During Times of Stress, Sleep!

I promised that I would share my favorite solutions for feeling my best during times of stress. My first solution for staying sane during shelter in place, or any time of great stress: SLEEP!

Sleeping just a little bit longer during times of stress can make a huge difference in your mental state during waking hours. Plus it’s free—and feels great!

We all know sleep is important, and we may very well have it on our “I should…” list, but we always find one excuse or another to stay up. We pay a price for those late-night decisions, however; we may not be aware of all the ripple effects that lack of sleep has on us and our loved ones.

Think of it this way: imagine that sleep is a resource you could measure, like the battery charge on your phone. On a normal day, perhaps a charge of 75% will get you through to the end of the day, with some charge remaining at the end of the day. But now imagine a day when you have to use Google Maps to drive across town, send a million texts, and shoot a bunch of video. That 75% charge just isn’t going to cut it. You’ll need to charge your phone to the full 100%, and maybe even grab your charger as you’re heading out the door in the morning.

The same is true for us. Most of us don’t think that much about our need for sleep, but key bodily processes are happening while we’re sleeping! And the amount of energy we have to draw from as we navigate our day is directly tied to the sleep we got the night before.

Weird things take energy: patience, good humor, optimism. Tying our kids’ shoes. Putting on tights. Cleaning our dog’s paws. Listening to our partner’s stories. With sufficient energy, these details make up the fabric of our lives. Without energy, they can seem infuriating or even impossible. When we’re completely sapped, everyday tasks can cause us to lash out at those closest to us—usually the ones we love the most.

Where does this energy come from? Sleep, mostly. Also from healthy foods and optimized physical health, but right now we’re talking about getting enough sleep, which you can implement as early as tonight.

OK, you say, sleeping is great, but there’s never enough time. Actually, there is almost always enough time—you just have to find it. Let me help.

Grab a sheet of scratch paper and write down three times.

Time 1: Write down the time your head typically hits the pillow each night.

Time 2: Write down the time you usually start getting ready for bed. (If you don’t know, don’t worry; just pay attention tonight and make a note of the time.)

Time 3: Write down the time your responsibilities for the day are usually complete. This is the time when the dishes are done, the kids are tucked in bed, the laundry is folded… and you finally have some time to yourself.

In theory, getting more sleep should be simple. You just need to shift the second time—Time 2—back a bit and start getting ready for bed sooner than normal. I take forever to get ready for bed—usually an hour! I have a pretty long routine, plus I’m always forgetting something, so I end up making several trips up and down the stairs between the kitchen and my bedroom. At first, when I wanted to get more sleep, I thought I could just speed this process up—but it never worked! So now I’ve just accepted that it takes me an hour and that’s that. If I want to get more sleep, I need to start the process earlier.

In reality, however, it’s more complicated than simply deciding to get ready earlier, and here’s why: The stretch between Time 2 and Time 3 is “me time”—and who wants to cut into this precious time? The long-term solution is to recalibrate your day so that you’re getting this type of “me time” in bits and pieces throughout the day, so you don’t have to cram it all into a sad couple of hours before bed. But that is a longer project—perhaps for another post. For now, you can just temporarily delay some of the emails, TV shows, and scrolling through social media until another day, during a less stressful time, when your body can get away with a little less sleep.

It has also helped me to incorporate “me time” into my nightly wind-down ritual, so that the two become intertwined in my mind. A cozy and tidy bedroom, good books and a journal on my bedside table, and pampering nighttime rituals all make a big difference in making heading to bed sound appealing.

Since making a commitment to myself to sleep more, I’ve increased my nightly sleep about one hour per night, from about 6 hours to 7 hours per night. I feel my best when I’ve had 8 hours, but that usually only happens on weekends. This isn’t something that has to be rigid, either. Some nights you’ll get less, some more. Every extra hour of sleep you give to yourself is a gift to yourself—and by extension, to your loved ones. Over time, you’ll see your patience, attitude, resilience, and humor improve, and what’s more valuable than that?

What do you say? Is this something you could start tonight? Maybe you could aim to start getting ready for bed 30 minutes earlier than normal? Or if you’re feeling especially ambitious, an hour? Let me know how it goes!

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