“Sleep is the best meditation” – Dalai Lama
It was a stressful week for many. Thoughts of the decimation a pandemic can create, the financial market uncertainty, and concerns over one’s personal health left many feeling worn out from stress and overthinking. Due to the lessened traffic on the roads, I allowed my 15 year old with a learner’s permit drive on roads I wouldn’t ordinarily allow. He did well, until he made a small error in judgment that could have had huge consequences for us. We ended up in oncoming traffic. To say I was stressed in that moment would be a bit of an understatement. I screamed many, many words and then yelled out a string of directives. Luckily for both of us, he followed them perfectly. It took a few minutes for both of us to breathe normally again. A few hours later, I could (shakily) laugh about it. We hugged and had a great conversation where we both learned how we could do better in those situations.
Thinking can plant seeds for nightmares
But later that night, I had a nightmare that we were back in the car. Everything that could have gone wrong but didn’t played out, in nightmarishly slow motion. It kept repeating over and over. I was shaky and nauseous, and was too hot to get comfortable again. Finally, I got up and abandoned sleep for a few hours in favor of a good book I had close by. I knew this wasn’t unusual, as even short, intense moments of stress can weigh heavily in our dreams as our minds work to process what we saw and felt. The Dalai Lama says that “Sleep is the best meditation.” But what if you can’t get into either?
Even without something traumatic or emergent, times of daily stress or uncertainty will reflect our daily mental activity in our evening slumber. If you’ve gone all day worried about the future, stressing about things you cannot change, or nervously anticipating the ways life can go wrong, your brain may continue to follow that pattern at night. This leaves little room for relief and can be incredibly frustrating! Uneasy dreams, nightmares, and even full on night terrors about bad things can plague you when you need rest the most. So what can you do to help soften the night?
Five Tips for Better Sleep
- Establish a relaxing routine. Good sleep hygiene includes a consistent bedtime anyway, but during times of stress in your life, this is especially important. Going to bed at the same time as normal tells your body and mind that you are safe, that the day is coming to a close, and begins the sequence of events that allows your body to relax into slumber. Don’t stay up late worrying more—it likely won’t help you solve anything and may even cause more problems for you.
- Tuck yourself in. You know how all good parents in stories and movies give their kids a warm bath, get their teeth and hair brushed, and then tuck them in under heavy warm covers? You know how sweet and relaxing that sounds? There’s a reason for that! Again, it signals to your mind and body, “You’re safe…you can rest now.” Take a warm shower with pleasant smelling soaps or shampoos. Brush your hair slowly. Brush your teeth slowly and carefully. Find soft, warm blankets and put yourself to bed with intention—don’t just collapse at random on the closest soft spot and hope for the best.
- Limit screen time before bed. By screen time, of course I mean tv, phone, and laptop use—those should be used minimally and stopped an hour before bed, ideally more. Try to think of your mental activity of stress, worry, and overthinking about everything as a “screening” of your daily woes. Try to limit your screening of those for about an hour before bed as well. Take a deep breath, and tell yourself there will be time to sort it out tomorrow. Give yourself permission to mentally turn on something else you enjoy. Spend time with your spouse, your children, your pets, or your favorite book characters. Again, it sends out the signal to your self that “all is well,” at least for the night.
- Change it up. If you’re caught in the middle of the night within a loop of bad dreams you can’t seem to escape, try to change your environment a bit. Often, our physical state while we’re sleeping plays a part in what shows up in our dreams. This is why we dream we’re being suffocated by someone who is angry with us when our cat is sleeping too close on our pillow, or suddenly the ballet you were attending in your dreams begins playing a song from your alarm clock. If you’re too hot, uncomfortable, or feeling pinched, your body may be sending out signals for help. Adjust your sheets and blankets. Remove a blanket if you’re feeling hot. Fluff your pillows, then try again on your other side or in a new position.
- Reset and Rest. Still hounded by nightmares? Waking up feeling panicked, sweaty, or out of control? Don’t fight it, instead, try hitting the reset button on the night. Keeping the lights as low as possible, get up and try reading for a bit. You may wake up a bit more initially, but eventually as your sympathetic nervous system relaxes its frantic morse code against your fight or flight button, your body will naturally relax. You can also try meditation, petting your dog or cat, or a very slow body scan check in. As long as you don’t re-engage with the stress, overthinking, and panic of the day, your body should be able to take a cue—and let you get some peaceful rest once more.
Good sleep hygiene is as important for your overall health and well-being as brushing your teeth and showering. Take some time to assess your sleep habits, and note if there are ways you can improve. Keeping the same sleep schedule as often as possible, slowly shutting down for the night long before you crawl into bed, and creating a calm, soothing environment are some of the best ways to get started. Sleep truly is the best meditation, so you want to adopt anything that can help you get into that state. And don’t forget to set a time limit on your worrying for the evening. After a day of stressful thinking, you’re unlikely to solve anything for yourself just before bed. Remember the words of Scarlett O’Hara and remind yourself: “Tomorrow is another day!”