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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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