As a practicing psychiatrist in Midtown Manhattan, I often feel like the spokesperson for sleep. Many of my high achieving patients come to me with complaints of stress, anxiety, and poor attention spans. My first question to my struggling clients is, "are you sleeping?" The answer is usually "not very well." There are various reasons that my over achieving clients are not getting the rest they need. Many feel that sleep is fungible. It seems logical that by reducing sleep time we gain more awake time to meet other goals. Others find it very difficult to turn off their busy monkey minds and settle into sleep. Nevertheless, the effect of reduced sleep on your mood and attention is clear. It can make you irritable, reduce concentration, interfere with memory, and even make it more difficult to lose weight. Here are some tips to maximize sleep so you can function at your best during wake time.
1. Do not lie around. Many of us use our bed like any other piece of furniture. However, the bed should be used primarily for sleep, and not for reading, watching TV, eating, or worrying. If after 20 minutes in bed you find you cannot sleep, do not lie around and hope for the best. Instead, get out of bed and engage in a relaxing activity such as reading or listening to music. Refrain from watching television or reading on a phone or tablet. Return to bed when you feel tired. If you still cannot sleep after 20 minutes, the process should be repeated.
2. Relentlessly set that alarm. Regardless of what time you fall asleep, arrange to have the same wakeup time every day, including weekends. This teaches your body to be more efficient about sleep. Day time naps are not allowed. They can shift your circadian rhythm which requires training and regularity to work properly.
3. Relaxation before rest. Learning to relax is pivotal to getting restful sleep. About one hour before bedtime, stop any stimulating activity such as exercise or work. You might take some time to engage in certain routines that can help your body relax. The first is the relaxation response. This begins by lying or sitting in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and place your hand on your abdomen. Begin to take some deep breaths so that you feel your abdomen rise and fall. Whenever a thought comes up, simply redirect it to the sensation of the breath. Move away from anxiety and other negative emotions by redirecting to the breath.
Another technique is known as progressive relaxation. Beginning with the muscles in the feet, contract gently for about 3 seconds, and then release the effort. Move up your body by contracting and releasing one part at a time, for example, your calves, thighs, buttocks, abdomen, lower back, upper back, fingers, forearms, upper arm, shoulders, neck and facial muscles. You can repeat the cycle if necessary or just complete one full body scan. This technique helps to relax the physical body and release certain hormones that can help to lower your blood pressure and pulse rate to get you ready for sleep.
4. Avoid sleep saboteurs. Many people think a glass or two (or three) of wine can help sleep. However, we know that although alcohol might be helpful initiating sleep, it can actually cause frequent awakenings and fragment your overall sleep. Similarly, avoid stimulants such as caffeine or smoking during afternoon and evening hours. Avoid prolonged use of light emitting screens, such as phones, tablets, and televisions. These devices can fool the brain that it is daytime, and cause the release of certain hormones that promote wakefulness.
5. If all fails, do not stress. People who have a difficult time sleeping often worry about it. They get concerned without adequate sleep, dire events occur. It is true that when we do not sleep over extended periods of time, our mood and productivity is negatively impacted. However, it is not necessary to catastrophize a bad night's sleep. This often creates a viscous cycle of worrying about not sleeping which further prevents sleep, and so on. Again, if you find you cannot sleep after 20 minutes, allow yourself some time to engage in a relaxing activity. Fear not, your body will eventually get the sleep it needs if you follow some of the easy rules above.