May is Mental Health Awareness month. In honor of this, we want to dive into one of the most important parts of mental health—self-care. Self-care is a very personal journey as we create habits that benefit our own physical and mental health. What is the best thing for you right now may not be the best for someone else.
That said, there are many self-care strategies that can be applicable to all of us. Today, we’d like to focus on one aspect of self-care that can have a significant positive impact on all of us—sleep.
Sleep and mental health are closely linked. It is something that many of us don’t associate with routines and strategies. You are not alone if you struggle with your sleep journey. Those with mental health problems are also more likely to suffer from insomnia and other sleep disorders.
Because sleep is so pivotal to our mental and physical health, it is important to dedicate time to ensuring that you have the best recipe for success.
So, how do we create a self-care routine for better sleep?
Expose yourself to light during the day and turn down bright lights at night — This includes your screens (phone, laptop, etc.)! Blue light affects your body’s natural production of melatonin, which is trying to put you to bed. Leave your phone outside and if you have an early appointment, investing in an alarm clock can be a great way to wake you up without interfering with your sleep hormones. There are many options out there for under $20.
Wind down with relaxing activities — Try taking a bath, reading a book or meditating.
Develop a sleep schedule — As much as possible, try going to bed and waking up at the same time daily. This one can be hard to do if we succumb to bad habits during the week — drinking caffeine late in the day, consuming nicotine or alcohol close to bedtime, ruminating on our worries (try journaling it out at the end of the day so that you can leave them there and revisit them in the morning), eating large meals before bedtime etc. The Mayo Clinic recommends that if you cannot fall asleep within 20 minutes of getting into bed, get out of bed and do something relaxing and return to bed when you are ready to sleep. Your bed should be a trigger to your body that it is time for sleep.
Avoid habits that compromise your sleep — I mentioned a lot of these in the previous bullet point, but they are important to reinforce! Although a nightcap is tempting, avoiding alcohol for at least 2 hours before bedtime can help keep us in our REM cycle longer and promote sleeping through the night. Late-night alcohol may knock you out, but it will likely wake you up — by reducing your REM sleep (that deep sleep) or because it’s a diuretic that causes your body to expel more water and triggers that “I need to pee at 3 am response.” In addition to limiting your alcohol intake before bed - you should remember to put down your glass of coffee at least 7 hours before bedtime. Nicotine is also a stimulant and if you must consume it, you should stop at least two hours before bed. That’s not to say you can never have a nightcap, as with most things - everything in moderation!
Get moving! Exercise and movement throughout the day will get your body tired. That said, try to avoid hitting the gym too close to bedtime as your body may get signals that it’s time to ramp up again.
Sleep may not come naturally to everyone as an element of self-care, but arguably, it is one of the most important ones. Self-care is unique to us, so cater your sleep routine to what works best for you. This may be reading, writing, taking a bath or going out to stare at the sky. Whichever you choose, routines are always easier to keep up when they’re consistent. The same way that you consistently get up in the morning to start your day, keeping a consistent routine at night can promote healthier and happier sleep habits.
Please note, if you have tried healthy and holistic strategies for managing your sleep and are still struggling - reach out to your health care provider, who will be able to offer additional resources and strategies to help.