A good night’s sleep can make us more empathetic, more creative, better parents and partners, according to University of California at San Francisco psychologist Aric Prather, who treats insomnia and is the author of the new book “The Sleep Prescription.” to sleep, in Portuguese).
Sleep can help us manage stress, be more competent and able to face the day. But Prather says we often forget to think about sleep, until we find ourselves frozen in the middle of the night, thoughts racing, looking for rest or relief.
Some people may take a supplement or sleep aid. A 2013 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that one in eight American adults with trouble sleeping reported using sleeping pills. But Prather said there are simple steps we can take throughout the day and night to get better rest. He describes them in his book, published by Penguin Life.
“It’s not something you do,” he added. “It’s something that comes to you.”
Here are some of his science-backed tips for getting deeper sleep.
Make time for “programmed worry”.
“Nobody ever says, ‘I stayed up in the middle of the night and thought only of good things,'” Prather said. During the day, we may be too busy to dwell on our thoughts, but at night, when we try to let our brains pause without distractions, “the thoughts can get very, very noisy,” Prather wrote.
To combat nighttime “rumination” and anxiety, the psychologist recommended in an interview dedicating part of your day to worry. Take 10 to 20 minutes to write about what makes you anxious, or just think about it, without looking for a solution. If you do it on a regular basis, he said, your worries won’t seep into the night — and if they do, you can remind yourself that you have dedicated time to resolve them the next day.
Instead of reaching for caffeine, stick your head in the freezer.
If you usually drink coffee in the afternoon to get over depression, you’ll still have caffeine in your system at bedtime, Prather said.
Instead, he recommends getting a power boost elsewhere. You can take a brisk afternoon walk, or spend 5 to 10 minutes taking a break from work and applying your brain to a simple task – pulling weeds in the garden, tidying up a bookshelf, turning on the stereo and really focusing on a song.
Focusing on a non-work task can energize our brains, Prather said, pulling us out of our rut. Or, for a more radical option, stick your head in the freezer. That brief jolt of cold activates your system, Prather said, like cables to plug in an expired car battery, to wake you up — no coffee required.
Organize your room.
Your computer, a bunch of used clothes, the pile of sticky notes reminding you of all the unfinished tasks – get everything out of the room where you sleep. If that’s not possible, at least move them so you can’t see them from your bed, advises Prather. You want your sleeping area to soothe you, not remind you of everything you need to do.
To further prepare for sleep, buy blackout curtains to block out light, or invest in a comfortable sleep mask. And consider turning down the heat — or turning up the air conditioning — so your sleeping area is between 16 and 20 degrees at night. You want your bedroom to be dark and cool, Prather said, in order to encourage our bodies’ core temperature to drop, which happens naturally while we sleep.
Stop treating your brain like a notebook.
You can’t expect your brain to instantly shut down like a laptop when you close the lid, Prather said. Instead, you should plan a transition period so your brain can relax.
Sometimes it’s not possible, he acknowledged; work deadlines and parenting responsibilities can mean you’re compromised until you turn off the lights. Ideally, give yourself a two-hour period to “turn down the volume on your sympathetic nervous system,” he said, warning your body and brain that you’re getting ready to rest.
You should spend this time doing something nice and relaxing, like listening to a favorite podcast, talking on the couch with your partner, or watching TV. Prather offers his patients a menu of options for this shutdown period. They can shower in luxury, write about gratitude in a journal, or even sit outside, weather permitting, and gaze at the stars.
The goal is to find “low arousal” activities that you enjoy, he said.
Review your favorite show.
Many doctors warn against “screen time” before bed, but Prather said he pays more attention to what people consume at night, not whether they’re looking at a computer, book or phone.
A cop – whether it’s a novel or a movie – can make you stay awake longer or ponder solving a mystery while trying to fall asleep. Instead, he recommends watching something calming and ideally a show you’ve seen before. Prather uses “The Office”, which he’s already lost count of how many times he’s watched and knows everything that’s going to happen.
IF YOU STRUGGLE TO STAY SLEEPING AT NIGHT
If you can’t sleep, move.
As people age, especially in their 50s, 60s and 70s, sleep can become more fragmented, Prather said. People may need to urinate at night more often, or some pain may keep them awake. But it is essential that the elderly get enough rest.
A recent study found that adults over 50 who slept five hours or less a night had a higher risk of developing chronic disease than those who slept at least seven hours.
In general, if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you should get out of bed, Prather said. Give yourself 20 minutes or so to try to sleep, but if you’re still plugged in, head to the couch or living room and do something quiet, Prather advised, like knitting or meditating.
You just want to associate where you sleep with falling asleep. If your body gets used to being awake and struggling to sleep in this position, you’ll have a harder time conditioning yourself to sleep through the night.
If you don’t want to move, or can’t, even sitting up in bed can help rewire your brain, or turn your body and put your head where your feet normally are. While you’re in this new position, you can read, listen to soothing music, or put on a relaxing podcast – whatever activity calms you down, until you feel sleepy again and are ready to return to your sleeping position.
Don’t blame yourself for a bad night’s sleep (or several).
When people are in the middle of a sleepless night, they often stress about how the lack of sleep is going to surprise them the next day, Prather said. But one, or even a few, nights of little rest aren’t going to ruin the way you sleep in the long run, Prather said. “Any parent of young children knows you can get by with less sleep,” he said. “You can have these ‘off’ nights. Your body is tough.”
If you constantly find yourself unable to sleep, you may want to see a therapist or clinician trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, which Dr. Prather uses to treat insomnia. Even in chronic cases, he said, lack of sleep is curable. A sleep specialist may also prescribe medication in extreme cases, or treat underlying conditions that can cause the problem, such as sleep apnea.
“When people have insomnia, as it is very distressing, they try to figure out all the things they can do to allow sleep to come again, like, ‘What can I fix?’ and that kind of effort is really incompatible with sleep. “, he said. “Sleep is turning off.”
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves