by Donna Quesada: I could share stories about the days I spent plagued by the fear of another bad night…
or how I agonized over who they were going to put me next to in a shared room situation (or, a shared room situation, period). I could share about the planning involved in scheduling activities around my bedtime … or a hundred other little anecdotes about how my difficulties and preoccupation with sleep has towered over most of my adult life.
Suffice it to say, I am only a person who has researched the hell out of sleep for the past 30 years, and who has (mostly) come through the other side. I now have a much more relaxed attitude toward it to the point where I (mostly) don’t worry about it at all. My purpose is not to make grand claims or to posture myself as a doctor (although… I’ve found that doctors aren’t necessarily experts on sleep), but simply to offer what I’ve learned and what has helped me through the years.
Donna Quesada: Affirmations for Sleep Confidence—
Lesson One: Sleep is Like a Puzzle—
Sleep is a matter of several relevant ingredients coming together at the same time.
And because those ingredients constantly fluctuate, no two nights are exactly the same. We sleep more deeply on some nights than others. We sleep longer on some nights than others, etc. Sleep is like a puzzle with many pieces coming together in various ways to shape the kind of night you will have. These pieces are both known and unknown… seen and unseen… felt and unfelt. A “good night’s sleep” happens when all the pieces come together in a certain way.
For example, simply being tired enough, physically, is a major component. A calm, worry-free mind is another, since worry triggers your general “arousal headquarters” which when activated, competes with the “drowsy headquarters.” Imagine that you have two control towers in your mind-body system. One has night duty and one has daytime duty. If the daytime controllers are trying to take over at night, the night crew won’t be able to do their job. That’s what it’s like when your arousal center… all the planning and thinking and doing are too active at night—it overpowers the drowsy crew.
Said simply, too much thinking kicks up the arousal center and sabotages the natural onset of sleep.
Besides overactive mental activity, there are other internal factors that influence sleep, as well, like discomforts of any kind. Or, going to bed on a full stomach, which can interfere with the settling down process. After all, the body has to work hard to digest a big meal and things like that will affect your ability to relax into sleep.
Then there are the myriad externals, starting with your bed and its innumerable accoutrements, like bedding, pillows, blankets, the mattress itself, etc. And of course, there are the elements in your sleep environment, such as temperature, noise levels, and light. Your body falls into sleep more effectively as your body temperature drops, so a cooler room is preferable for proper sleep. While a dark room encourages the proper function of melatonin, which regulates your sleep cycle.
And so you see, there are many puzzle pieces that come together and affect the kind of night you will have…just the way countless things come together and shape the kind of day you will have… from what you had for breakfast, to the traffic on the road, to whether or not your kids were screaming in the car, and even the weather…
In this sense, getting sleep is also like eating. We take in a different amount of calories every day. Our appetite varies. No two days are the same… unless you are on a strict and unvarying diet, but even then, we are different! We digest and process what we eat differently, depending on many factors, too. And it’s fine. More than fine—it makes life interesting!
The point being, not to worry when you have a bad night. You can adjust the puzzle pieces. And more importantly, those elements constantly shift and change on their own, so it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen every night. And it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you.
Lesson Two: Take the Pressure Off—
Don’t say to yourself, “I must sleep.” Or, “Oh my God, I’m going to be dead tomorrow.” Instead, say, “How nice is feels just to lie down, right now!” It’s the all good attitude. Turn it into a game… The “How much can I enjoy right now game.” Start by stripping down the layers of thought and awareness until there’s nothing but the immediate NOW… Notice the way the sheets feel on your skin… Notice the comforting weight of your blanket… Notice how delicious it is to simply relax. Enjoy the moment of pure presence without any expectations of anything more. How nice it is to just do nothing! There’s nobody waiting for me… I don’t have to answer to anybody… I don’t have to go anywhere… In other words, take on the attitude of It doesn’t matter if I sleep or not… It’s nice just to have this moment.
Your internal monologue matters. The story you tell yourself shapes your reality and the way you feel in your body, in your skin, in your world. It shapes how you feel, being alive!
The irony is that as soon as you surrender in this way… by letting go of expectations, something magical happens and you will probably sleep!
Lesson Three: Your Brain and Body Are Hard-Wired to Sleep—
You are not broken. It doesn’t matter how many bad nights you’ve had. Just as the the sun keeps shining every day, your brain is hard-wired to sleep. Sometimes storms get in the way and we don’t see the sun doing what it does, but it’s there. And it will continue to rise in the morning and set in the evening. Similarly, our circadian rhythm will continue on, even when we feel completely out of whack.
