Sleep deprivation. It can be the bane of parenthood. Everyone talks about how much sleep you’re getting or not getting. But what happens when it’s not the amount of sleep that’s the issue? What happens if you can’t actually fall asleep in the first place? One of the most common complaints I’ve heard lately from clients, friends, and on Twitter is that people simply can’t get to sleep. They’re exhausted, but at the end of the day they can’t turn their minds off, they’re too wired, they’re too stressed, they’re too…(insert your reason here) to let their bodies relax and drift into dreamland.
When I was younger, I had a lot of trouble sleeping. It started when I was a kid, being afraid of the dark, and then as a teenager I suffered night-time anxiety. I would be fine all day, but as soon as it was time to go to sleep my mind would go wild with worry, about school, friends, boyfriends, my parents, life, nuclear war, and all the things I had pushed down throughout the day. My dear mom, (who was far more in tune with me than I would have admitted as a teenager) gave me a relaxation tape. Yes, an actual cassette tape. And it has made all the difference in my sleeping habits.
Many of us are so desperate for sleep, we think that a sleeping pill or some other crutch will help us. But in the long run, for the sake of our minds and our bodies, wouldn’t it be better to search out coping mechanisms that allow our bodies to relax and rest naturally? (Disclaimer: if you have a condition or illness that necessitates the use of a prescription, that is an entirely different story and your health professional should guide you in your decisions.)
It's common sense that a quiet and calm environment is key to restfulness. Many of us know the types of the things we “should” be doing, and what we shouldn’t. If we’re tapping away on our laptops while watching TV in bed, for example, we’re not doing a lot to quieten the mind. Calming the mind and, in turn, the body, are two important steps in setting yourself up for a night of rest. Personally, meditation and relaxation techniques are a surefire way for me to clear my thoughts, release tension in my body, and let my mind sail into the land of nod.
Here are my top three meditation/relaxation techniques to use at bedtime.
1. Counting Breath
Find a comfortable position lying down on your back. Bring one hand onto the belly and one hand onto the heart. Allow yourself to become conscious of your breath. Begin the counting breath, breathing in for the count of 4 (or 5 or 6 etc.), and breathing out for the equal number count of 4 (or 5 or 6 etc.). Deep, calming breaths keep your heart-rate down and encourage the body to relax deeply. This helps the body prepare for sleep.
2. Autogenic Relaxation
From head to toe, bring your attention to each body part and mentally encourage it to release. Start at the feet, and say to yourself: “My feet are relaxed, my feet are relaxed, my feet are completely relaxed.” Then repeat with each body part. By focusing on each area of the body, you are releasing unnecessary tension and allowing the body to come into a state of rest.
3. Tense and Release
Beginning with the feet, tense all of the muscles in the feet and toes. Hold for a breath, and on your next exhalation let all of the muscles in the feet relax. Work your way up the body, one body part at a time. By tensing the muscles and then releasing them, we are encouraging the body to differentiate between a tense and relaxed state. This allows us to let go of extra tension we may be holding unnecessarily.
Because we live in an age of quick fixes, we often get frustrated if things don’t work right away. I suggest trying one of these techniques for at least two weeks to allow the body to get used to a new routine. Need more help with sleeping? Check out our very own Dr. Kim’s 12 Tips for a Better Sleep.