The Power of Sleep – How and Why to Make it a Habit
In spite of all the attention on best practices for staying healthy, as Thrive Global editor Arianna Huffington reports “there has been very little messaging on the impact of lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and sleep on both our physical health and well-being”.
Diet, exercise, and sleep are three pillars of a healthy life, no news there. Several recent studies have suggested that improving all three may be a better way to improve both physical and mental health.
Yet the problem many of us face each January is that we rush to try to fix all 3, and end up back at square one. Starting with one behavior shift at a time is the surest way to lasting habit change. And if you have to pick one behavior to focus on first, you’ll do well to start with sleep.
Most of us recognize the impact of sleep on our mood, focus and energy levels, but research shows how sleep builds our immune systems. The state of sleep enables the core elements of our immune system to revitalize, strengthening what’s called immune memory. As Eric Suni at the Sleep Foundation put it, “The interaction of immune system components during sleep reinforces the immune system’s ability to remember how to recognize and react to dangerous antigens.”
And because this process is sequential, there is no substitute for an uninterrupted span of 7-9 hours for adults, as this chart explains. You may wish you didn’t just read that. You may be telling yourself it doesn’t apply to you. But, this is sleep we’re talking about, not a hardcore Crossfit session. You get to lay down, there are covers and pillows probably picked out by you.
So I invite you to shift your attention to all the best things about sleep, instead of what a nightmare insomnia can feel like. And if you need to invest in a new mattress to make it happen, you’re worth it.
The Prep Work
In an earlier article, I outlined the optimal sleep environment according to experts on the subject.
Yet this time I’d like to share a set of practices for shifting your mind from active to sleepy, which I’ve been using and sharing with clients over the past months with great success.
The Allure of Problem Solving
Say you’re lying in bed, you’ve removed all distractions and done everything you can think of but your mind is still spinning.
You’re planning your project, making mental notes of who to include in the meeting, worrying about whether you remembered to do that thing on the way out. “This is helpful” you tell yourself when you’re wide awake an hour later, “even in bed I’m getting stuff done”.
And if you didn’t know about that annoying 7-9 number linked with everything from stress to immunity to weight gain, you could happily believe yourself and let the problem solving continue through to 2 am. However, sometimes the brain tricks us to gain the short term (dopamine) reward that planning and problem solving deliver.
So don’t be fooled. Instead, refuse to problem solve. The quality of your solutions isn’t likely to be stellar at 3 am, but if you need to sleep with a pen and paper next to your bed, it’s a good way to unload those ideas. Then you can to shift your mind to a more restful state using a relaxing body scan.
The Power Tools
If the spinning won’t stop, the following strategies work to engage the brain’s imagery networks so you can put the worry down and move on.
Visualization or guided imagery is as simple as imagining a scene that makes you feel peaceful. It works best when you use all of your senses. Picturing yourself on the beach in Cabo? What do you hear? See? Smell? Taste? If your mind drifts to your daily worries, just direct your thoughts back to your relaxing scene.
Another way to keep your mind engaged long enough to relax is by visualizing animals one species at a time, names matched to letters of the alphabet. Starting with the letter a, you would visualize an antelope, or an aardvark or an ant – whatever you fancy, in as much detail as possible before moving on to b, then on down the line. The animals can be real, toy stuffed, cartoon, your pets, there are no wrong answers here. Visualizing is hard for some of us, so let whatever comes up for you be enough, the process is what works.
Remember, if your sleep habits are way out of balance, it may take time and patience to commit to improving them. But in all of life’s challenges, sleep is a pleasure worth tackling.