Catching Z's

By Jen LaVecchia, LMFT

Although I’m no longer in school, when the kids go back in August, I like to think that I’m about to start a brand new year too. I’m a big fan of summertime fun, but there is something to be said about new routines, more set schedules, and back to business attitudes that come with the start of a new school year. When I was younger, I remember my mom used to make my brother and I practice having an earlier bedtime about a week or so before school started. Rob and I always found this to be a bummer, because it was our last week of freeeedom, and we wanted to soak up all the playtime we could get. But alas, mom always knows best. If we did not prioritize a good bedtime beforehand, that first week back definitely felt like a drag.

I’ve always been one of those people who really love sleep, though, and appreciate its value. I may or may not get pretty cranky when I do not get a solid night’s rest. That is probably why one of my favorite lectures from Dr. Hart in graduate school was about sleep. I dug up my old notebook from his class and in light of the lazy days of summer coming to a close and the start of a “new year” around the corner, I want to share some of the most helpful tips I learned about getting great sleep.

1.      Darken your room – about an hour or at least a half hour before bedtime, turn off those bright overhead lights and flip on a single lamp or a dim light; prepare your body and mind for sleep ahead. Let your brain take a break and put down your phone and turn off the TV during this time as well. Our brains are so active, stimulating them with Facebook feeds and exciting Netflix binges right before bed aren’t necessarily the best way to slow them down. Ufortunately for those of you that like to fall asleep with the TV on, bad news: even with our eyelids closed we’re reactive to light. So as the screen flickers our minds are on to respond to what we see. My guess is that if you’ve been doing this for a long time, you’ve maybe trained yourself to not respond, but back in the day, it was the sun that woke people up. Things have changed since the invention of electricity, but studies still show that folks who work night shift tend to get sick more often and pass away earlier than folks that sleep throughout the night when the sun is down.

2.      Go to sleep & wake up at the same time – Our bodies like routine and rhythm. I’m sure you’ve heard your tummy growling at you when it’s an hour past your lunchtime. When your body knows what time you hit the hay and when you need to wake up, it can be preparing you for this routine. Research has shown that across the globe our prime sleeping time for solid rest is 10pm-6am. Some researchers also argue that every hour of sleep before midnight basically counts as double compared to going to bed late and sleeping late. Interesting stuff!

3.      Wear pjs & use your bed for sleeping – This may sound a bit odd, but again, our bodies can be so perceptive to what’s around us. There’s been some new research out showing us that what we wear matters. If you want your body to know it’s wind down time, throw on your comfy pjs! This signals your body that it can start relaxing. Think about it – have you noticed that when you throw on sweats for the day you tend to feel a bit lazier versus if you get up and get dressed for the day? Your body is paying attention. Going along with this, use your bed for sleeping. Another professor back in undergrad always told us - don’t eat in your bed and don’t study in your bed, but sleep in your bed. This way your brain can solidify those associations and know that when you’re in bed you’re suppose to be relaxing and sleeping, not working on things.

4.      Let your sleep cycles calculate your alarm – Have you ever taken a nap for an hour and woken up feeling like a character from The Walking Dead? Here’s a small tip – keep your naps to 20-30 minutes max. That’s enough time to let your body relax and lower your heart rate. Sleep cycles go in about 1.5 hour increments. Unless you’re making up for a lot of loss sleep, when you take an hour-long nap and wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle, you aren’t going to feel so great. Try testing this out! If we keep the 1.5 hour increments in mind, you should be feeling more well rested with roughly 6, 7.5 or 9 hours of sleep as opposed to waking up between those times. You are hitting more REM (deeper sleep) after the first hour of the cycle. Paying attention to the cycles may help with waking up less groggy.

5.      Keep post it notes on the nightstand – So here’s the thing, your brain doesn’t stop working, even while you’re sleeping. Remember your algebra teacher saying if you can’t solve a problem, try sleeping on it and try again in the morning? Sort of like when you can’t remember someone’s name or a place you went to, but then a few minutes later, it pops up after you stopped thinking about it. Our brains are always sorting through information trying to figure out what to store, what to remember and keep on the forefront, etc. If you have a million things on your mind before bed, give your brain a break and write them down. Your brain will rest easier when it knows that information is written down somewhere and it does not have to keep revving up to remember it all.

I hope these tips are helpful to you! Rest easy tonight!