Bernice Tuffery was desperate to sleep naturally again. Having tried everything from sleeping pills to warm baths and everything in between, the Auckland-based market researcher turned to what she knew best: in-depth research backed by experts.
She shares her findings and experience of taking control of her terrible sleep in new book Sleep Easy, with a detailed six-week get-to-sleep-and-stay-asleep programme. It’s a lengthy read, broken down into weeks with lots of worksheets and check-lists throughout - but an essential one for those who know the pain of bad sleep and insomnia.
In this extract from the book, Bernice shares tips for one key step in having a good night’s sleep: relearning how to wind down, properly.
1. Add meditation to the mix (even a tiny one)
Meditation is an excellent aid to winding down. If you already have a practice, go with what works well for you. If you haven’t explored meditation yet, haven’t been able to get the hang of it (which is common) or are a bit resistant to it (that was me), it’s worth considering or reconsidering. Learning to check in with yourself and become aware of how you truly are is a helpful resource on this journey.
2. Learn how to stay up until or past your new bedtime
Your new earliest bedtime is likely to be a bit later than what you’re used to, so you may need to make a plan to avoid falling asleep before then. By staying up later, you are consciously building sleep pressure so that, when it is time to go to bed, you will feel ready for sleep to come. With increased sleep pressure, you may be tempted to go to bed earlier than scheduled or to have forty winks on the couch. If at all possible, don’t do this. You want to use this pressure to allow yourself to fall asleep more easily and quickly in your own bed, at your prescribed bedtime.
To keep from nodding off before bedtime, anticipate that this might happen and have a few tricks up your sleeve. The objective is to temporarily stave off falling asleep, not to thoroughly energise and wake yourself up. The sleepy feeling - characterised by itchy eyes, yawning, your eyes wanting to close and your head nodding - can be quite overwhelming and make it a struggle to stay awake. Sleepiness comes as a wave of symptoms.
Getting up and moving around the house will help, as will doing easy, mindless physical activities. Try saving a few no-brainer chores for later in the evening - for instance, emptying the dishwasher, folding washing, prepping lunch boxes. With each wave of sleepy symptoms, just get moving till it passes. Your bedtime will be getting closer. Meanwhile, have a laugh at the irony of it - you’re having to apply yourself to stay awake for longer to improve your sleep!
3. Know the difference between tired and sleepy
We tend to use the terms tired and sleepy interchangeably. Yet, from the point of view of understanding and improving sleep, they are very different signals. It’s vital to learn the difference and become discerning about what your body is telling you. Go to bed (at or after your prescribed bedtime) when your body is showing signs that it is sleepy. You may feel tired throughout the evening, but it’s the sleepy feeling that tells you it’s time for bed.
4. Streamline preparation for bed
Getting ready for bed can be a faff when you’re exhausted and sleepy. You’ve got a schedule to keep and you’ll likely be staying up later than usual, so make sure that preparing for bed doesn’t pose a barrier to getting you into bed once you’re sleepy and you’ve reached (or passed) your earliest bedtime.
For a long time, I couldn’t work out why it took me forever to make the transition from the lounge to the bedroom. Even when I was really tired, really sleepy and really wanting to be snuggled up in bed, I delayed. What is my problem! I thought. Then I realised that I actually loathed certain little jobs at the end of the night. Yes, I was being unreasonable and irrational, but the prospect of flossing and dealing with panda eyes seemed insurmountable! Plus, I hated getting into a cold bed.
Once I understood this, I removed these little barriers. I flossed and removed my make-up earlier in the evening. My bed was warmed in advance, the curtains were drawn, and the bedding was folded back invitingly. All that was left before I retired for the evening were the easy jobs and lovely rituals (pat the cat, kiss the child, climb between warm sheets).
5. Go clock-free and phone-free from bedtime to wake-time
If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to get those time-telling, distracting, light-producing, alertness-invoking, stress-inducing, toxic-to-sleep devices out of your bedroom.
6. Start developing (even faking) a rise-and-shine mentality
When your alarm calls out to you in the morning, it’s time to take action. Get up and turn it off. What you do during the day helps set you up for sleep at night - remember, it’s a 24-hour sleep–wake cycle that you are working with. Even if your natural tendency is not bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first thing in the morning, get your eyes open and yourself moving. Your job is to support your body in getting its circadian rhythm back on track. You want to synchronise your body clock with the day so that wakefulness gets under way as soon as possible, sleep pressure begins its gradual build, and you feel sleepy come bedtime.
Remember, getting your eyes exposed to daylight is the key to making this happen - light triggers alertness, increases body temperature to get you moving, and pauses the secretion of melatonin. So get the curtains open and get outside into the daylight. Ideally, it’s good to get at least 15 minutes of exposure to natural light as early as you can in the day. Consider taking a walk outside, and, even if it’s bright out, don’t wear your sunglasses - you need the light to work its magic on your biology.
7. Avoid napping
It’s important to experience sleep pressure during the day so it can help make you feel sleepy at night. If you nap, you release some of this pressure, which can cause sleep to be more elusive at night.
However, if you are really struggling to stay awake during the day, be responsible and look after yourself. This is especially important if you need to drive or operate machinery. You may be able to boost your alertness temporarily with a brisk walk or some fresh air. (Don’t fall into the trap of jacking yourself up with loads of caffeine as that only makes sleep more tenuous at night.) If the temporary fixes just aren’t going to cut it, consider taking a nap. If you do opt for a nap, apply the advice from the World Sleep Society - keep it early and keep it brief. Try setting a timer for a maximum of 45 minutes; this will allow up to 30 minutes of sleep. Be sure that your nap is completed before 4pm.
This is an edited extract from Sleep Easy by Bernice Tuffery, published by Allen & Unwin NZ, $36.99