I’ve been known to offer thanks as I drift off, aware that this is a blessing that not everyone enjoys. Maybe some of it comes naturally, though I do think that there are many factors involved.
I was inspired by a few interesting blog posts by Barb at Letitgocoach who is actively seeking to improve her sleep. From what she’s written so far, I think she’s on the right track. Included in one post were the following lines, which sounded so familiar from a long time ago:
The body knows how to drift off to asleep.
(SIMPLE HABIT/MINDFUL SLEEP, BY OREN JAY SOFER)
These words reminded me of an early lesson from my father, who also claimed to be a good sleeper.
I recall complaining to him when I was young and his go-to response was always the same. “Don’t worry if you can’t sleep, you must not be tired enough.” I know he thought this quip was hilarious, but over the years I began to think that there might be some truth to it. He often followed up with yet another line that was equally annoying: “When you get tired enough… you’ll sleep.” Thanks Dad.
Ironically, I also remember him lighting up a cigarette as he crawled out of bed each morning. “Gotta get my heart started”, he’d mumble as the cloud of smoke followed him towards the coffee pot. Two cups and three smokes later, he was ready to face the day.
But getting back to this century, Barb’s blog post reaffirmed to me that a possible first step towards getting a good night’s sleep might just be to “Stop Trying.”
I’m no expert in this field, but I’ve formulated a few ideas about sleep in general. To further back Barb’s point, it’s possible that my lack of focus on getting a good night’s sleep actually allows me to do what just comes naturally. Most of the time I barely remember laying my head on the pillow before I’m out cold. I never worry about it, not even when I end up having a rough night.
I know that many activities during the day either help or hinder a good night’s sleep. These are some of the factors I’m aware of:
-I don’t drink coffee after my initial morning blast, which happens as soon as I wake up.
-I have a “Do Not Disturb” rule on my phone between 10:00 PM and 5 AM, which is during my ideal sleeping period.
-I engage in some physical activity every day.
-I never read or watch TV in bed.
-I try to eat dinner early so that I don’t go to bed on a full stomach.
-If I take the odd nap here or there, I keep it short (20-30 min).
-And most importantly, no matter how tired I get, I try not to stress over not getting enough sleep.
Of course, even if I follow my own regimen closely, there are unknown factors that might prohibit a good sleep. I won’t lie; there have been nights where I lay in bed, unable to shut off my brain. Unresolved issues probably pose the greatest threat to a restful night.
If that happens, I can sometimes shift concentration from the problem to another topic. This is often easier said than done, but sometimes it works. I shift my focus to planning out simple projects or an activity that interests me. If I’m successful in my attempt to dwell on mundane topics, dreaming soon begins to take over.
I’ve also been known to get up and start writing, often a first step towards addressing issues. Outlining a plan of action, writing an e-mail or searching for alternatives can be enough to quiet down the urgency, allowing sleepiness to set in.
Regarding coffee, I recently read that the half-life of caffeine in the human body is 5.7 hours. This means that the caffeine I take into my body sticks with me in varying degrees throughout the day and night. Although some people claim to be able to sleep fully caffeinated, I’ve also read that the quality of sleep is also affected, just as with alcohol and other drugs. Keeping in mind that caffeine levels in my blood never reach zero, I shut off intake early, typically after one cold glass each morning.
I should also mention that I’ve never used melatonin or sleeping pills. Not even once. I’ve been involved in conversations with people who have a hard time sleeping. Some have used “sleep aids”, everything from Melatonin to prescription medications. A couple of them have developed serious side effects, including loss of balance and convulsions. These symptoms were eventually traced back to chronic use of sleep medications. Personally, I’d rather just be tired!
I’ve also met a young man who is currently involved in a sleep study, due to chronic fatigue from too many restless nights. I plan to learn more about this experience and his thoughts on why he doesn’t sleep well. In fact, I would have to say that my own wife’s sleep regimen is shaky, at best. Still, she and I share a rule of thumb that has worked for us so far. We know that either of us can get by on one night of little or no sleep…no guarantees after that.
This general rule is an acknowledgment to my father’s “don’t worry” approach, which propagates a healthy outlook towards sleep. But unlike my wife, I take it one step further, knowing I can get by on little or no sleep for extended periods. Is this what I want for myself? No, definitely not. But I can, and have done it in the past.
Oddly, there was a year or two in my early forties when I only slept for 3 to 4 hours a night. I would typically go to bed at 11 PM and wake up somewhere between 2 and 3 AM. I was working ten-hour days at the time but was able to function all day, fully under the impression that I didn’t need to sleep any longer than that. On the positive side, I got a lot done.
However, I have read from many sources that most people require between 7 and 8 hours a night so I slowly forced myself to abandon that routine. I simply tried going back to sleep when I woke up in the wee hours and eventually got back into normal sleep patterns.
By my early sixties I eventually settled into sleeping around 6.5 hours per night, which seems to be the sweet spot. I guess I’d sleep longer than that if I could, but it just doesn’t happen. Either way, I feel fine and I still fall asleep quickly every night.
To be fair, I’m sure that for most people it’s not as easy as refusing to worry about sleep, but there are other steps that surely contribute to healthful slumber. Physical activity and/or exercise have amazing mental and physical benefits anyway, sleep being one of them. In fact, I’ve noticed that as I get older that I have an increased tendency to get very sleepy after vigorous exercise. This is especially true after a long and hard bike ride. If I manage to stay awake after a tough outing on the bike, I’m definitely going to pass out early that same night.
I’ve read that the body and mind can be trained to seek sleep when going to bed. The head hitting the pillow should be the queue, and that is definitely true in my case. There are really only one or two activities that should take place in bed. Food intake and reading are not listed; those things should take place away from the sleeping area. Winding down before sleep should be a ritual that ends with climbing into bed.
When I think of sleep or the lack thereof, I often think about my dad and his weird sense of humor. But he was right about one thing, when I get tired enough, I’ll sleep! I thank Barb for inspiring me to examine my own routine, and hope she finds that elusive good night of sleep she seeks.
(Featured sleepy painting by Des)