I Just Want To Go To Sleep! How to Sleep Better (According to Science)

I Just Want To Go To Sleep! How to Sleep Better (According to Science)

For something that’s meant to be instinctive and so-easy-that-babies-can-do-it, sleep certainly doesn’t mind playing hard to get at times. It can be a bit of a punk like that. Here’s how sleep is meant to happen – your body temp starts to drop and melatonin – the sleep hormone that tells your body that it’s bedtime – starts to rise. Your blood pressure drops, your heart rate eases back and your breathing finds a steady beat. Then … sleep. Restful, restorative, glorious sleep. Easy right? Yeah no. Not at all.

As a third of us who are getting less than six hours a night already know, sleep doesn’t always follow the rules. Here are some ways to bring sleep back into your life like it wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

How to get blissful zzz’s.

  1. Establish the association: bed = sleep.

    The brain loves associations. Like, loooves them. If your bed has become the place you toss and turn, worry, and try to wrestle your eyes closed these are the feelings that will be triggered when you settle for sleep – not the restful, peaceful, blissful, exquisite … okay – stopping now. The goal is to break the association between bed and restlessness and have bed trigger feelings of relaxation and calm. To make this happen, the only things that should happen in bed are sleep and sex. Be patient though – this might take time. It took time to build the association so it might take time to undo it. 

  2. If you don’t fall asleep in 20 …

    If you don’t fall sleep in about 20 minutes, get out of bed, go to another room, and do something relaxing for a while until you start to feel sleepy. Try to stay away from screens and go for a puzzle, a book or a mindful colouring book. Staying in bed when you’re struggling to fall asleep will only strengthen the association between bed and restlessness – and you know how that ends up.

  3. Those screens!

    The blue light from screens is interpreted as daylight by receptors in the eye that are there to regulate our internal body clock and tell us when it’s time to go to sleep. Even if the lights are out, staying on a screen – whether it’s texting, emailing, shopping, or reading – will delay sleep. Research has found that people who read e-books release less melatonin (the hormone that helps you fall asleep) so they stay awake for longer. Because they take longer to fall asleep, the next morning they feel less alert than those reading a more traditional book. Particularly for adolescents, screens have been associated with shorter sleep, higher daytime sleepiness and poorer grades. This can happen with as little as 12 minutes exposure to a device. 

  4. A bedtime ritual – (because sometimes a little same-same is good for you).

    Find a bedtime ritual will help your body get into sleep mode. Work out one that feels lovely for you – a warm shower, a relaxation exercise – whatever will give your brain a gentle warning that it’s time to wind down. 

  5. Go to bed at a consistent time.

    Researchers have found that a consistent bedtime is one of the most important factors in getting a good sleep. Try to go to bed at the same time every night. This will work better for you than having some late nights and some trying to catch up. Try to make your bedtime one that will let you get at least seven hours consistently.

  6. Get the worries out of you.

    Your body knows how to sleep, and it wants to, but your mind can get in the way. If bedtime is like a welcome mat for worries, regrets, guilt – anything that’s hard to let go of, get them out of you. Do this by either writing in a journal or by making a list of the things you need to remember. Let your mind know those things it’s hanging on to have been taken care of for the night.

  7. Oh, so this is what ‘relaxed’ feels like.

    Your body can hold stress and tension without you realising it. By tensing and relaxing your body, the contrast between the two can help you to feel the difference, making it easier for your body to find calm. Here’s how. Lay down and close your eyes. Pull your toes up towards the top of you and hold them there a count of ten. Relax for 10. Tense for ten. Repeat this about ten times.

  8. Slow the beats.

    Research has found that listening to relaxing classical music for 45 minutes before bed can significantly improve sleep quality. can trigger your brain to synchronize your heart rate with the musical beat, and classical does this best. Music or songs that have string based instruments with minimal brass and percussion can calm the sympathetic nervous system, and decrease anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate. Music around 60 beats a minute seems to bring on a relaxed state by causing heart rate to synchronise with the music. (60 beats a minute is at the lower end of resting heart rate.) The music used in the study, was a collection of classical music including popular pieces from Baroque to Romantic (The Most Relaxing Classical, 2 CD, Edited by Virgin 1999).  The authors suggest that it may work to bring on sleep by relaxing the muscles and providing a distraction from worrying or stressful thoughts.

    Then there’s this little gem … ‘Weightless’ by Marconi Union is officially ‘the most relaxing song’, according to science. Sound therapists and Manchester band Marconi Union used proven elements of scientific theory to produce the quintessential relaxation track using proven elements of scientific theory. Research by the British Academy of Sound Therapy found that it was able to lower blood pressure, slow heart rate and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) remarkably. The song begins at 60 beats a minute and gradually slows to around 50, at which time the listener’s heartbeat automatically falls into line with the beat. ‘Weightless’ is eight minutes long but the ride is a blissful one. You can listen to it here (but make sure you’re not driving while you’re listening!).

  9. Use your breathing to quiet your nervous system – two ways.

    •   Deep breathing.

    Breathing deeply into the belly helps soothe the nervous system by calming the fight or flight response. If bedtime has become a place of angst, or if this is where your head does its very best worrying, breathing deeply will initiate the relaxation response. This reverses any of the physiological changes that come with stressful or anxious thoughts. It’s an instinctive response so you don’t have to believe it will work, it just will. When you are lying down, breathe and feel your belly and feel it rise with every breathe in. Feel is fall with every breath out. Keep repeating until you start to feel settled.

