These are the darkest days of the year. Only a few days left of them now – December 21 is the winter solstice, and after that darkness will slowly start to give way to the light again.
The village where I live in the north of Sweden is close to the arctic circle. This means that while we do have some light even on the darkest days, it’s brief. The sun rises just minutes before 10 am, and sets around 1.20 pm this week. I make it a mission to go outside during that time, if only for 15 minutes or so. Just to remind my brain that this is daytime, even though it’s mostly dark. It helps, some, but I am more tired and need more sleep this time of year. About an hour more – 7.5 hours in the summer and 8.5 in midwinter.
I’ve been reading “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams” by Matthew Walker, about what science has learned about the importance of sleep. Very much, as it turns out. Just a little to little sleep affects the mind and body a lot! And the scary part is that the brain adjusts and thinks the reduced function is the normal state. I really recommend the book. Looking back, I think that my burn outs have been very strongly related to lack of sleep. I don’t want to go back there ever again, and so I’ve decided to take really good care of my sleep from now on.
Before I read the book I had been prioritizing my morning ritual – to reflect and journal in the morning, before breakfast. I had the alarm set to 6 am, to have time before work. In order to give myself the possibility of 8.5 hours of sleep I need to be in bed for about 9 hours, which means in order to get up at 6 I need to be in bed by 9 am. From years of experience I can tell you that that is very unrealistic… So I made a compromise.
I’ve made my morning ritual more efficient by preparing everything the night before. Picking out and laying out my clothes, preparing ginger and lemon for my morning tea, placing everything I need for my journaling right where I want it, preparing breakfast… my mornings are now smooth and relaxed, and I still get almost as much journaling done even though I set the alarm for 7 instead of 6. Getting up at 7 means I need to be in bed by 10 pm, at the latest – and I actually manage that most days.
This is what I’ve done to help get me there:
- I’ve bought a light therapy lamp, and use it in the first hour of the day while I do my journaling and plan my day. The sooner the brain gets the signals that it’s now daytime, the sooner in the evening it will start to signal “time to sleep”. This is very much against my instincts. I’ve never been a morning person, and before this I’ve tried to ease into the day by waking up slowly, with lights on low… But it works! I also feel more energetic in the first hours of the day after that intense shower of light.
- I aim to move my body more during the day and slow down at night. I’ve always been very good at staying still, but I try to trick myself into moving more. I walk to work (15 min), and then I have to walk back again to eat lunch and feed the cat (and get some daylight). And then back again for the rest of the workday (but if the weather is bad I allow myself to take the car after lunch). I send my printouts to a printer downstairs at work. I don’t bring my teapot with me to the living room in the evening, I leave it in the kitchen so that I have to get up to have another cup. I bought a new camera, which makes me want to get outdoors to use it… And so on. I believe in small steps that become habits over time, much better than big plans that only work for a short time.
- I avoid alcohol. Alcohol affects people differently, even though science says it reduces sleep quality for everyone. For me, it turns all my sleep signals completely off. Even if I drink just one glass of wine I find it harder to get to sleep. And if I drink more I will not only have trouble falling asleep, often staying awake 3-4 hours after that last drink, I also wake up 4 hours after falling asleep. Like clockwork. And that following day of tiredness is not a fun day… It often takes several nights before I’ve found my sleep rhythm again. So I’m saving drinking for very special occasions, preferably when I have several calm days to recover afterward.
- I’ve never been a big fan of coffee, and so avoiding coffee after say 2 pm is easy. I do drink tea, a lot… I’ve tried to swap my standard black tea (that has some caffeine in it) for herbal tea or fruit infusions in the evening (without caffeine), but I haven’t noticed any difference to my sleep.
- I avoid eating after 6 pm. I strive to get in bed by 10, and eating later than 6 pm means that my body hasn’t had time to process the food before sleep. I was painfully reminded of this fact just a few days ago when we went to dinner and a show with friends and dinner wasn’t served until 8. I had no alcohol, but still slept only 5 hours and woke up with stomach-ae the day after.
- I’ve installed an app that “dumbs” my phone and tablet a couple of hours before bedtime. No internet, no social media, no news, just music and alarms remain available. Looking at screens in the evenings makes the brain less aware of the fact that it is night, and therefore makes it harder to get to bed and fall asleep in time. All screens, including TVs, but especially those kept closer to the face.
- I’ve darkened the bedroom. We haven’t had a TV in the bedroom for many years, and I’ve avoided bringing phone/tablet in there for a while too. Now I’ve made it even darker by turning alarm clocks (mine and Mr. L’s) toward the wall and pulling down the black-out curtains even though it´s dark outside (it’s actually not totally dark at all, with street lamps and snow outside). I’ve even put black tape over those pesky little diode lamps that seem to be everywhere these days.
- We are keeping the bedroom cool – this is not new, we’ve always preferred a really cool bedroom. But it really helps to improve sleep.
- I’m aiming for a night-time ritual. Preparing for the morning, making a short summary of my day in my journal, reading something just for pleasure. And then going to bed. I do still take an ebook-reader to bed… with an e-ink screen, not a blue light screen. Maybe I will have to let that go to, sleep experts generally recommend not going to be until you are completely ready to sleep. But I have been reading in bed for 40 years, it helps me detach from any other thoughts that might be spinning in my head. So, for now, it’s still there.
- And when I lay down in bed to read I tape my mouth shut. And then I leave the tape on my mouth for the night. I know, this sounds really strange! But I read about this when I was struggling to recover from my last (hopefully final) burnout, and have been doing it for over a year now regularly. By forcing your mouth shut, you make yourself breathe through the nose. This has several positive effects: it calms the breathing, which calms the nervous system and reduces anxiety. It also stops you from snoring and prevents sleep apnea. I use Micropore tape (there are special mouth tapes out there, but I find them too expensive). Google “mouth tape sleep” for more on the subject, if you are interested.
I would be lying if I said that I do all of these things every day and every night. I make exceptions from one or the other almost every night. But I’ve started to keep a sleep journal as well, where I note what I did and didn’t do and how I slept afterwards. I’m using an activity band to measure my sleep and how restful it was. Hopefully after a month or two I will have better insights into what is most important for my personal sleep.
I have managed to have 5-6 good sleep nights in a row now, and the feeling of waking up fully rested is incredible. I had forgotten what it was like! Walker writes in “Why We Sleep” that the brain quickly adapts to tiredness, in the sense that you feel that you are functioning as well as ever even though tests of cognitive functions and memory clearly shows that your brain is not working as well as it could. You feel like the sleep-deprived state is the normal state. I had my first experience of burn out in 2004, and that came after years of ignoring symptoms. After that, I’ve almost always had some trouble sleeping – and also several relapses. So if I manage to get my sleep in order it may be the first time I’m functioning really well for almost 20 years… Can’t wait to see what that will bring!