Sleep is important because it helps us store new information from our day, strengthen neural connections and prune unnecessary ones and maintain our body’s systems and general functioning. Though it is quite normal in our culture to laud sleep deprivation as a necessary evil, or a hallmark of achievement or hard work, in fact it can lead to ongoing health issues that will catch up with many people as they age. Let’s explore some ideas you might not have tried yet for better sleep. Most medical professionals agree that blue light from our phones and TVs will keep us up at night, so the general recommended advice is to stay away from screens for one hour prior to bedtime. But let’s be honest — many of us violate this rule in practice. Ignoring this rule leads us to doom-scroll on our phones past our bedtimes or play activating video games and then try to shut our eyes with racing hearts and minds. If you find it hard to stop using screens, turn out the light or get yourself to stop doing activities when it’s time for sleep, I encourage you to try to create a bedtime routine that you ACTUALLY enjoy. I also recommend using a grounding activity like noticing five objects of one color in your surroundings, doing a brief STOP meditation, using the urge surfing skill or doing the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique if stopping your activities or screen time is extra difficult.
I personally get incredibly bored doing traditionally suggested wind-down activities like reading. It feels like I am wasting my valuable time spending an hour winding down when I only have so many hours in the night (revenge bedtime procrastination, anyone?). So I have recently figured out that there are non-screen things I actually really want to do consistently that I could not fit in anywhere else. Now that I have a routine I look forward to doing them (and they help me wind down). Perhaps you’ll find your own list. My list is in order of most energetic to least energetic, just to aid with that concept of winding down energetically. For example, I dance, then transition to light stretching, wash my face and brush my teeth, do breathing exercises, look at the stars/sky and then journal. I find that after this routine I am not forcing myself to go to bed. I naturally feel my energy decreasing and my mind slowing down and don’t mind crawling into bed at the end. Another traditional piece of advice is to set a regular consistent bedtime, so your body will get used to waking and sleeping at the same times, which helps prepare you for quicker, more restful sleep. However, those of us with demanding and shifting lives and routines might struggle with this one. I also often see folks in my practice who get thrown into a more stressful period at work and end up cutting back on sleep. But we have to keep in mind that sleep is the core thing powering us through our day. It will help you deal with the extra stress and help you focus better through hard times.
We must explore ways in which we can set boundaries with ourselves and with our work to honor the limitations of what we can provide and what our bodies can bring to the table. Ask yourself if you can test out boundary phrases with your manager like, “I know in the past I’ve worked late, but I’m trying to take better care of myself now. So I can’t continue to work past five PM and will need to adjust all project timelines accordingly.” Furthermore, practice more generously stating the timeline of a project at work, or even using the 1.5 rule of increasing the projected time to 1.5x of your expected time, so you have wiggle room, time for distraction, and for going home on time at the end of the day, rather than working longer hours for tough deadlines.
And when it comes to yourself, recognize that perfectionism and burning the midnight oil can be tolerable and even thrilling in short bursts, but it will ultimately lead to chronic sleep deprivation and lower quality work overall. Cut yourself some slack, and practice self-compassion, saying to yourself, “I can only do what I am capable of doing in the hours I have. I recognize my capabilities and strengths, as well as my limitations. It will have to be enough.”
Melissa Lee Nilles, LMHC is a licensed mental health counselor and expressive arts therapist with a Master's degree from Lesley University’s Mental Health Counseling and Expressive Arts Therapy program. She is deeply passionate about self-exploration through the arts, mindfulness practices and therapy. She seeks to collaborate with her clients using the tools of person-centered therapy, mindfulness, meditation, trauma-informed body-oriented psychotherapy and expressive arts therapy (through music therapy, art therapy, and poetry/writing therapy). Melissa also employs CBT and motivational interviewing to help you transform your life. She prefers a holistic, eclectic and interdisciplinary approach to addressing client concerns.