Our super-charged daily schedules and tech-spangled distractions that keep us hopping well into the night are beginning to catch up with us. According to the American Sleep Association, 40 percent of 40- to 59-year-olds and 37 percent of 20- to 39-year-olds report being regularly short on sleep.
Yet routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours per night can have serious consequences on your health, says Matthew Walker, Ph.D. He is a sleep scientist and the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. In his book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, he writes that sleep deficiency is associated with a compromised immune system, greater risk of cancer, problems with concentration and memory and possible shortened life spans. Matthew recommends eight hours sleep a night and is actually lobbying doctors to prescribe sleep. (Sleep, not sleeping pills.)
While some people may cut short their sleep on purpose to gain more waking hours, others long for a solid eight hours of rest, but have trouble getting or staying asleep. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, approximately $63 billion is lost each year due to insomnia; it has become a national crisis. For many of us, active, stressed-out brains—our monkey minds—keep us in overdrive.
How can we make our racing minds relax so we can get that badly needed sleep?
“Count backwards from 300 by 3s,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, sleep expert and author known as “The Sleep Doctor.” “It is mathematically so complicated you can’t think of anything else, and it is so boring you are out like a light.”
Stress and anxiety are the big culprits for making us toss, turn and lose our ability to will ourselves back to sleep. Both cause physical tension in the body, Michael explains, and they also cause the body to release hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, which boost energy and alertness and raise heart rate and blood pressure, priming the body for fight or flight.
Fortunately, several approaches have proven effective to help you get back to sleep.
Tips from Matthew Walker:
1. Get out of bed. If you are having trouble falling asleep for more than 15 minutes, he suggests getting out of bed so your brain doesn’t associate that as the place where you don’t sleep. He recommends going to a dim room to read a book—no digital devices, no screens. When you get sleepy again, go back to bed.
2. Meditate. Scientific data supports meditation as a powerful tool for falling asleep and getting back to sleep. Meditation can be as simple as paying attention to your breathing.
3. Keep it cool. Sleep in a cool room if you can; a temperature of around 68 degrees is ideal.
Tips From Michael Breus:
4. Realize that how you spend your day impacts your night. Think of consistent attention to relaxation as a round-the-clock investment in your nightly sleep. Are you drinking excessive caffeine in the afternoon? Watching a scary movie right before bed? Expect to see an effect on your sleep.
5. Use self-directed phrases that promote relaxation. Quietly or silently repeat words or phrases such as “I feel supremely calm” that cultivate sensations of warmth and heaviness in different regions of the body.
6. Try 4-7-8 breathing. Inhale for four seconds, hold breath for seven seconds, exhale slowly for eight seconds. Repeat several times. “A long slow exhale has a meditative quality to it that is inherently relaxing,” he says.
7. Use visual imagery. Imagine yourself on a restful journey—such as floating peacefully on a calm ocean, being rocked by gentle waves and caressed by a warm breeze. This can help separate you from a stressful day.
8. Try progressive relaxation. Working with one area of the body at a time, tense and then relax each muscle group from your toes to the top of your head. As you do this, be aware of what your body feels like when it is relaxed.