March 2013 Three Paragraph Newsletter
Falling asleep should be easy, right? Because we don't have to do anything special, we just stop our daytime activities and we should be able to go right to sleep. This may make sense logically, but it is a fallacy, mostly because in many areas of life we have lost our appreciation of the importance of transitions. That is partly because we are all trying to fit so many things into our day, and partly because we have become more and more accustomed to quick convenience. For a perfect example of where we have become accustomed to quicke convenience, just think of food. When we are hungry, or when it's dinner time–we are ready to eat. And so if we too often think that if we can just grab food, which is ideally ready instantly (or second best only takes as long as it takes to stand in line at the fast food restaurant, or to work the microwave), then we are ready to eat! But this, actually, also is a misperception, because we digest a meal so much better when we are involved with the preparation through our eyes, smell the aroma of cooking food in the air, and sit down at a table with time and consciousness to really notice what we are eating. Our body is actually much better prepared to eat when there is a transition. That's probably part of why taking the time to eat food in an elegant restaurant tastes so good–you are ready for it. Now take those same images and apply them to sleep. Imagine going to a place that specialized only in sleep, with a maitre d that showed you to a sparkling tub with a hot bath, then provided incredibly soft pajamas, and finally escorted you to quiet room with a soft bed. Sounds like gourmet sleeping indeed!
Before the advent of electricity, when the only source of light after sunset was candles and lanterns, the transition into sleep was easier. People rightfully understood that when the day was done, and it was time for bed. Exposure to light and darkness helps guide the rhythms of our pineal gland, which is important for waking and sleeping. But we don't have that sensation very often because we are technologically emancipated from the transition to slower evening activity and then to sleep. Most of our leisure technologies–television, movies, internet, screens large and small–provide us with stimulus at all hours. Cell phones are tremendously convenient, but it also means we are available to talk to long after the day ends. And smart phones make email possible nights, holidays, weekends, car rides, or while waiting in line to get food. The challenge is that all of these opportunities for communication and sensory input quickly create expectations, and neurologic patterns, that expect us to be vigilant and interactive all of the time. Don't believe it? Then do a little test: one evening, power off any electronics with batteries, then turn off the power to your house (just leave the refrigerator shut). Experience how initially unsettling, but ultimately satisfying it is to listen for all the things you didn't realize you were listening to. This is important, because the transition to sleep is ultimately a process of allowing and reminding your body how to peacefully release from the world around you.
Here are some tips that can help the process. For children, the idea of a bedtime ritual is not so foreign. For them, it is really essential because they are slowly learning how to self-soothe themselves into sleep. For many adults, this process needs some conscious nurturing too. The following suggestions have proven helpful for both children and adults:
- Avoid screens (computer, TV, phone) for the two hours before going to bed. Even if you think the content is calming, the very rapid, blinking of the screen is visually, and neurologically, stimulating. For kids, no screens are best (that will have to be a different newsletter). Similarly, try not to eat any food in the two hours before going to bed.
- Create some predictable routine around going to bed. Consistency builds healthy physiologic habits, so that after a while your body will know, “oh, brushing teeth means it's time to sleep soon.” Children who always say a verse or sing a song before going to sleep very consistently yawn before they have gotten all the way through it. The verse signifies that it is time to begin transitioning, and they start to soften their awareness from that point on.
- Mark a conscious threshold, from an area of waking activities to sleeping activities. For kids, do wrestling, or cuddling, or story on the couch, then transition into the bedroom only when it is time to really go to sleep. Too many activities in bed, especially if they are prolonged, confuse and dissipate the power of transition. Once in bed, there should only be a short time (minutes really) before the light is out and it's time to sleep.
- Once you figure out your ritual, try not to disrupt it. Think about anything needed for the next day before starting the bedtime process (this takes a little discipline, but its worth it). Honor your sleeping time. Time for sleep is not a failure, it is essentially for balancing and supporting all of our daytime activity. Getting stuck in hypervigilance will eventually make you sick.
There are lots of good anthroposophic treatments to help, especially remedies and rhythmic massage, if these steps aren't enough. But consciously nurturing the transition to sleep is the foundation.