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How To Sleep Better—Tonight!    

How To Sleep Better—Tonight!

Art by FISK

By Alyson Sheppard 

When the pandemic sent everyone home, forcing them to convert their kitchen tables into desks, it seemed like we were transitioning to a life of leisure. No more long commutes. No more scrambling to cook meals in a time crunch. We could get our to-do list done and even sleep later than we used to. We could rest.

But what happened was the opposite: People started working around the clock, as professional life moved into territory typically reserved for personal life. That led to people paying less attention to their physical and mental health, and suddenly they could not get a good night’s rest at all.

Ric Mathews, a MyWellbeing psychotherapist at Clarity Therapy NYC and a sleep expert, says he saw a spike in patients suffering from sleep disruptions and disorders at his clinic.

“I can’t think of any patient who I’m working with now who hasn’t to some degree complained about some kind of a sleep disturbance in the past year,” he said. “2020 really brought that issue into people’s lives, where it may have never existed before.”

While chronic sleep issues are fairly common among adults in the U.S.—Harvard University research suggests it affects 10 to 18 percent—there are ways to improve the quality and quantity of the sleep you get. We asked Mathews to walk us through why sleep is so important and some tips and strategies for sleeping better tonight.

What does sleep do for your brain and body?

During sleep, our muscles repair and recover. Our metabolism is regulated during sleep. It’s how we can maintain overall mental and physical health by getting energized and giving the body a chance to replenish its energy sources. That’s also how memory is consolidated and stored, which is super important when it comes to learning. And then the ability to concentrate and pay attention is also really restored during a night of rest.

How much sleep do we actually need?

Essentially, we move through different brain waves, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our brain is constantly in one of, I’ll say, six waves, but there are four primary ones we focus on in terms of neuroscience: beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Each one has a different range and function. There’s light sleep, and then you go into deep sleep, and then you go into REM sleep, and then you start to wake up.

We want to give the brain an opportunity to spend time in every wave state and complete the cycle. If we don’t complete that cycle for prolonged periods over time, it becomes a more chronic issue. That’s when it starts to cause mental or mood disturbances. (An existing mental health issue could also cause the sleep issue, which is something a therapist could help you determine.)

Typically, those stages of sleep are around 90 minutes to two hours. So, you multiply that by four, and that’s how we get that number of eight hours as the optimal amount of time. You can give or take an hour or two, but based on the science, that’s generally what the human brain needs.

What if you sleep more than your body technically requires? Is that a problem?

Too much of anything is not a good thing. Based on what we know about human behavior, you don’t really need 10-12 hours of sleep. So, if you’re sleeping that much, the question is why. Oftentimes a telltale sign of depression is someone who sleeps a lot. Maybe there’s some undiagnosed, low-grade depression that needs to get addressed. Sometimes it could be a chemical imbalance. There could be something going on with your hormone levels. That’s why I think it’s important to talk to both your doctor and a mental health professional to rule out any kind of underlying conditions.

How can people improve the quality and quantity of their sleep tonight?

The number one tip for improving your relationship to sleep is routine. The body is a machine in many ways. It’s a system that functions best with regularity and predictability. 

We want to try our best to get the same amount of sleep every day, go to bed, and wake up around the same time every day, even on weekends. You cannot “catch up” on sleep on the weekends. It’s a myth to think there’s a sleep bank. You can actually exacerbate your sleep issues by sleeping in on the weekends.

It’s better to take 20-minute naps if you have the kind of lifestyle that allows you to. The intention of a nap isn’t to fall asleep, it’s really just to rest. Because you don’t want to go too far into the sleep cycle and then wake up and feel groggy.

Try to minimize distractions in the bedroom. Don’t have electronics in the bedroom. Keep it cool and dark and only use the bed for two things: sleep and sex. That way, the brain associates the bed and the room with sleep.

In terms of lifestyle changes, try not to eat or drink alcohol at least three hours before your bedtime. Like I said before, metabolism is regulated during sleep. If our body’s still processing food or alcohol right before bed, it doesn’t have time to start that whole sleep cycle process.

You also want to avoid doing exercise at least three hours before bedtime because it’s going to really activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our alert and awake state. It also brings the brain into a delta state, which is where we’re really in executive functioning and decision-making mode. 

The other thing that’s important to note is that sometimes we develop anxiety about sleep, and we start to worry we’re not getting enough, making it even harder for us to sleep. We should be more compassionate and gentle with ourselves. Know that even if we don’t get the sleep we aimed for, our bodies will recover as soon as they can. Changing the way we think and speak to ourselves can have a big impact on the role sleep plays in our lives.

At what point should someone suffering from sleep issues reach out for professional help?

When there’s been a sleep disturbance that’s been more than two weeks. Either they’re not getting enough, they’re not getting a restful sleep, or they’re sleeping too much, or anywhere in between all of those things, and it’s been persistent. Oftentimes my patients will do over-the-counter stuff like melatonin and CBD, and those things can help, but they’re often misused.

The other way of knowing is their mood and energy level. If you notice yourself being short-tempered or having less patience, oftentimes, we can trace that back to lack of sleep. When folks start to notice that in themselves or have people giving them feedback like, “Hey, something’s off. What’s going on?” That's typically what will trip the trigger to say this is probably a good time to talk to a professional.

I always recommend people talk to both their doctor and a therapist because that will give you more information to rule out what might be at play. It could be something that’s biological or it could be something that’s psychological, and it’s best to cover both areas.

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.