Sleep: How to Stop Trying So Hard To Get It So You Can Rest

How are you sleeping these days? If you laughed when you read that, or cried a little – you are not alone. Difficulty sleeping is a normal reaction to stress. Even if your own sleep has managed to go unaffected by 2020, you likely know someone who is struggling with it. 

Let’s consider our cave dwelling ancestors. Early humans likely only roused from exhausted sleep for a few things; The rising sun shining into the cave, an infant crying, their stomachs rumbling or the startlingly rousing realization that a lion found its way into the cave. 

Stress and wakefulness are closely linked. The same hormones that keep us awake and alert during the day are many of the same that flood our body when we are startled or worried. When fighting off a lion or pushing ourselves to meet a work deadline, these chemicals are our friends. The lion eventually slinks back into the forest, we turn the project in and our bodies discontinue the production of the hormones. Our systems return to normal. 

But in 2020, the lion is hanging out in our cave. 

The truth is that there are a thousand things that can affect our sleep: hormones, allergies, diet, parenthood… Usually when the stressor is gone, sleep returns. When the stress is prolonged, we try to do all the things we hear we are supposed to do to get a better night’s sleep. The more trouble we have with sleep, the more it starts to take over our thoughts. We may even dread going to sleep because we know that we’re going to toss and turn for hours. Worrying about getting to sleep floods us with adrenaline and has the opposite of the desired effect. 

Dr. Donn Posner, Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and one of the foremost authorities on sleep, says so accurately, “If you get into bed and you start to try to make yourself sleep; you are done for.” He suggests two simple things we can do to stop trying to sleep and start actually sleeping:

Learn to associate your bed with sleeping instead of sleeplessness

Use the bedroom only for sleeping and sex. Don’t work or watch TV in there and move clocks out of view. Anxiously watching the minutes tick by won’t help. And when you can’t sleep for more than 15 minutes, get up. Tossing and turning only amps up the anxiety. Go do something enjoyable, like reading, drinking tea, or taking a bath. When you’re sleepy, go back to bed.

Work backward and set your wake time first

Get up at the same time every day. When we change the time we get up we are basically subjecting ourselves to mini bouts of jet lag. We can’t ‘bank’ those extra hours and they only end up making it harder to get up the next day. It doesn’t need to be the crack of dawn! Find the time that works on the days you have commitments and set it daily. We have all heard that the early bird gets the worm but if no one needs you early and you hate being that bird, set your regular time so that it is sustainable. There are plenty of worms to go around.  

While for many of us challenges with sleep are a completely normal reaction to an extraordinarily abnormal set of circumstances, if you find that lack of sleep is affecting your daily life or becoming chronic, seek help. The good news is that while it looks like the lion is going to be hanging around for awhile, there are things we can do to keep him out of our bedrooms. 


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