Despite the fact that the media is full of fear messages around sleep and how we must get our eight hours and what will happen if we don’t, we can trust in our own bodies and rejoice that we are all different and that we all have different needs. We have imbibed a lifetime of unconscious messages from all variety of media and folk wisdom, all pounding us with ideas of what we must have—the food we need to eat, the stuff we need to buy, and the sleep we need to get, because studies show that… adults are not getting the sleep they need… and… the national sleep deficit… and… not getting eight hours… and… stress-related… and…and… and… Years of hearing this stuff instills within us layers of beliefs—many of which are false—as well as unnecessary fears.
My aim isn’t to contest the importance of sleep or play doctor. But rather, to provide a reality check. We all have different “normals.” Just as we all have different caloric needs, we all have different sleep needs. And we also have very different habits around sleep. Some people are easy sleepers while for others, it’s a major ordeal.
We create unnecessary stress and anxiety when we compare ourselves with others and then assume that something is wrong with us because our body doesn’t function the same way as theirs does. We all have different challenges. But we also have different blessings.
For example, have you ever wished that you were one of those people that could fall asleep the minute you closed your eyes? I know I have! My partner is one of those people who can sleep anywhere, anytime. But he has stomach challenges and shouldn’t eat bread. I, on the other hand, may not be one of those “easy sleepers,” but I can eat all the bread I want. I joke about it, saying I have the stomach of a shark. We all have different systems, so it’s useless to compare ourselves to others. And it’s better not to let yourself get hammered by fear messages about what you need and what you should be doing.
You do you, I’ll do me!
People lose sleep for myriad reasons, both willingly and unwillingly. They go to war and take chemicals to stay up because they’re in the middle of combat. They climb mountains just for the thrill of it or throw themselves into harrowing adventures that require unbroken attention around the clock. There’s the inspired artist who loves to work during the still of the night when there are no interruptions. For these people, sleep is the last thing on their mind!
There’s good ole jet lag. There’s the office worker burning the midnight oil. Or the double shift because times are tough. There’s the ultra distance runner, like Pam Reed, who crosses unthinkable distances with no sleep or breaks of any kind, for three days and nights… straight.
Sometimes lack of sleep is voluntary, and sometimes it’s due to life’s circumstances. The point is, unless someone has put you on a treadmill, in some sort of bizarre torture experiment, your body will eventually sleep. I went to a therapist once upon a time, and he used to say that even good old fashioned anxiety will burn itself out at some point. The body can’t go on in high gear forever—it’ll get bored and distracted.
In other words, there’s nothing to worry about… you’ll conk out at some point. This is not something you have to control. Your job is simply to lie down and let nature take its course.
In terms of doing…simply getting out of the way, is often the most helpful thing we can do for ourselves. Meaning, just coming back into the moment. Just “setting up the conditions” so that our body can do what it is hardwired to do, is enough.
Setting Up the Conditions: Three Tips—
Just lying down, taking some deep, calming breaths, and perhaps utilizing some white noise, soft music or guided meditations, gives the mind something to do, which is non-stimulating, so that it doesn’t get in the way of what your body does naturally…
Tip One: 4,7,8 Breath—
My favorite breathing technique—which also happens to be super easy—is the 4,7,8 breath. It is a highly effective mechanism for activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which turns on the relaxation response. It goes like this:
1. Inhale through the nose for four counts
2. Suspend the breath in for seven counts
3. Exhale through the mouth for eight counts
Tip Two: Incorporate Sounds—
If you are sound sensitive, like I am, try to “incorporate” ambient sounds into your internal landscape, rather than resist them. Resistance is the real problem… not the “thing.” You might even create a mantra for the sounds… that doesn’t concern me… that doesn’t concern me… that doesn’t concern me…
Tip Three: Use Your Own Sounds—
While I have my own guided meditations out there, I also like to use other people’s. I also enjoy white noise, like the sound of ocean waves, or spiritual music, played very softly, which has a relaxing effect on the nervous system. All of these options can be played on your phone, from a playlist or through apps, like Insight Timer, right next to your bed. Try earphones, if it disturbs your sleeping partner.
Besides camouflaging potentially disruptive sounds (because working with sounds, as explained above, is an ongoing practice), all of these sound choices work by giving the mind something to integrate itself into. Sometimes I have my “sleep sounds” playing very softly on repeat, through the night. And when I wake up in the morning, I have no idea what was playing!
I find that affirmations work particularly well because not only are you replacing the worry-thoughts with something more soothing, but the repetitive phrases tend to lull the mind into a lovely, sleep-inducing state.