Ahhhh, delicious, nutritious sleep. It has always been one of my favorite activities in life -- my grandma told me that I was the only toddler she ever knew who would ask to be put to bed! And through most of my life, I've been a champion sleeper.
For me, sleeping feels like a bath for my brain, a safe cocoon of darkness where I can lose myself for a while. A good night's sleep feels literally like magic.
And when I can't get sleep? Well, it's kind of the worst. I've only gone through a few insomniac times in my life -- a few years as an 80s kid terrified of nuclear war, a few months last spring when I kept having anxiety attacks for no apparent reason (my therapist and I concluded that it was deferred grief plus the adjustment to living in a higher-altitude climate).
And now, there's the last two weeks in Paris, where I'm staying for a month ... and it's gorgeous and wonderful in every way except that sleep has been, let's say, elusive. Before I arrived, I had plans of walking along the Seine at dawn, drinking coffee and writing in cafes until time to work at noon ... but almost none of that has happened. Instead, most nights I have tossed and turned until finally drifting off around 5 am, then waking up groggy at 10 or 11, and drinking tea until I'm able to think semi-straight again.
It's not good for me, I know -- I'm not one of those people who can power through and function even when exhausted. So I value sleep very highly, and am more than happy to spend 1/3 of my life sleeping, and when I can't, I get bummed about it very quickly.
I've noticed that I'm in the minority on this, though ... most people I know would rather watch TV or hang out with their families or even get some work done than go the fuck to bed. But they aren't really doing themselves any favors -- research shows that folks who get less than the recommended 7-9 hours have a much higher risk of all kinds of gnarly stuff, from Alzheimer's and cancer to car accidents and early death.
So if we know sleep is vital to human life, why do we continue to de-prioritize it? There are many reasons, and sleep researcher Matthew Walker goes through many of them in this recent excellent article in the Guardian -- electric lights disrupt our natural light-based rhythms, and changes in the way we work and commute that eat up more free time which we're then tempted to steal from sleeptime.
But the last reason he mentions is the one that resonates most deeply for me: culturally, we see sleeping as wasted time, and we see prioritizing sleep as laziness.
Clearly this is false -- my own experience tells me it's false -- because when I'm well-rested, my whole day goes better. I'm smarter, faster, more emotionally resilient. I have much more to offer the people around me. I'm able to make healthier choices in terms of what I'm going to eat and how I'm going to spend my time.
When I'm exhausted, by contrast, I crave low-quality, easy-to-digest foods -- donuts, cheesy sandwiches, french fries -- because I need the hit of energy and will to live. I'm more snappish about everyday annoyances. I'm less willing to cut my fellow humans a break. In short, being tired makes me live the opposite of what Oprah calls "my best life."
And I wonder, do other folks not notice this? I think that many of us don't. In fact it seems like so many of us are so sleep-deprived that we don't even know what it feels like to be fully rested anymore. Which is a crying shame! And leads to untold misery, all the worse because it's entirely unnecessary.
That also means that we have an opportunity, though -- if we can prioritize sleeping more in our own lives, we can experience huge change. We can become more forgiving with each other, because we're not already at the razor's edge of not being able to function. We can more easily take good care of ourselves, because we have the energy to put into self-care. We become more willing to listen, and to walk in each others' shoes, because we're not too tired to see straight.
Imagine what could come out of solving our culture's chronic sleep deprivation problem! We could eradicate road rage, improve our schools and workplaces, even find the collective will to tackle our biggest problems -- from systemic bias to climate change. We could be more creative. We could be more human.
So, how? Like all cultural change, it has to involve each of us changing our own priorities so that we get our eight hours as often as we possibly can -- maybe even nine! Aim high!
There are many wonderful resources on the internet to help each of us find the tools that will help us more sleep. Here are some of the common threads among these guides:
1) Keep consistent hours.
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. I'm not super great as this one -- I travel a lot and don't even keep regular hours at home -- but when I make an effort, I do notice better quality of sleep.
2) Set an alarm to remind you when it's time to start winding down.
We set alarms to wake up, but Walker says that if you need an alarm to get up in the morning, that means for SURE you're not getting enough sleep. He suggests instead setting an alarm for bedtime -- working backwards from when you need to get up, and adding 8 hours to sleep and 30-60 minutes to prepare for sleep.
3) Establish a bedtime routine.
This is something my therapist helped me with last spring when I was struggling to get any good sleep. Previous to establishing a real routine, bedtime looked like "go lie down whenever you feel like you're about to fall off the perch." When I started adding steps like "do 5 minutes of gentle yoga" and "brush your teeth" and "read a book for 10 or 15 minutes," I found that it really did get my mind ready to drift off more consistently.
4) Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and free of crap.
This one especially applies to all my peri-menopausal ladies out there -- HOLLA! The last few years I find my temperature running a lot hotter than it ever did before, so I started sleeping with a fan on most nights, and using a sleeping mask as well. Blackout curtains can also help if a sleeping mask doesn't work for you.
And try to save your bedroom just for sleeping and other bed-related activities. The idea is that you want it to feel peaceful in there, like a special place where nothing is required of you other than rest. Keep computers and clutter out of there. Reserve this space just for your own care.
5) Pay attention to your own unrestful triggers.
Even though I love to have coffee at the end of a meal, I don't anymore, because it keeps me up. Red wine can sometimes raise my body temperature so that I'm not able to drift off, so I watch that, too. Pay attention to what makes it hard for you to get to sleep, and remind yourself that sleep is almost always more important.
6) Right before bedtime, make it a goal to not get hepped up.
Things not to do right before going to bed: watch Daenarys lose her dragon to the Night King. Listen to Harry Potter fighting for his life against Voldemort. Get into a political fight online.
Do nice chill things instead. Watch soothing videos, like people painting or fish swimming. Listen to Jane Austen or some nice soothing music. Read from a paper book. Make a list of all the to-do items floating around your brain so they have a place to rest, too. Try the Yoga Nidra meditation on the Insight Timer app -- it's so good! Take it easy and let your mind slow down.
7) Get some exercise during the day.
Any exercise will help -- exercise outside in the fresh air helps most of all.
8) Stop looking at sleeping as a lazy activity and start looking at it as a gift.
Sleep is beautiful. Sleep is glorious. Sleep transforms your life for the better every single day, which is kind of miraculous if you think about it. Almost nothing is more important than getting enough of it.
If you're one of these people that equates needing a full night of sleep with laziness or weakness or shame, make a point of shifting your thoughts about it. Look at making space for sleep as a way of actively loving yourself, and teach your children to do the same. When other folks make jokes or jabs equating sleep with sloth, correct them, because this bias we have against sleep is literally killing people, and we need to flip it.
What are your thoughts about sleep? Do you feel like you give it a high enough priority in your life, or is it something that you are willing to sacrifice for other goals? I want to hear all about it!