Note: I link to several products in this post. None of these are paid advertisements or promotions—I just like the stuff.
I’ve become fairly obsessed with sleep in recent years. This is likely part age, part trauma from depriving my poor body of sleep for so long, and part escapism. No matter, I take it pretty seriously and I love that seriousness. It feels like a radical act in today’s world, a subversive middle finger to the false God of productivity.
In college and my early twenties, I experienced a few periods of serious insomnia. The first was brought on by a severe eating disorder coupled with the fifteen or so cups of Hazelnut coffee I inhaled from the cafeteria every day in an effort to both fill myself up (not effective) and clean myself out (very effective). So, I don’t know if it could actually be called insomnia, but either way it was scary and debilitating. The later episodes in my early twenties happened at times when my life was completely out of balance: I was working around the clock, surviving on the free mini-Snickers and animal crackers at my office, punishing my body with exercise, and then drinking Red Bull and vodka at the bar until I was near cardiac arrest. Yay for my 20’s!
In those days, my body would twitch all night—even on the nights I didn’t drink alcohol. I had horrible nightmares, I was constantly uncomfortable and exhausted, but also manic. It was then that sleep started to elude me, to become a thing I chased after, and thus, chased anything that promised to help. Alcohol did that for a long time, or so I thought, but of course it only sedated me for a few hours. I tried melatonin, hot yoga, long runs, no coffee after noon, NyQuil, various herbal concoctions, but I rarely felt like I slept in a way that was actually refreshing.
In my late twenties, I got my first Ambien prescription. I took it for ten years with very few breaks. For five of those years, I mixed it dangerously with excessive drinking. I continued to take it after I got sober, believing I honestly could not sleep without it. I finally stopped taking it earlier this spring.
Since getting sober, sleep has become a true spiritual practice for me. It’s a daily, practical practice that I view as sacred and imperative to my sanity. It is probably my number one self-care practice and a total non-negotiable.
With that, I bring you seven things that have brought me better sleep.
(Note: None of the below would matter much if I was 1) still drinking alcohol, or 2) still taking Ambien. And, as I said in my post about quitting Ambien, “But above all, the best antidote to sleeplessness is living right. By that I mean practicing what I've learned in recovery: telling the truth, apologizing quickly when I've made mistakes, trusting in God, and helping others.”)
1. Make your bedroom a sanctuary.
This is the most involved of all the tips I have, but also probably the most important.
If you look at your space as a reflection of yourself—of your bedroom as an extension of your body—you want to create a space that is, for the sake of rest: calm, clean, cared-for, and safe. If you have piles of chaos, an uncomfortable, unmade bed, a wobbly nightstans, and harsh lighting, how does that bode for your state of mind? Not well.
So how do you tackle this? Commit and keep it simple. Remove clutter (don’t just stuff it into closets or drawers), invest in bedding you absolutely love crawling into and looking at, use soft lamps or candles for the lighting (goodbye, harsh overhead lights), keep books and art you love on the shelves and walls, fix wobbly/unstable furniture, keep the floor and table-tops clean, and dear lord, if you have an uncomfortable bed, invest in a much better one. Paint the walls if you dislike the color. Move electronics out of the room: TVs, iPads, phone chargers (more on that later). Make it smell lovely. I have an oil diffuser by my bed and also put essential oils directly on my sheets and pillow cases (my favorites are below). My daughter always wants to take a pillow from my bed with her because “it smells like you and home.” My other friends say my room smells like hippies, but screw them!
Also, MAKE. YOUR. BED. Slow down. Take care. Esteemable acts build self-esteem—and maybe even more importantly, self-respect—and this is a small, yet powerful way to do that every day.
I truly believe our outsides reflect our insides, but you don’t have to wait to feel better to create a better environment. Reverse engineer it. It works.
2. Invest in a weighted blanket.
A blanket that produces and increases your body’s feel good hormones? Yes, please. Weighted blankets are engineered to be 7-12% of your body weight and relax the nervous system by simulating the feeling of being held or hugged. This increases serotonin and melatonin levels and decreases cortisol levels—improving your mood and promoting restful sleep at the same time.
I have a Gravity Blanket and love it. I was worried about it being hot because I’m a sweaty sleeper and unfortunately it is a bit hot. But, I just use it instead of my comforter on the warmer nights, and that works great.
3. Practice yoga nidra for sleep + other meditations on Insight Timer.
Jennifer Piercy’s guided meditations on Insight Timer (a free app!) and her deeply calming voice have become a part of my bedtime routine. In addition to the Yoga Nidra for Sleep meditation, there’s also Bone Deep Sleep, Healing Darkness for Sleep, and Yoga Nidra: Freedom Nature. She’s the creator of the “Your Guide to Peaceful Sleep” course that I mentioned last week in my Dig List and I also recommend her work to my WATL students. She’s like the fairy godmother of sleep.
