When my mom used to say, “Nighty night, sleep tight” to me as a child, it was all I needed to hear to get me snoring within minutes. I’ve been lucky ever since, because I usually still sleep like a baby. The one time in my life when my sleep was completely disrupted was this time last year, when my boyfriend died and grief decided to have its way with me. I was exhausted during the day, awake at night, and found that I finally had to take my friends’ advice and allow myself to break my own rules. About once a week, half a Xanax became my sleep mate. But since I knew that sleep aids can lead to addiction and many over the counter drugs cause more drowsiness the next day, I curbed my intake once the first climb up grief’s ladder passed. When I returned to a normal sleep pattern, I felt like a princess without her pea, hitting the pillow hard to recover from all of the sleep I had lost.
Now that I’ve come to know grief intimately, I prepare myself accordingly with the following sleep tips.
Early to Bed, Early to Rise.
According to the Sleep Center at the University of California San Francisco, good sleep hygiene means developing behaviors that will help you get a good night sleep. Maintaining a schedule of your sleep times will help; first, by finding out how many hours you need to feel rested, and then sticking to the same bedtime and wake-up times every day. I found in those initial months that having a 9:00 p.m. bedtime and a 7:00 a.m. wake hour did the trick.
Take a Deep Breath.
Many times the reason we can’t sleep is due to the stress in our daily lives. Sleep experts have found that Cognitive therapy, a process where one learns to change certain behaviors, can be helpful in changing attitudes around sleep. Take the Type A personality, for example, who says, “I don’t need sleep, I’ve got work to do.” For this person, it becomes a matter of making different choices regarding sleep. Experts recommend not working in bed, and also getting in the habit of shutting down your laptop ten minutes earlier than normal. If your mind is still racing when you crawl into bed, simply close your eyes (try an eye pillow) and breathe in and out of your nose to relax your mind. Though I tend to meditate first thing in the morning, I’ve found that when I meditate for fifteen to thirty minutes before bed, it clears my head enough to allow me to rest.
Use Melatonin to Bring the Serotonin.
Melatonin, a hormone from the pineal gland in the brain, helps maintain a body’s inner clock. Researchers have learned that the aging process causes a loss of melatonin, which explains why children, once calmed, sleep harder than the rest of us. At the University of Maryland’s Medical Center, experimental studies have also shown that taking melatonin can create a surge in the chemical serotonin, which helps alleviate the symptoms of depression. I found that melatonin was a perfect supplement for me during the grieving process, and have used it when traveling between time zones, when I can guarantee that my sleep schedule will be disrupted.
Exercise is Bliss.
Research has shown that regular exercise helps relieve insomnia. I know that for myself, a regular exercise regimen helps my body, my mind, and my sleep. I’ve also learned that right after exercise, I tend to feel quite awake, so I avoid late night tennis dates or yoga. Yet, when I first started yoga ten years ago, a teacher taught me a posture to do right before I go to bed, the Sleeping Thunderbolt (Supta Vajrasana) pose . Any time my body is fighting getting under the sheets, I remember this pose to help calm me.
Avoid Afternoon Coffee, Late Night Drinks, and Midnight Snacks.
I never knew that it could take up to eight hours for caffeine to wear off, so I know now to get decaf in the afternoon. Although alcohol is known as a sedative, I’ve been awake on too many middle of the nights after one too many glasses of wine to realize that alcohol will make my body act like a newborn baby, screaming to be nursed. Warm milk might do the trick since it contains tryptophan, a substance that promotes sleep, but it’s best to avoid spicy foods or too much protein, which give you a jumpstart of energy.
With work, family, personal commitments, and all the other stress every day life brings, sleep restores our sanity. Treating sleep as a friend brings the “nighty night, sleep tight” that we all need and deserve.