We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. (Aristotle)
Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck. (Dalai Lama XIV)
Going to bed was a complete gamble
For many years I struggled with insomnia. Anybody who has experienced chronic insomnia will know the devastating effects it can have on both physical and mental wellbeing. Lack of sleep can lead to a crippling inability to function and enjoy life. For me, going to bed each night was a complete gamble, never knowing if I would manage to get to sleep in the first place, and if so, how it would be before I would wake up. I tried everything: meditation books, relaxing music, herbal remedies, various exercise routines and even eating tryptophan rich foods in a bid to calm my body naturally, reduce anxiety and induce sleep. I had already been doing the obvious things such as turning the computer and television off early and avoiding caffeine. However, nothing I did really seemed to work. I eventually realised that it would take more than a hot shower and a token bedtime milk and banana to get a good night’s rest.
After years of frantically seeking one quick fix remedy after another, only to find myself still wide awake at 3am, I realised that perhaps I had to change my attitude towards sleep. Firstly, I needed to address the reasons I wasn’t sleeping. This included the anxiety that I had created around going to bed, as well as my continued suppression of various stresses in my daily life. I reasoned with myself that there was nothing inherently stressful about going to bed – pulling back the covers, getting in and turning off the light – and I could choose whether or not to indulge those negative feelings that I had come to associate with sleep. Secondly, I made a promise to myself each night not to get worked up if I could not get to sleep. If I did not sleep, I did not sleep. Crying into my pillow, or worse, would not help. This was a crucial moment for me, because with this promise came acceptance of whatever the night would bring. I stopped obsessing over the situation (am I nearly asleep? was I just asleep?) and acquired a sense of inner peace and calm. This in turn helped both my body and mind to relax.
Commit to a sleep hygiene routine
This was the real starting point of my successful sleep hygiene routine – a committed and holistic approach to achieving consistently good quality sleep. Good sleep hygiene is not about jumping from one insomnia quick fix to another, or going to bed super early one night in order to stay out late the next. Our bodies follow an inner clock, and constant fluctuations and adjustments disrupt our natural rhythms, levels of energy, focus and productivity. When developing a good sleep hygiene routine, it’s really important to know and respect what works for you. Key to success is maintaining strict discipline and regular practice. For me, the old maxim “an hour before midnight is worth two after” rings true, which is why I aim to be in bed long before the clock strikes twelve each night. Additionally, plenty of fresh air and exercise during the day, followed by a light evening meal and limited use of electronic devices all contribute to my good sleep hygiene routine. A cup of chamomile tea last thing at night has also become part of the ritual. Not only is chamomile known for its relaxing, sleep-inducing properties, but my consistent practice of having this warm drink before bed has led my brain to associate it with sleep, which allows me to feel ready for bed in advance.
Put your thoughts to bed
One extra thing that I recommend is taking a few minutes each night to “put your thoughts to bed”. Address whatever has happened during the day: be thankful for the good and let go of the bad. There will always be things about the day that we can’t change, things that cause us frustration, disappointment or regret. But taking these feelings to bed with us is an extremely unhealthy habit. If we don’t put our thoughts to bed, we will have to carry them through the night – leading to poor quality sleep – and will wake up with them weighing heavy on our minds in the morning. This is not how we want to be starting our day. If there are loose ends that you have not been able to tie up before bed, promise yourself that you will deal with them in the morning, when your brain is refreshed and more agile. Write them down on a sheet of paper and leave it outside of the bedroom. Your bedroom must become your sanctuary, a haven of peace and relaxation, and not associated with work or stress. When putting your thoughts to bed, tell yourself that you are leaving the day behind to embrace the prospect of a restorative and rejuvenating night’s sleep. Tomorrow is a new day, and you will feel physically, mentally and emotionally stronger and more ready to achieve your goals having allowed your body and mind to rest and recover through a good night’s sleep.