I was listening to someone talk about their sleep issues yesterday. They were speaking about the aches and pains they experienced at night, about how their sleep was shallow and frequently disturbed, and how they went to bed rather later than they should. Since I wasn’t their practitioner, I only had once question, poised to satisfy my curiosity: did they have a screen in their bedroom? Yes, she replied, they usually watch TV before bed, and that’s why she goes to sleep so late.
For people with chronic sleep issues, it can be hard to uproot old habits. Still, what is known as “sleep hygiene” is scientifically proven to help improve sleep. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School has published this list of simple things you can do to improve your sleep. This includes, among many things, removing screens from the bedroom and taking the time to wind down with quiet activities before you go to your bed, making sure you’re fully tired and ready for sleep.
I’m well aware, however, that what seem like easy changes can incredibly difficult to implement. We’re creatures of habit, even if those habits are maladaptive. Sometimes, before we implement any change, we have to just think about it, ponder what it might mean for our lifestyle, see how it sits with us, and feel comfortable with it on our own terms. It can feel invasive when someone else tells you how to live your life, and as a healthcare practitioner, I often need to remember this and step back, respecting that everyone has their own way of doing things.
Sleep hygiene is a good way to set up your pre-bedtime routine, but what about those of us who wake up in the middle of the night and find themselves unable to fall back asleep? Insomnia, meet the audiobook. Audiobooks can be a great way to help lull the reluctant sleeper back into slumber. However, there’s a catch. The book must be a familiar one, something you’ve read or listened to before, and that won’t engross you. I used to watch “Spirited Away” every night before bed. Yes, I was disobeying my own rules about screens, but eventually I stopped watching it and just started telling myself the story of the movie, and this helped my brain switch off from thinking. Audiobooks are a way of doing the same thing. You’re able to keep the room dark and quiet, not switching on the light and opening a book, which can serve to wake you up further. Find a comforting and familiar story, like the first book of Harry Potter, Huckleberry Finn, and the like, or something slightly meandering like Moby Dick, and listen to it. When you find yourself drifting off, turn it off and often times you’ll drift off. If not, put back on the headphones and listen a little longer.
Sleep is one of the most important things we need to stay healthy. If you’re having trouble sleeping, one of the best things you can do for yourself is spend some time figuring out something that works for you. It can be tricky, and take some time, but it’s worth it. If you need someone to help you troubleshoot it, make an appointment with a sleep specialist or a healthcare provider that you think might have some insight and won’t immediately reach for the Ambien. Sleep medications are fine short-term solutions, but many lead to dependance. When habit and routine are so much a part of a good nights sleep, sleep meds can easily become part of that routine, and weaning off of them is painful, sometimes near impossible.
Whatever you do before bed, I wish you a calm mind and tired body. Sweet dreams.