of us don’t sleep in a dark enough room. The light from electronics, including alarm clocks, can be enough to intrude on the sleep process.
That “blue light” that comes from electronics and phones has a short wavelength that disrupts levels of melatonin more than any other kind of light. Consider dimming any light in your room to the lowest possible setting or better yet, turn it off altogether. Try getting a clock with red light rather than white or blue. There is some research showing this to be less disruptive to the brain at bedtime.
We also have some research that shows even exposure to light BEFORE bedtime can disrupt the normal production of melatonin which then not only makes falling asleep more difficult, but it also may impact the quality of sleep as well. This is because the brain prepares to send out melatonin a couple hours before bedtime, but light, especially the blue light emitted from electronic screens delays this process, making it harder to fall asleep, stay asleep and awaken feeling rested. So, be aware of the light you get exposed to and if you’re having trouble getting really good sleep, consider reading a book rather than your tablet before bed.
Which leads us to another thing to consider with those electronics…
Finally, make sure that you turn off the electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime. This includes everywhere you might be using electronics, not only in the bedroom. Research has shown that computers, phones, tablets, and televisions all emit enough light to disrupt our circadian rhythms and give our brains the wrong message. That screen time tells your brain that it is awake time and it keeps the neurons firing and processing when they should be closing up shop and relaxing.
Your brain needs time to prepare for the end of your day, so talking about finances or reviewing your list of tasks for the next day should also be done before the bedtime hour so you are not revving up your thinking when you really want it to be settling down.
It’s also a good idea to end your exercise about an hour before you get ready for bed so you can let the same unwinding happen for your body.
Focusing on these seven factors of your sleep environment will undoubtedly help your sleep quality. Keep an eye out for future posts relating to Self Care !