Sleep ... precious sleep ... what a wonderful world it would be if we all just got a little more sleep.
That, however, is much easier said than done. As an experienced insomniac, I can easily attest to that statement
I love my bed. It is a place where I feel safe, comforted, and hidden from the world. "Bed" has gone beyond being just a place for sleep, it has become a place of rest and nurturing. In this past year, I have discovered how much I enjoy spending a late morning propped up in my bed surrounded by comfy cushions and soft blankets while reading a good book, writing in my journal, or just taking time to call a friend. It has become one of my new escapes, but it has not always been this way. My bed was once a place of stress, where I would toss and turn and struggle night after night.
Sleep is as essential as water and we can blame it all on that little thing in our heads called a brain. Sleep is when the brain releases toxins, stores new information, and re-organizes your nerve cells. The body needs sleep to help restore cellular function, hormone balance, insulin function, emotional stability, weight management, heart health, and immune function.
It is during our glorious sleep hours that the brain's spam folder is emptied, doing away with unnecessary information and replenishing itself to make you feel clear, refreshed, and ready to take on a new day. We are all much better humans after a deep slumber.
Having experienced a lack of sleep due to motherhood, stress, worry, and hormone imbalances, I can safely say that I have become a bit of an expert when it comes to getting to sleep, staying asleep, and catching up on sleep. Once an avid 9 - 10 hour a night sleeper, I was truly a walking zombie during those insomniac phases of my life and not much fun to be around. Lack of sleep turned me into someone I did not want to be, and it was distressing.
I needed to become a better sleeper which meant having to become better at relaxing and resting. This was the beginning of a long journey into the depths of my sleepy soul. Laying awake all night gave me plenty of time to think about this, I was much too tired during the day to form any coherent thoughts.
When you are unable to sleep, all of your time and energy goes into trying to get to sleep, a self-inflicted pressure that creates a vicious cycle of stress, which in turn makes it harder to sleep. My first step in learning to relax was to not let myself get worked up about not sleeping. A mental dialogue that sounded a lot like this ... "Ok, I am awake, that's perfectly fine ... I am going to lay here and not be stressed about it. This is the perfect time to try the breath technique Sue showed me today ... breath in 8 counts, breath out 8 counts. breath in 8 counts, breath out ... hmmm, did I remember to take the chicken out of the freezer for dinner tomorrow night, and I should pick up some broccoli on the way home, did I get the ... oop's, breath in 8 counts, breath out 8 counts, breath in ... oh frig, this isn't working ... ok counting, counting works ... 1 breath, 2 breaths, 3 breaths ... George! that's the name of Sue's husband, I was trying to remember that all day, I should write that down before I forget ... 4 breaths, 5 breaths, 6 ... don't look at the clock, don't look ... dang, 3 am, gotta get up in 4 hours ... 7 breaths, 8 breaths, 9 ... my head feels like a sieve ... 10 breaths, 11 ... 12 ..." finally I drift off, 2 hours of sleep, an improvement.
I became obsessed with herbal remedies and witches brews. Rats tale? sure why not. I was desperate to try anything just to get a good nights rest ... rest? ... what was it to be rested and how does that relate to sleep? I started to contemplate the meaning of rest, the meaning of life became far less important. Perhaps the meaning of life was just to get a good night's sleep, what I would have given to just feel rested.
A brain full of toxins, also known as "fuzzy brain", is what occurs when you don't sleep. Your ability to think clearly, remember things, and regulate your emotions become extremely difficult tasks which, in my case, usually ended up with someone getting unfairly scorned or me in tears over the smallest thing. Lack of shut-eye is truly horrible and I can understand why it is used as an effective torture technique.
Rest, I realized for myself, is the absence of stress and worry. If I was thinking about something that upset me at work, I was not at rest. Rest was the precursor to sleep, so I began to learn to rest instead of sleep. Rest is not something you can just read about and immediately know how to do, it is something that you become. It is a way of being, a state of mind, and is surprisingly difficult for most people. We need to take a time out, disengage, unplug, stare at a tree, go for a walk ... anything to calm the mind and deactivate the nervous system.
One technique I learned that seemed to work was to place one hand on my chest and one hand on my tummy while laying in bed. I would simply lie there and feel into my body, feel into my breath, and not fight the thoughts in my mind, but rather let them pass through me. A meditation technique I learned in my many pursuits for answers. That seemed to be the key, to keep learning and trying different tactics until you find something that works. Often, the simple things that are easy to do, work the best. The more complicated the technique, the more your mind gets involved, and an activated mind is to be avoided during sleep hours.
I discovered that I enjoy reading outside. I started to include reading time at the beach or park into my week. Scheduling rest time into your day is a simple thing to do and no one has to know where you are, which makes it even more fun. I also enjoyed packing up dinner and finding a spot to sit and eat while watching the sunset. Pretty much being outside was, and still is, a big stress relief for me. Getting out of the house and away from the things I "ought to be doing" helped a lot.
Over time, my mind began to respond and I started to rest. I also discovered the wonders of melatonin and began taking it for short periods to get my sleep hormones functioning. These two things combined changed my world ... I began to sleep again!
What a wonderful world indeed. I got my brain back, my life back, my sanity back!
I sleep a lot better these days and I notice immediately when I am not including enough R & R into my week. It has become an essential part of my life. Even if you do not experience insomnia, you may not be rested from within and you most likely do not even realize it. Rest is essential for lowering your heart rate and training your nervous system to relax. Western culture, in my experience, is not conducive to encouraging people to include rest and self-care into their daily lives. We are on the treadmill almost constantly and we need to get off and let our heart rate come down a few notches from time to time. We NEED to rest.
It's an odd thing that we have to make a conscious effort to take better care of ourselves, but we do need to make it a priority. One of the upsides of the pandemic is that it has slowed us all down. Of course, there were many difficulties and uncertainties, but we did slow down and we were given a chance to be reminded of our true priorities. It changed the world and hence the people living in it. It was a lesson and we can continue forward with what we have learned as we come back to "normal".
Every year we have an opportunity to renew ourselves, to make a resolution, and to set new goals. The New Year is a time for reflection and an opportunity to let go of the past and step into the future. As we step into 2022, a little more hopeful and chomping at the bit to get out into the world again, let us carry forward this time of rest and knowing of our true priorities. May this be a year of reset and rest and may your New Year's resolution have a little more time for you in it.
My New Year's Resolution? spend more time sipping tea in a pillowy soft bed and get a good night's rest ... Sweet Dreams!