Last night, about a half-hour before I went to bed, I popped onto my lap top, responded to a few emails, and checked Face Book to see who liked a picture on my wall of my adorable grandson. Prior to that, I’d been reading a non-fiction book; a book that was engaging and clicked my brain into gear. And then I went to bed, laid my head on my pillow, and stared up at the ceiling. What I noticed was how alert I felt; how not sleepy, untired and unready for bed I was.
I’ve never struggled a lot with not being able to sleep, though there have been periods of time when I was anxious about something, excited or upset, and found it hard to go to sleep. But as a rule, I’m a good sleeper. Eight hours a night. And I know better than to get involved in things right before bedtime that could wait, need to wait, until a new day when I’m fresh.
As a spiritual director, I hear stories of many who struggle with putting themselves to bed. They don’t sleep well. Have cases of mild to major insomnia. And I imagine they can attribute some of the restlessness to their own bad habits of stirring up their minds and energizing their emotions, just like I did last night. In fact, research suggests that 60 million Americans struggle with insomnia!
I know better. However, when I fail to follow my “know better,” I experience sleeplessness like the other 60 million people in the US. It’s a bad deal. I slog through my day in a fog; my engagement with life sluggish; my response to others impatient; my creativity and mental acuity dulled. And agonizingly, not sleeping can beget not sleeping, which multiplies my anxiety and lack of productivity. It’s a bummer to not sleep.
I’ve read about and tried some things that seem to help me put myself to bed and enter a more conducive state of restfulness that leads to sleep. When I do these things, I not only fall asleep more easily, I sleep more restfully.
Here are few thing I do that seem to help:
· Clean sheets: I sure don’t change my bed every night, but soft, clean sheets really make going to bed a comforting and cozy experience. Also, taking a warm shower before I climb into my bed with clean sheets makes me feel like I’ve rinsed the day off and am ready to put it behind.
· A bedtime routine: I go through the same process every night in preparation for bed. Wash my face; brush my teeth; put on my pj’s; put clothes away. When I’m going through the motions, I feel myself looking forward to bed. My body and mind start to anticipate it.
· 15 to 30 minutes of winding down: When I take a short time to unwind before I actually turn the lights off, I’m more likely to fade into a state of sleepiness and I fall asleep more quickly. Sometimes that idle time takes the form of reading a book that is calming. It also includes not doing some things, like watching television, being on my computer or IPad, or reading something that agitates my brain rather than helps it calm down.
· Evening prayer of examine: This prayer, developed by St. Ignatius, is a time of noting when you felt close to God, were aware of God during your day and when you felt far away. It’s often the case that when I lay in the dark and begin this examine of my day that I will drift off to sleep. My last thoughts are often ones of when I felt God’s presence.
These are a few good habits that help me fall asleep and sleep well so that I can live life with the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual vitality that I desire and that aids my fruitfulness. So, what works for you? What helps you ease into a state of restfulness and deep, peaceful, nourishing sleep? Are you aware of anything that contributes to you not resting well and becoming sleep-starved? Sleep is such a precious gift and commodity; we’d be wise to do whatever it takes to protect and nurture it.