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Monday, June 17, 2024

How to Fix a Broken Sleep Schedule

Not being able to fall asleep at night affects every part of your life. It's harder to get anything done or enjoy anything. It's easy, though, to get into sleeping habits that we know aren't working. I know, I've been there.

That's why I talked with Georgia Dow, a therapist and YouTuber, for tips on improving a sleep schedule you're not happy with. Here's what she told me.

Improve Your Sleep Situation

The first tip was one I hadn't thought of: Make sure you have a quality mattress and pillow that you find comfortable.

A better mattress can improve your sleep quality—particularly if you’ve noticed you sleep better while traveling than you do at home. So buy a better mattress, if you can afford it. Buying a new pillow can also make a big difference, particularly if you find yourself waking up with a sore neck. New sheets can also help, but if that’s not possible consider washing the ones you have. 

“We often don't put enough money, time, and effort into a place we are going to be spending a third of our life,” says Dow.

Don’t Do Anything Stressful in Bed

Your body, Dow tells me, associates physical space and time with each other. That means if you do stressful things in bed during the day, like working, replying to emails, or taking Zoom meetings with the camera off, you'll think about those things at night. So avoid those things and try to make your bed (and bedroom) a place dedicated to rest.

“You should not use your bed for anything but sex and sleep,” says Dow. “Don't work in your bed, don't argue in bed, don't do your taxes in bed.”

Action-packed video games, and anything to do with politics, are in the same category, according to Dow. So avoid the temptation to play your favorite mobile game and instead do some light reading or listen to some calming music. 

While we’re on the subject: A lot more people work from home now than a few years ago. If that’s you, and your desk is in your bedroom, move it to another room, if you can. Any stressful emotions from work are easily brought to mind if you can literally see your desk from bed. 

Consider Blackout Curtains and Automatic Lights

Light has a profound effect on your sleeping habits, which can be a problem during the early sunrises of the summer or if you live somewhere with a lot of street lights. That's why, if you’re having trouble sleeping, Dow recommends blackout curtains.

“Blackout blinds really help with letting you sleep for longer,” Dow tells me.

Of course, in the winter, many of us have the opposite problem: It's impossible to wake up in the morning because of how dark it is. In those situations, Dow recommends a light that slowly turns on in the morning. That could be a smart light set to a particular time or it could be a sunrise alarm clock built for the job. I bought a clock like that to help me get up during the gray Oregon winters. It's been an absolute game changer for me.

Put Away the Electronics (or Change the Settings)

Speaking of light: The various screens in your life all put out a lot of blue light, which your body interprets as sunlight. This suppress the release of melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy. That’s why it’s so easy to keep scrolling when you should be sleeping—and why you shouldn’t do that in bed.

"Using your tech before bed is not a good idea,” says Dow. “Put the screens away, dim your lights, avoid anything with a blue spectrum.

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If that's not an option, consider tweaking things. Dow recommends an app called F.lux, which tints your computer’s display red to reduce the amount of blue light your screens put out. Apple devices have a similar feature, called Night Shift, built into macOS. It's not as good as avoiding screens, but it's better than nothing.

Hide the Clock

If you're waking up throughout the night, don't panic: That's normal. Most people wake up five to six times throughout the night, Dow tells me, but most of the time you don't remember it—unless you're already anxious about sleep and happen to notice the time, then think to yourself how long you've been awake.

“That calculating, that math, is going to wake you up,” says Dow, adding that the problem is even worse if you're already anxious about sleep. Her solution: Flip over your phone, or move your alarm clock, so that you can't see the time. “If you don't see the clock, you'll go back to sleep and forget you ever woke up,” she tells me.

While we’re talking about clocks: Try not to depend on the snooze button. That extra 10 minutes might feel good, but it’s not quality sleep. Consider putting your alarm clock across the room, so you have to actually get up in order to turn it off. 

Cool Things Down

You might think you love a toasty bedroom in the winter, but your body doesn't necessarily agree.

“Humans do better when it's cooler at night,” says Dow. The ideal sleeping temperature is somewhere between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Crack your bedroom window at night, if you need to, even in the winter.

Give Your Brain Something to Do

When you can't sleep, it’s easy to spend your time thinking about how you can't sleep. That's why Dow recommends giving your brain something else to focus on.

“Do something that is moderately interesting,” she says, mentioning word games, simple math problems, or thinking of a story in your head as examples. Just avoid one classic trope: “Counting sheep isn't good enough. You can worry and count sheep at the same time; it's too simple.” She recommended counting down from 100 by seven instead.

Of course, you could use a distraction instead—an audio book, say, or a podcast. But Dow cautions that it's not good to get dependent on an outside stimulus like that.

“It works, but then we're relying on an outside source to help us fall asleep,” she says. “Any time your tool is not there, there's a risk of failure if you don't have access.”

So find some kind of mental activity that doesn't depend on a device. “Affirmations, meditations, breathing techniques—you choose, but every time your brain goes onto the path toward stressful thoughts, you need to bring it back,” says Dow.

Get Good Rest

Not sleeping enough makes everything in your life worse. I know: A couple of years ago I had persistent insomnia. I was already suffering from depression, in part because of a bad work situation, and my lack of sleep fed into those problems.

I don't have those issues anymore, thanks to a combination of therapy, medication, and an improvement in my work situation. If your sleep problems are like mine, no amount of lifehacks are going to solve the issue—instead, this might be an opportunity to examine what, exactly, is making your life so stressful that you can’t sleep. Maybe you need to quit a toxic work environment, like I did. Maybe you’re in a bad relationship, or a bad living situation. Or maybe you just need help with your mental health. This is an opportunity to take care of yourself. 

I'm thankful for every solid night of sleep I get, and if you're suffering from a lack of sleep, I'm sorry. I hope these tips help you at least a little. 

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