Guest Writer September 22, 2020
There’s no question Californians are under more stress than ever before. COVID-19, wildfires, a contentious election, civil unrest … Any of these could keep you awake at night, but with everything happening at once, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
And you aren’t alone. In fact, crisis helplines throughout the state are receiving record numbers of calls from people struggling to deal with stress and anxiety. Life is very different than it was six months ago, and there’s no real end in sight for all of the changes that the pandemic has caused. When your days are spent trying to manage your own job from home, supervise your children, and stay healthy and safe, it’s no wonder that sleep can feel elusive.
It doesn’t have to be, though. There are things you can do to unwind and relax before bed that can support healthier sleep. It starts with putting down the phone and quitting your habit of “panic scrolling” the news before bed. Instead, use that time for some soothing bedtime rituals that will help calm your mind and body and put you in a place to welcome sleep.
Why Incorporating Bedtime Rituals Helps
The idea of a “bedtime ritual” is actually in line with what sleep experts refer to as “sleep hygiene.” Sleep hygiene encompasses everything you do to support a healthy and uninterrupted night of sleep, from the sheets and blankets that you have on your bed to how you spend your time before turning out the lights. Developing a consistent routine before bed subconsciously reinforces the idea that it’s bedtime and can trigger your body’s natural sleep cycle, help you nod off faster, and stay asleep longer.
You might be thinking: But I have a ritual. I put on my pajamas, brush my teeth, and get into bed around the same time every night. Although that qualifies as a routine, it doesn’t quite meet the definition of a ritual. Rituals, by definition, are ceremonies that involve specific actions performed in a prescribed order and are the same every time. Unlike a routine, which you more or less follow each night, a ritual is a more sacred and meaningful process. A sleep ritual not only prepares your mind and body for bed, but also gives you the chance to spend some time focused on your own emotional well-being.
The key to a successful ritual is that it needs to be specific. Saying, “I want to be in bed by 11 p.m.” is not the same as saying, “I will be in bed and ready for sleep at 11 p.m.” For the best results, work backward from your chosen bedtime and designate the specific activities you will do—and in which order—to get ready for bed. And while general hygiene tasks (such as brushing your teeth, showering, getting into your PJs) are certainly a valid part of your ritual, incorporating specific relaxation techniques to prepare your body and mind for sleep is also important.
Proven Rituals to Help You Sleep
As you commit to rituals for better sleep, you may need to try different relaxation techniques to find those that work best for you. Everyone responds differently to different activities. That being said, here are some of the sleep-inducing rituals that are most effective.
Meditation and Sleep Mantras
Incorporating meditation or sleep mantras into your ritual doesn’t necessarily need to be focused on sleep itself. Instead, by focusing on relaxation and calming your mind, you can support healthier sleep. Try using an app for guided meditation or focused breathing exercises; just a few minutes of focused attention on your breath can make a significant difference in your heart rate and help you feel more relaxed and calm.
Listen to Music
Bedtime isn’t the best time to put on your workout playlist or loud heavy metal. That said, when you listen to soothing music (think classical), it can have a significant effect on your parasympathetic nervous system, helping you relax and improve your sleep quality. The right music can decrease your blood pressure, lower your heart rate, slow your breathing, and help your muscles relax. Ideally, you should choose slower tunes with about 60 to 80 beats per minute for the best results.
Stretching before bed does more than simply relax tense muscles and prevent painful cramps that can keep you awake. Stretching improves your body awareness and mindfulness, which supports relaxation and better sleep. The principle is simple: When you’re focused on your breath and body, you aren’t focused on stress and worries. The most effective stretches for your best night’s sleep are gentle; you aren’t getting ready to run a marathon, just releasing tension. Focus on loosening the tension in your neck, shoulders, lower back, and hips—the areas that are most likely to be sore.
Taking a warm bath an hour or two before bedtime can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Scientists believe that a warm bath (between 104 and 107 degrees) helps spur the body to cool down by slowing blood flow. Anecdotally, taking a bath can both literally and metaphorically cleanse the day away, reducing stress. Note that timing is everything, though. Taking a bath well before bedtime reduces or eliminates the cooling effect, but bathing too close to bedtime can actually boost your energy and keep you awake.
Cup of Tea
Sipping a cup of tea during your bedtime ritual can help you relax and drift off. Choosing the right tea may also help encourage natural processes that support sleep as well. Certain herbs—such as chamomile, lavender, and valerian root—are known for their relaxing properties and are often recommended to help reduce anxiety and support relaxation. Even if you don’t choose a relaxing tea, the simple act of enjoying a cup of caffeine-free tea can ground your bedtime ritual and get you ready for bed.
Again, you don’t need to incorporate all of these activities into your bedtime ritual. You might even find that you prefer other activities, such as reading or journaling, before bed. In any case, pay attention to your body and practice self-care during these trying times. And if nothing else seems to work, talk with your healthcare provider about other options to quell your anxiety and stress so you can sleep better.
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