Updated: Apr 28
I’m sure you’ve heard that you should go to bed early. As a child, the only time I was ever told to go to bed was when I was on the phone but that was more about getting me off the phone than it was about going to bed. At the risk of dating myself, these were the days when the curly telephone cord stretched out so far from the kitchen and under doors so that it looked like a tightrope across the living room. I’m sure that in addition to wanting me off the phone for the sake of getting off the phone, the state of the telephone cord caused a huge safety hazard.
The types of rules that were enforced in my childhood home had more to do with my parents being able to keep an eye on us at all times more than they were about making sure we had the best chance at anything. If we were to stay off the phone, it wasn’t so that we could do something more productive with our time, it was because talking “about nothing” to our friends irritated my mom. On several occasions, we were told that we should be grateful to be alive, to have a roof over our heads, and that we had food to eat. As a child – and even as a teen – I wasn’t able to put this into the context of my parent’s existence. After all, they fled brutal civil wars in Central America for the security of the United States a few years before I was born so for them, yeah, it made sense to be grateful for something like security, a roof over your head, and food to eat.
Back to sleep, a quick history of my relationship to it: As I got older, I heard again and again about the importance of sleep. When I went through bootcamp, I experienced it. There were times when I would stumble out of bed in the dark hours of the morning, do what needed to be done to get ready, and walk outside to stand in formation until we were given the “ok” to start walking towards the dining hall for breakfast. Sometimes, I’d come to and all of the sudden, I was in formation at the dining hall. Once we got to the dining hall, we had to wait for what felt like an eternity until it was my company’s time to enter and grab our first meal. I fell asleep more than once during those long waits while I stood in formation with the rest of my company in the dark on that vast tarmac.
My children were born while I was in college. My first baby was heaven sent – she began sleeping through the night at around three months. My second baby however didn’t sleep through the entire night until she was about three years old. I remember feeling like I would never get enough sleep to get out of that deep, deep, funk of early parenthood.
Years later, I lived in Spain for a short while and even though I knew about the concept of the siesta, I was still shocked when I saw that every coworker had a couch in his/her office so that they could sleep after lunch. More shocking than that, was how unashamed everyone was about it. Not one to just let something like this go, I asked a coworker about it. He very nonchalantly answered my question with another question. “Don’t you get tired after lunch in the United States?”
Well, yeah. “In fact,” I wanted to tell him, “I’ve been tired for about ten years!” I didn’t say any of that because I felt like my culture had taught me that taking an afternoon nap meant you were lazy. So who was right – the Spanish, or the Americans?
Fast forward several years and I began to hear about the benefits of sleep. In a yoga class, the teacher talked about how your body rejuvenated while you slept and if the “only” benefit you got out of class was a solid night’s sleep, that was a huge win in itself. This is when my perception of sleep began to change. Sleep was medicine. It was during this time that our muscles repaired and our brain worked its magic. It made sense and all of the sudden, naps in the middle of the day were no longer seen as a luxury, they could also be a necessity – a form of self-care.
So what does it mean if you can’t sleep? Well, there could be a lot of reasons for not being able to get the sleep you need. It could mean that you’re doing too many active things late at night and not giving your body and mind the time they need to wind down for the evening – your circadian rhythm could be off. It could mean that you’ve got a lot on your mind and aren’t allowing your mind the time it needs to relax. It could also mean something more serious like a chronic or persistent depression. Several mental health disorders list sleep disturbances as symptom.
If you are suffering from insomnia or waking 2-3 hours early every morning for a prolonged period of time, you might want to see your doctor. You will want to rule out any medical conditions that might be causing your insomnia. Doctors will often prescribe sleeping medications as a first line of treatment. In some cases, this might be exactly what is needed. Consider talking to a counselor or therapist anyway, because medication alone won’t ever get to the root of the problem that is/was keeping you awake.
Tips to try for getting a restful sleep:
Establish a bedtime routine. Try reading a book every night or drink a hot tea in the evening. The goal is to create a routine that your body and mind become accustomed to that lets you know it's time to wind down for the day and prepare for the night.
Restrict physical activity to the daylight hours. Heavy exercise late at night can get your blood flowing and work to keep you awake rather than to put you to sleep. If this is the only time you have to do something physical, try something like yoga that usually includes a relaxation component at the end.
Watch your diet. For a lot of people, caffeine and sugar can have a negative effect on their system. You may not feel like these things are an issue because you don’t feel amped after ingesting them, but they might be stimulating you enough to keep you awake or at least to keep you from falling into a deep sleep, which is really what our body's need.
Create a space that invites a sense of relaxation. Give yourself the best chance at getting a good night’s sleep by making some changes to your environment, if needed. Find a way to maximise a comfortable, even temperature that is neither too hot nor too cold. Invest in an eye mask or some lavender pillow spray to help you relax. If possible, remove electronic devices like televisions or computers as they can encourage you to remain awake rather than put you to sleep. If you can't remove them, make a commitment to turn them off and leave them off at a certain hour (there are a lot of apps that can help with this). Invest in window coverings like dark curtains, window shades, or rolladens that work to keep unnecessary light out.
Try meditation. There are a lot of guided meditations out there that can help you unwind and relax into a blissful state that welcomes sleep. Yoga Nidra is one of my favorites.
Seek professional attention. If you’ve tried some or all of these tips and you are still having trouble sleeping, seek the advice of a professional to rule out any medical conditions that might be causing your sleep deprivation.
Talk to a therapist. If there are no underlying medical conditions, you've tried some or all of the tips above but you still can't sleep, try talking to a therapist. Sleep disturbances can be a sign of many mental health conditions. A lot of times, we don't even notice or consider this because our maladaptive behavior becomes a habit that becomes a part of our life. In other words, we learn to live with our misery no matter how difficult it makes us. Give yourself the best chance at enjoying the one life you have.
If you're a woman between the ages of 35-50, and can't put your finger on the cause of. your anxiety, I recommend Ada Calhoun's book, Why We Can't Sleep. It's aimed at a certain female demographic, but I think others would benefit from it also. It might help you understand some of the pressures your female friends, partners, or family members are feeling.