The world of sleep is mysterious and vast. We are conscious of ourselves just before we drift off to sleep. However, in between falling asleep and waking, we intentionally or unintentionally place full trust in the world around us – that we will be safe with our eyes closed, traveling into another realm of our daily experience. We experience dreams and movements that we may never recall upon waking. We trust that we will awaken, having allowed our bodies to rest. However, it is not just about our bodies – sleep has profound and powerful effects on the mind. It is no wonder that a vast section of medicine and scientific research is dedicated solely to the study of sleep.
This brings us to our next question… What does sleep have to do with self-regulation?
Common sense and experience tell us that sleep helps our mind and body’s ability to heal, process new information, and grow in creativity – dreams are proofs of our creative selves at play (next time someone tells you or you think you’re not creative, remind yourself that you dream!). Good sleep leads to a larger reserve of energy, more positive moods, and greater control over our motor functions and reaction times (if you’ve ever seen a video in a driving course demonstrating the connections between sleep and driving, this point should be no surprise!).
At a deeper level, according to psychologists and many of the world’s traditions, sleep is the place where we meet metaphors and grow – a place where dreams that connect seemingly unrelated phenomena and phases of sleep rewire our minds towards (hopefully!) greater maturity and clarity. We process an old day’s or a past year’s worth of experiences to prepare for a new day. And so, if we don’t create a foundation for healthy healing sleep we wake up jumbled, chaotic, and confused. We are also much more emotional, more reactive, and with long term sleep deprivation more prone to being anxious and depressed – a perfect recipe for allowing the mind’s irrational processes to go for a run, leaving the more logical self-trusting skills behind. A jumbled and unresolved mind and body is not going to be ready to self-regulate or implement a series of checks and balances to keep our reactions to a new day’s experiences in check.
So, this leads us to the final and most important question: If sleep is so important in self-regulating, how do we prepare for it?
Huh?! Preparing for sleep?
Yes! With the modern pace of life, which continues to grow faster with time, we have forgotten the rituals that used to exist in the absence of cell phones and pressures to keep working. Our grandparents, great-grandparents, and ancestors effortlessly engaged in these rituals before bed. Before delving into how to prepare for one of our day’s most essential functions, SLEEP, let’s take a look at what does NOT prepare us for sleep:
- Peering into screens at least 60 minutes before bedtime. This includes television, cell phones, iPads, and laptops.
- Listening to news about negative events and the endless stream of “breaking news”
- Arguing with friends or family.
- Working – your work day should be over way before sleep – it sounds unreal to many of us today (I personally know my teacher colleagues will say we’re planning, thinking of new creative ways to teach material, and grading!) In each profession, and in each stage of life, including student life there is always more work that can be done, especially with the free flowing stream of electricity that lights up our homes at any time of day!
- Solving problems – unresolved questions will always consume us but we must press the brakes.
- Studying – it’s time to allow the mine to assimilate what you have learned.
- Loud or very stimulating activities (i.e., listening to very loud music or intense movies).
- Gossiping – creating unnecessary stories and throwing up emotions is the last thing we want to do!
So how do we prepare?
Whatever we do, it should be soothing to the mind and body – bringing ourselves closer to the pace of sleep – which is a “non-doing” state, a state of letting go of all control of any unfinished tasks and worries. Here are some rituals you may choose to take up or follow if you don’t already do so:
- Read a nourishing book.
- Sit with family (only if that is a relaxing activity).
- Pick out your clothes for the following day, prepare your backpack or work bag, and take out anything related to your morning routine. Keep it ready so you don’t need to run around in the morning!
- Keep a notepad where you can write any reminders that pop up as you unwind – the last thing you want to do is get up as soon as your mind reminds you of a task.
- Journal – write down any positive things that happened during the day.
- Sit by a candle and just do nothing, enjoy the presence of the candle and soft relaxing music in the background.
- Try Yoga Nidra!
- Cut out something that stands between you and preparing for sleep. This is the hardest one of all! But if we want to attend to ourselves, we must learn to let go!
*Start preparing so you can be in bed by latest 11 p.m. This time will gradually and hopefully move to an earlier spot in the day, and you may end up going to bed everyday by 10 p.m. if you don’t already do so.
These are just some ideas. I’m sure our ancestors star-gazed in groups, sat around a fire and told stories, prepared the home for the next day, ensured safety of the kids before falling asleep, or read by candlelight. Whatever they did, the mind was geared to a slowing down process – as opposed to following Tweets, Instagram, Snapchat, the news, or problem-solving unresolved work issues. Our ancestors most likely did not even have the option of being pulled into a space where they could be bombarded with stimulation.
The more you prepare for bed, like our ancestors unknowingly did, the better your quality of sleep will be. What you do before sleeping has a huge impact on the state of your mind during sleep and upon waking. And this is why it is linked to self regulation! The more we prepare and allow a sense of calmness and stillness to begin to permeate into our bedtime-selves, the more rested, resilient, and focused we will feel the next morning. The swirls of emotions that arise within us in response to daily triggers will not quite hit the threshold to burst into a reaction but rather lay low and you will be able to move on without outbursts more easily.
Action for this post:
Create your own bedtime ritual. One hour before it’s time to sleep, try to move towards stillness. Do what helps you feel calmer and what helps slow down the activity of the mind and body.
It is helpful if you write down concrete ritual(s) that you will follow so that there is a plan ready to go as soon as 9 or 10 p.m. hits the clock! The last thing you want to do is start thinking about what to do when it is time to prepare, so do the thinking beforehand and follow the flow of your plan!