    •  4-7-8 Breathing

    According to Harvard-trained physician, Dr Andrew Weil, the 4-7-8 breathing technique can bring on sleep in under a minute. Here’s how it works: 

    Place the tip of your tongue behind the top of your front teeth, and keep it there for the exercise.
    >> Completely exhale through your mouth with a ‘whoosh’ sound.
    >> Close your mouth and breathe in through your nose for a count of four
    >> Hold for seven
    >> Exhale through your mouth, with a whoosh sound, for a count of eight.
    >> Repeat the above sequence three more times (inhale for 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8).

    If you have trouble holding your breath, it’s okay to speed things up a little but make sure you keep the ratio of 4:7:8. (Try 2 : 3.5 : 4, for example.) You’ll feel your heart rate slow as you do this. By controlling your breathing your body is getting the oxygen it needs, and getting rid of the carbon dioxide it doesn’t. See Dr Raymond Weil demonstrating the technique here.

  10. Acupressure yourself. 

    According to Bastyr University, these acupressure techniques will help you to fall asleep – and they can be done at home. Here are the options:

    •  Apply a minute of gentle pressure to the small depression between your eyebrows, just above your nose.

    •  Press the small depression on top of your foot between your first and second toes. Keep pressing for a few minutes until you feel a dull ache.

    •  On the bottom of your feet, find the point that is about about one third back from the tips of your toes, and press for a few minutes.

    •  Massage both of your ears for about a minute.

  11. Let your mind relax mindfully.

    According to the National Sleep Foundation these mindful techniques will bring calm to your body and mind:

    •  Mindful breathing.

    When you close your eyes, pay attention to your breathing. Feel the air coming into to you, through you, down into your belly and then feel yourself exhale. As you do this, check your body for anywhere you feel tension. Imagine that tension leaving your body with your exhale. If your mind tries to grab on to a worry or a thought, imagine yourself letting it go and gently bring your attention back to your breathing.

    •  Mindful sensing.    

    A racing, traveling mind is the enemy of restful sleep. By focusing on your senses in the now, this can keep your mind wandering to the what-ifs that haven’t happened yet, or overthinking the things that have already happened. Feel the breath moving into you. Listen to the sounds around you. Feel the sheets against your body. What can you smell in the air around you? 

  12. Moderate exercise.

    Research has shown that moderate aerobic exercise can improve sleep quality and reduce anxiety in people who were struggling to fall asleep. In the study, the moderate exercise was 50 minutes on a treadmill at a moderate pace. The pace will be different for everyone and will depend on fitness.

  13. Increase your fibre intake.

    Low fibre and high saturated fat and sugar have been associated with lighter, less restorative sleep and more sleep wakings. A study with a bunch of adults in the normal weight range found that when they amped up their fiber, they had more time in deep, or slow wave sleep. Higher fat was linked with less slow wave sleep and increased sugar was associated with waking up more during sleep. People fell asleep quicker after eating meals lower in saturated fat and higher in protein. 

And finally …

What you do during the day as well as what you do immediately before sleep can all impact on how easily you fall asleep as well as the quality of sleep you have. A few tweaks can make a difference between tossing and turning and blissful zzz’s. 

18 Comments

Phyllis

I have tried many many sleep tips but so far I haven’t found one that is very helpful for me. At times I go 24 hours with no sleep. Would really appreciate all the help you can give me Thanks

Reply
simon

WOW,
Just listened to the Marconi Union track on you tube within the first 10 seconds I could feel parts of me relaxing!
Who needs Chemicals? Will try this tonight alongside the Amitryptaline and see how I get on!

Reply
Robert

Great tips Karen. My favorite drink before bed is banana tea.

I cut off ends of a banana and put it in the hot water, without any peeling or chopping. I leave it for 10 min. and then filter the tea and let it cool.

It’s effective because banana contains magnesium which calms your body and relaxes your muscles.

Thought I share, It works wonders for me. 🙂

Reply
Peris Mukuru

Karen, these are very helpful tips and very easy to apply, especially “breathing in and out” i will try all of them. I love sleep. thank you.

Reply
Peggy

When I am worried or angry and trying to sleep, the thing that helps most is doing several rounds of the yoga posture, Lions breath.

Reply
Jasmin Beck

Hi Karen,
LOVE the sleep article as Iam only getting 2 hours max. a night and am on verge of either a full blown manic episode or complete collapse.
Have been doing all of the thihgs you have mentioned and you are 100% right according to the sleep specialists.
I am waiting to hear date for my appointment with Sleep Specialist.
Also, FANTASTIC update article on anxiety- have passed it onto social worker here to try to assist staff in their understanding of mental health which AIN’s aren’t trained in.
Thank you for what you bring into our lives- Earth Angel.
Jasmin?

Reply
Steph

Thanks, Karen, this is very helpful.
I’m wondering if you might be able to list some 60-beat classical music sleep pieces?
thanks

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Steph I’m so pleased the article is helpful. I’ve updated the post with the music they used in the study and also another one that science says is ‘the most relaxing song’.

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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