How To Make Sleep Your Friend

Here is a fun article I wrote, originally for the Deliciously Ella Blog, about making sleep your friend. For anyone who has a troubled relationship with sleep, this one's for you.

What kind of a relationship do you have with sleep?

Perhaps you are one of the lucky few, those sleeping beauties who can nod off at will, anywhere, any time.

For most us, we relate to sleep like a dog chasing its tail: we can never properly get a hold of it. We don’t get enough sleep. Our sleep is broken. We oversleep. We have bad dreams. We wake up feeling exhausted. A zombie nation. No wonder caffeine is the world’s most popular drug.

I have been that sleep-deprived zombie-dog chasing its tail. I suffered from insomnia for many years. The lack of sleep was breaking me.  But then I discovered meditation…and everything changed. Through meditation I learned that I was chasing the proverbial tail in all aspects of my life, and that sleep was just one particularly acute and painful manifestation of my spinning out of control. Nowadays I very rarely can’t get to sleep, and most nights I really enjoy sleeping.

These dramatic changes in my relationship with sleep brought me to look more deeply into sleep. Sleep is a universal aspect of life. Birds do it, bees do it. So why are we modern human beings so deeply neurotic about sleep? Part of our difficult relationship to sleep comes from the power of myths. When we are young (if we are lucky) we have parents who will tell us stories to help us get to sleep. The classic folk story about sleep involves a magical fairy-like creature called the Sandman who sprinkles sand or dust onto children’s eyes to help them sleep.The sleep we find in the corners of our eyes in the morning are, so the story goes, the remnants of Mr Sandman’s magic dust.

Sadly, the magic potential of sleep is lost to us as we get older. We start to tell ourselves different, less helpful, more neurotic myths about sleep.

One of the least helpful but most powerful myths has been that only 8 hours unbroken sleep constitutes a good night’s kip. This is not true. In a recent, huge international survey by Sleep Cycle of almost a million people’s sleep patterns, there was not a single country that averaged 8 hours sleep a night (the longest sleepers were in New Zealand, averaging 7hrs 27mins a night). So if hardly anyone sleeps an unbroken 8 hours sleep a night, this makes the 8-hour rule an extremely unfriendly yardstick with which we regularly beat ourselves.

Most animals on earth have polyphasic sleep; this means they sleep in shorter periods of time throughout the day and night. Have you ever seen a cat whingeing to another cat about not having had a solid 8 hours sleep last night? I hope not! Animals just sleep as and when they need to. But we humans have built up very different relationships to sleep over the course of our evolution, based on the different myths and stories we tell ourselves.

For example, we now know that in Medieval Europe people would sleep in two phases, commonly getting up in the middle of the night to read, smoke, pray, have sex, and even visit neighbours. The idea of 8 hours unbroken sleep simply did not exist then. But as Europe entered into the Industrial Revolution, a new myth was born. We came to believe that time-wasting was a sin, and that being productive was the highest ideal for mankind and the direct route to heaven. And the worship of productivity haunts us to this very day. We desire better sleep so that we can be more productive, more successful. Sleep has become a means to a practical, neurotic end.

But the good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. The great wisdom traditions of the world still sing to us of the mystical, transformative wonderlands of sleeptime. The Native American Blackfeet tribes believed that a butterfly (symbol of transformation) would bring us dreams in our sleep that could help us change. They would paint a butterfly on the door of their lodges, and sing lullabies inviting the butterfly spirits to come and guide their dreams.

In Kabbalah, sleep is a time when most of our soul leave our bodies to connect with the higher spiritual realms, where it receives nourishment, rejuvenation, and guidance.

You too can reconnect with that magical sense, that relationship with sleep as a friend you look forward to travelling with each night. Here are my top tips to bring back the magic of sleep into your life:

1)   Challenge your own unhelpful beliefs about sleep: you have a number of unhelpful beliefs about sleep. The best way to unravel these beliefs is to keep a thought diary the next time you don’t get ‘a good night’s sleep’. Write down the typical thoughts you tend to have when you don’t feel you have had a good night’s sleep. If you practice this observation, you will quickly see how powerful some of these beliefs are, often causing you to feel very grumpy, disconnected, ineffective.

2)   Stop time-watching: One of the most powerful beliefs we have around sleep is to do with time. Since I stopped checking the time when I wake up in the night, I find that I get back to sleep much easier. If you find yourself counting how many hours sleep you are getting, now is the time to let this time-watching part of you go. Keep your alarm clock out of sight, if you need one. When you enter the bedroom, note to yourself that you are entering into a timeless, magical zone.

