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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
⁣
What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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