Exhaustion is at its peak in December as the school year comes to a close and Christmas festivities ramp up. Kids are drooping, teens are drained and parents are overworked. What’s more distressing is that it’s not just happening at the end of the year.
In my role as director of BDC Dance Studios, I see widespread exhaustion in students, teachers and parents throughout the year because we’re all just so BUSY. Busy is a bad word. If someone says they’re busy, it means they’re doing a truck load of stuff with very little focus which means that barely anything is getting done. But that’s a story for another time.
As I write this, I laugh and shake my head at the irony that I am about to offer advice on something I struggle with on a regular basis. All of us need to SLEEP!
Why is it that you’re praised for going to bed early but labeled lazy if you sleep in? Does it really matter? If you’re meeting responsibilities, surely any sleep that you can get at any time should be praised, right?
Now that Christmas has passed, it’s a perfect time for everyone to catch up on sleep debt. Yes, you heard me, sleep debt. It’s real. Those late night study sessions, the super early morning swim starts and the stress induced insomnia all need to be paid back.
Here’s how it works, in a nutshell. When you’re awake, your body is in a constant catabolic state. Catabolic means things are breaking down and being used. You’re wearing down yourself physically, mentally and emotionally the longer you stay awake. That’s great for a while but if you keep it up too long, things start malfunctioning.
Here’s the cool thing about sleep. You switch to an anabolic state, your body’s inbuilt healing and rebuilding mechanism. Once you’re asleep, your body starts to recharge. The food you’ve digested gets used to create new cells, damage starts to heal, weaknesses are strengthened, even your mind is bolstered as your dreams help your subconscious mind process problems and decisions that you need to work on it (there’s a reason you’re told to ‘sleep on it’ if you have a big problem to solve).
So if you’ve spent weeks or even months spending way too much time awake, you’re going to need to put some extra time into your pillow to catch up on your health.
1. Check that your bed is actually the most comfortable it can be.
Are your sheets scratchy? Is the blanket too heavy? Is your mattress as hard as a board? Noone is going to get excited about sleep if they don’t enjoy being in their bed.
Solution: Get a mattress topper to soften a hard mattress. Buy sheets that feel good (hint: not everyone in your family is going to like fluffy sheets). Match your pillow to your sleep style: Side sleepers need a different pillow to tummy sleepers. Make your bed a haven that you can’t wait to jump into.
2. Dim the lights and lose the blue
Before electricity existed, your brain woke you up at sunrise and made you sleepy at sunset. It’s all thanks to a tiny part of your brain called the pineal gland. Now that we have artificial light and hundreds of screens glaring at us, our brains are confused and don’t know when it’s bedtime.
Solution: When the sun goes down, turn of all blue based light (Blue light mimics daylight). Have warm/orange based lamps of low wattage to light the rooms you’re in, and turn on night filters on any screens you’re using. Bright and blue will keep you awake, dim and warm will allow you to get sleepy.
4. Ditch the screens entirely
Even with the dimness down and night filter at its warmest, it’s still a bad idea to be staring at your phone before bed. The light confuses your brain. And let’s face it, you’re probably on an app which requires some kind of interaction that’s stimulating you cognitively and emotionally (don’t get me started on the psychological ramifications of social media for kids and teens).
Solution: Switch off! Read a book with a little book light. Listen to some calm music. Have a bath! But do it at least 30 minutes before you want to go to bed. It’s hard to get to sleep when your core body temperature has been raised.
4. Increase the darkness
Street lights shining through windows can cause sleeplessness, and flashing TV lights under the door are a distraction. Unwelcome sunlight at dawn when you desperately need to sleep in can be a nightmare itself.
Solution: Make sure your blind is thick and cover the frame of your window. Hang a towel or blanket over any gaps until you can sort out a permanent solution. Use a draft stopper to stop lights shining under the door. If there are gaps around your door, you can get adhesive draft stopper strips from any hardware store. This has the added benefit of muffling sounds, too.
5. Don’t let your alarm clock put on a show
Yes, you may need help waking up at the right time but after reducing all other light don’t ruin it by letting a bright alarm clock take centre stage. It’s also a terrible idea to be able to see the time while you’re sleeping. Insomnia’s best partner in crime is anxiety, and seeing that it’s 2am is not going to settle your nerves.
Solution 1: Get an alarm clock that’s either mechanical or super dim, and make sure the display isn’t blue based (red or black, for example).
Solution 2: Use the alarm clock app in an old phone, one that doesn’t have all your social media on it. Switch that brightness down to minimum, and turn it face down. Don’t look at it until it goes off in the morning, even if you really want to.
We’re all born with the superpower of sleep. We just forget how to use it. Make sure you’re doing everything you can to access yours and get yourself some supercharged sleep credit.
* Bonus for the overthinkers out there!
Get yourself a meditation or audiobook app and put it on that old phone you’re using as an alarm clock. It means you can distract that overactive brain of yours when everything is dark and quiet. My favourite app is Calm. A year’s subscription costs about US$70, and it has heaps of sleep stories and thousands of meditations, soundscapes and music options.