3)    Bring the magic back into sleep: you don’t need to believe in the Sandman or other fictional sleep-aids to reconnect with a sense of magic about sleep. Sleep is truly a magical place, where time stands still, and the possibilities of creation are infinite. Cultivate this sense of sleep as a magical realm by looking for magic in your dreams. If you struggle toremember your dreams, you might keep a dream journal. But practice looking for the magic elements of your dreamworlds. As Albert Einstein said: “Logic will get you from a to z; imagination will get you everywhere.”

1)   Create healthy rituals around sleep: one of the number one worst things you can do to ruin your night’s sleep is to be surfing the net before going to bed. There is a highly addictive quality to surfing the net, and because we are skimming over things, often without real focus, we don’t engage in anything deeply enough. Also, the blue-spectrum light of digital devices limits the production of melatonin (a sleep hormone).
By contrast, when we read a good book, this allows our minds to enter deeply into another world, which is the perfect preparation for sleep. Whatever you find is a helpful bedtime ritual for you, whether reading a book, listening to radio, or watching a film, or tv show, just make it consistent. My personal recommendation for bedtime ritual is: i) have a long soak in the bath with no devices; ii) be in bed at the same time every night, apart from one night a week; iii) lower the lights and turn off all digital devices; iv) put some lavender oil on your pillow; v) read a good book (if you have a partner, engage in pillow talk - research has shown pillow talk strengthens relationships and supports sleep) vi) wake up at the same time every day, and don’t snooze! When you snooze you develop ‘sleep inertia’ where your body gets confused and you can carry on feeling half-asleep for upto four hours after you finally wake up. If you must use devices in bed, then download f.lux., a programme that makes digital screens less blue at night.

2)   Develop Sleep Discipline: many readers will be thinking that the rituals above are something you have heard many times before. If so, then we need to ask ourselves why we struggle to put these bedtime routines into practice? I believe that we all know deep down what conditions help us to sleep. But we consistently fail to put these routines into practice, because we get carried away on tides of excitement, especially with the internet’s promise of endless distraction. To become more disciplined with your sleep routines, ask yourself what you would prefer: to stay up flicking from one thing to another, or to wake up in the morning with a smile, knowing that your bedtime routine opened up a magical portal for your soul to travel into a delicious dreamworld.

3)   Nurture your mind: when we can’t get to sleep we quickly get frustrated with our minds for not switching off when we want them too. But we all know that frustration just exacerbates our insomnia. I have successfully taught clients with sleep problems to imagine that their mind is a baby. If a baby was not sleeping, would you get angry with it, shout at it, make it look at a million different web-pages? Or would you rather nurture it, sing lullabies, gently rocking it, until it drifted off into a deep slumber? Just as you would nurture a baby, so should you nurture your own mind by cultivating self-compassion.

4)    Meditation: I mentioned above that meditation transformed my relationship with sleep. One of the best tricks it taught me was to bring my attention away from my stressed out, overthinking mind, into my bodily sensations. One simple way to do this is to do a body scan, where you bring your attention up and down your body, from your head to your toes and back. It is important that you notice when your thinking mind starts to want to label and describe the physical sensations. When it does this, gently bring your attention back to the pure physical sensations. With your attention on your physical sensations, and not on your thoughts, you will easily drift off. However, on the rare occasion this does not work, I recommend getting out of bed, finding a quiet corner, sitting down and keep gently bringing your awareness into your physical sensations. Each time you notice your thinking mind getting hooked again, gently bring back your attention into your body and your physical sensations.

5)    Acceptance and gratitude: there is a very powerful psychological technique you can use when sleep is not finding you, but it comes with a great challenge. You have to give up on your desire to get to sleep. If you can let go of the part of you that is so desperately yearning for sleep, and instead invite a sense of radical acceptance for where you are in this moment of not sleeping, you will notice an immediate release of tension. With this release of tension, you create space to consider why you are grateful for being awake at this time. Write it down if it helps. I like to repeat acceptance and gratitude affirmations. Here are some examples for you (although I encourage you to weave your own magic into them): I am letting go of the need to control; I trust this moment is perfect and accept it unconditionally; I trust and surrender to the flow of life; I am grateful for this quiet time to myself; I am grateful just to be alive.