Many of us don't get enough sleep, but not for lack of desire. Indeed, a Huffington Post survey in April revealed that "getting too little sleep" was the most commonly reported cause of stress. When we are advised by experts to go to sleep in a dark and cold bedroom -- but still we toss and turn -- its frustrating. When we are advised to 'get eight hours of sleep' but don't, it can make us feel guilty: "I know I need to sleep more, I just don't know how." We wish we knew how to shut off our devices in the evening, how to not trade an extra hour of productivity for sleep, or how to turn our heads off when we awaken at 2 a.m. anticipating our next day's 'to do' list. Sixty million Americans suffer from insomnia each week.
We have the will, but not the way. Yet we already have tools -- both within ourselves and within easy reach -- that can help us have more control to sleep well through the night.
Our response to stress comes from the nervous system, which has two parts to it: an "On button" (your sympathetic system which gives you energy and focuses on solving problems) and an "Off button" (your parasympathetic system which gives you calm and replenishment). As human beings, we developed this nervous system apparatus early in our evolution: when a sabre toothed tiger would approach us, our On button would release a full-blown 'fight or flight' reaction, and when the danger subsided the Off button would resume its function of rest and digest. In this way, we were built to have coordination between the two.
Because of the "Always on" nature of our professional and personal lives, most of us are unbalanced, only using our On button. We think it's indulgent to press the Off button. There's always people to email. Our teams have too many objectives to possibly accomplish, we're tyrannized by our company's culture of 'face time', we fear we'll miss out on new business if we don't attend all networking events.
When you can't turn your head off at night in order to fall asleep, or you wake up in the middle of the night with trouble getting back to sleep, these are indications of an overactive On button.
Of interest, we always have access to the energy and focus of the On button. However, we have to actively press the Off button, we don't automatically assume a state of calm and relaxation.
Here are three strategies from my book Success Under Stress: Powerful
Tools for Staying Calm, Confident, and Productive When the Pressure's On to easily press the Off button and win over your insomnia. To hit the Off button:
1). Do left nostril breathing. When you wake up in the middle of the night, simply cover your right nostril with your thumb or index finger, and breathe normally through your left nostril only. The reason it works is that this breath activates a nerve that immediately engages the relaxing part of your nervous system. Even for those of you who are Type A, this magic bullet technique will get you back to sleep within three minutes! And you'll wake up feeling more rested. (Make sure to do this technique correctly, if you breathe through the wrong nostril you'll be up for hours and you might as well go to the office at 3 a.m.!)
2). Balance your On and Off button. You can prevent your On and Off buttons from becoming so out of whack with simple techniques to balance the two. When you get into bed, use a three-part breathing technique in which you inhale, hold, and exhale for equal counts (e.g., inhale for five counts, hold for five counts, and exhale for five counts). Try it for three minutes and you should feel the same calm as a 90 minute yoga class, you might even start to nod off while doing it.
3). Use natural aides to press the Off button. You can create a state of short-term relaxation with Chamomile tea or breathing in essential oils with relaxing aromas such as lavender, vanilla, cinnamon. Also, most of us who are stressed out or live in urban environments are unknowingly deprived of the mineral magnesium, potentially causing insomnia and anxiety. So fill your tank with a magnesium supplement before bedtime (I put it in hot water to create a 'tea'). It relaxes your muscles and helps you drift off to sleep easily. And because I know you are wondering: Though drinking alcohol might relax you at first, it disrupts your sleep later in the evening.
There is so much more that you can control when it comes to getting enough sleep. Know how to access your Off button, and instead of staring at the ceiling feeling guilty, you'll sleep like a baby and wake up rested to start the day right!