4. Listen to this podcast.
This particular episode made my brain explode and that’s really not an overstatement. It was an integral part of my journey in realizing that I had to break up with Ambien and so perfectly explained and helped me make sense of my experience of sleep when I was newly sober. There’s just SO much fascinating info packed into this episode; I’ve definitely watched and listened to it more than a few times. Dr. Walker is a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Founder and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. His book, “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams”, is a must read, and this podcast episode is a must listen.
5. Essential Oils
I know, essential oils, blah blah blah. But, they’ve actually been a mainstay for me throughout my recovery. Specific to sleep, there are a variety of blends and individual oils that are proven to calm the nervous system and promote relaxation. If you don’t buy any of that, you can’t argue that smell is an incredibly powerful sense. (Go ahead, tell me what cologne your high school boyfriend wore.) Because I have incorporated these oils into my routine, I equate them with self-care, steadiness, and calm—very, very good things. My brain has made that positive connection.
My favorites are listed below. I diffuse them and also rub a few drops right into my pillows and sheets at night before bed.
Common uses, directions for use, and primary benefits of each oil are listed at the links below. Note: I like doTERRA oils, but there are other reputable brands out there.
doTERRA Serenity Restful Blend: Promotes relaxation and a restful sleeping environment, lessens feelings of tension and calms emotions.
doTERRA Console Comforting Blend: Promotes feelings of comfort and hope, counteracts negative emotions of grief, sadness, and hopelessness.
doTERRA Lavender Oil: Often considered a must-have oil to keep on hand at all times due to its versatile uses, including calming and relaxing properties that promote peaceful sleep and ease feelings of tension.
doTERRA Marjoram Oil: Known to the Greeks and Romans as a symbol of happiness and valued today for its calming properties and positive effect on the nervous system .
Yes, that is an actual, analog alarm clock on my bed stand!
6. Cell phone boundaries.
I know, I know. This may be a very unpopular notion or a seemingly impossible feat, but stay with me. I have a whole post coming about cell phones, social media, and their correlation to anxiety and our capacity for deep work, but for now, let’s just talk about sleep. For most of us, our phone is the last thing we look at before we close our eyes at night and the first thing we open our eyes to upon waking. But that stimulation—the dopamine hits that flood the brain and the artificial light radiating from the screen—impacts our ability to downshift into rest mode. Research has proven that the blue light which radiates from our cell phones interferes with and actually suppresses the body’s ability to produce melatonin. Here are a few things that I do to set healthy boundaries around my sleep space when it comes to my cell phone:
Use an actual alarm clock instead of the one on your phone, as pictured in #5.
Charge your phone overnight in a location that is not within an arm’s reach of your bed.
Create actual boundaries around your use.
I assume you don’t sleep with your notifications on (sound-wise) but if you do OMG, HELLOOOO! STOP.
Stop incoming notifications using “Do not disturb” in your settings. Even better, in the new iPhone software upgrade, there’s a “Screen Time” function in Settings. You can set it to disable all functions on the phone (except certain apps) during ”downtime.” Mine is set for downtime from 9pm to 7am. Or, best of all, turn your phone off or on airplane mode.
Don’t use your phone at least 30 minutes before bedtime and give yourself 30 minutes in the morning before you pick it up.
Trade in scrolling for an actual book. (People often ask me how I read so much and this is primarily how.) And, according to a study conducted in 2009 by researchers at the University of Sussex, opening a book before you go to bed can help you cope with insomnia. The study showed that six minutes of reading reduces stress by 68%, clearing the mind and preparing the body for sleep.
7. Create a nighttime ritual that you love.
I start to wind down around 8:30 (yes, I’m ancient) and this is my general routine. Find one that you love. I generally go to sleep around 10 pm and wake up most days at 6 am.
Tidy the kitchen. No dishes in the sink, coffee maker prepped for the morning, counters wiped.
Diffuse some good smells. See above.
Take a hot shower. I still find showers to be one of the most wonderful ways to clear out the day, plus I like to get into my bed all fresh and clean. I like baths too, but I don’t have a bathtub anymore, so I opt for showers. I wash my face and brush my teeth in there.
Baby my face. I didn’t wash my face or brush my teeth regularly when I was drinking, so doing these basic things for myself feels extremely luxurious and responsible. I am currently using doTERRA’s Veráge Skin Care Collection and so far it’s wonderful, albeit a little pricey. I also add a drop of geranium oil to the face lotion which has really kept my skin bright and clear—plus, it smells heavenly.
Apply wonderful pajamas. I have a few pairs of pajamas that I love, but this nightie by Rachel Ashwell is by far my absolute favorite. I’d decorate my entire home with her collection if I could.
Say a quick prayer. Thank you.
Set alarm, read, the end.
Lastly, I’ve finally reached the point where I know I have to address my diet, so that’s next for me. I’m going grain free (as of today, praise Jesus, wish me luck) to see how my body responds. This will also no doubt impact sleep and I’ll let you know what I find.
P.S. Here’s that photo of my cats sleeping again. You’re welcome.