It’s no secret that pretty much everybody needs to chill. Especially you. You’re about to take advice from someone who does simulated manual labor for fun, so you may need to rethink some things.
I’m not great at chilling the fuck out, but I’ve gotten a lot better at it. You see, whether it’s because maybe your survival drive is too damn efficient and you feel like you’re never doing enough (yay, genetics?), you hate yourself and your efforts always feel inadequate (boo, sad), or the “system” is grinding you down (probably! Shit!), it’s often really hard to genuinely relax, and thus hard to get a good night’s sleep.
And by relax, I don’t mean pass out in front of your TV after half a box of wine and binge watching five episodes of The Haunting of Hill House (don’t be like me and watch three episodes right before bed), but activating the parasympathetic nervous system, and relaxing.
The parasympathetic nervous system is what your body uses to regulate recovery activities; the system that makes sure you’re sleeping, repairing tissue, digesting, and so forth.
When you don’t really relax, and you don’t stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, your sleep may not be as deep, and you may not feel super rested even when you got enough time asleep. This could mean that you need to spend more time actually unwinding and that’s right, chilling the fuck out.
Winding down will look different for everyone, but the following points are worth investigating for anyone.
-TURN OFF your phone/screen. Pick a designated phone/tech off time, and if not a full turn-off, at least disable notifications for all social and news, or put it on airplane mode. Ideally, do this a few hours before sleep, although that’s probably not likely for the average person, so even just the 45 minutes before bed is better than nothing. If you’re someone who sits in bed and scrolls social/Reddit/etc before sleep, I want you to go find a mirror right now, look into it, and say OUT LOUD, “Why do I hate myself?” Exposing yourself to the dopamine thrashing of social media is a surefire way to sabotage real relaxation. I love memes as much as anyone, but they’re probably not helping you sleep.
-FIGURE OUT why you’re restless or can’t sleep. Can you identify a specific issue(s) that makes you restless? There are likely many (hahaha, I know), but if one if semi-actionable, then do it, or take a step toward it. Bill you forgot to pay? Just get online and pay it right now, or set a reminder to go off in the morning so you can deal with it when you get up. If I find myself worrying about something while laying in bed, I’ll usually ask myself “Is there anything I can do about it right now?” and if the answer is no, I will simply say, mantra-like, “There is nothing I can do right now except go to sleep.” Saying this out loud is also a bonus. It makes the sentiment more real.
-TALK with your partner(s), roommate(s), a friend, family, etc. Happiness is overwhelmingly correlated to the strength of our social interactions and relationships, and while you may at times not want any human contact (especially if you have a very social job), good conversation is a great way to spend an evening, address your emotional needs, and get yourself out of your head a little.
-BANG your partner(s), yourself, whomever. Yeah, you’re often going to feel too tired to initiate sex and putting it on a to do list feels un-sexy, but it’s not that different from exercise. You don’t wait to get in the mood, you warm up and GET in the mood (I won’t bore or horrify with suggestions on how to do that). Personally, I have literally never regretted making time and energy to be intimate with my boyfriend. I sleep better, I get all those physical contact neurochemicals, and it strengthens our bond. This should be a no-brainer, but alas we are so glued to Instagram that we don’t make time for one of the main pastimes that humans have literally killed for. We’re messed up, man.
-EAT, but not too late. You want to eat enough that you aren’t waking up from hunger^, but not super close to bedtime. Some science indicates that a very full stomach makes it harder to fall asleep (Matthew Walker talks about this on the JRE podcast), so eating an hour or two before bed is a good idea.
-TOUCH yourself. This could fall in the earlier paragraph about sex, but it also could just be grooming. I find this incredibly relaxing. Bathing, showering, tweezing, shaving, lotioning, anything where I’m touching my own body and paying attention to it in a nurturing way. Taking care of yourself is a prerequisite to feeling good about yourself in general, and having little physical self care rituals is just nice. It connects me to my body, clears my head, and makes me physically relax. Mucb of our attention is on pretty cerebral tasks during the work day, so getting physical is a great tactic for getting out of your head, and into bed.
-BREATHE deeply. Meditate, but don’t put pressure on yourself to do it “right,” breathing slowly and deeply is the most important thing. There are some yoga poses that can aid relaxation, but the main thing really just is breathing deeply. Deep breathing physically and neurally relaxes your whole system and while it may take some practice to find a way to do this without getting stuck in a thought loop, that’s okay. It’s not brain surgery. Just try it for short intervals.
-POSITION YOURSELF appropriately for sleep. No stomach sleeping. Sleeping on our backs is likely best for us. How are you aligning your body? Is it affecting your breathing? There are many things, like jaw alignment, that affect how you breathe, some things we can control, some less so. I have an overbite I’m planning to have looked at and possibly corrected at some point, but in the meantime I’ve found that sleeping slightly propped up makes it much easier to breathe deeply and mouth breath less. Experiment and figure out what positioning helps you get better sleep.
-RITUALIZE your sensory input. Your pre-bed behavior can be turned into a sleep-conducive Pavlovian cue set. We can essentially program ourselves to react to certain stimuli for a specific outcome. For example, I always light a candle when it’s time to start winding down, and sniff lavender essential oil (as well as dabbing some on the sheets). I also listen to ocean sounds and read. These are all things I pretty much only do before bed (except reading), and thus I gradually came to associate them with feeling relaxed and sleepy. Now a whiff of lavender pretty much instantly relaxes me. Think of relaxation as a multi-sensory process. You can play with scent, sound, touch (soft clothes & sheets, touching, massage etc),and light.
-SHUT DOWN your blue light emitting devices or change their light setting to auto switch to orange light after around 5 pm. Blue light keeps the brain active and awake, orange light helps it relax. Flickering orange light especially so. Candles can be a scent and light sensory cue! If you’re going to read on a tablet, adjust the light settings accordingly.
–EXAMINE your physical environment. Is your mattress actually comfortable for you? How about your pillows? Is your room a mess? Maybe that’s distracting and anxiety amplifying. Do you work (havea computer) in your room? Can you separate your work space and physically leave it when it’s time to relax, or change your set up somehow? My boyfriend Mark doesn’t take his computer (or even phone) into his bedroom, and never watch shows or movies in the bedroom either. This level of division may not be possible, but there are ways you can designate areas for their uses if you get creative (sleeping blanket doesn’t go in the writing chair!).
-RESTORE your body. Finally, taking ZMA is one of the few vitamin supplements that is likely worth spending money on. Zinc and Magnesium are both vital minerals that are hard to get enough of through your diet and have been shown to enhance recovery aspects of sleep[*]. I use the True Athlete brand which is NSF certified (they test for contaminants, and verify that what you buy is actually what you’re getting, which is great, because supplements do not have to go through rigorous testing and there’s a lot of crap out there).
I will likely update this post as I learn more strategies (or write a follow up with some more science for you), but in the meantime leave a comment with your favorite strategies and thoughts!
Now turn off your computer and go relax.