-The Refuge of Sleep
We sleep the best when we feel safe, comfortable, and loved. The implementation of a nightly wind-down routine will help in feeling a sense of safety as we prepare for a good night’s sleep.
Hey, everyone. I’m coach Bradley, one of Mission 22’s health coaches in the R+R program. This lesson will focus on some basics of setting yourself up for a good night’s rest.
In prioritizing which component of physical health to address first, be it nutrition, exercise, relationships and so on, we decided to start with sleep. Put simply, without sleep, healing can’t happen. Sadly, a striking number of Americans are dealing with disordered sleep while the pace of life shows no signs of slowing down.
There is essentially no mental or physical downside to adding an hour or three to one’s deficient sleep schedule, yet many have some sort of struggle in this area. Common advice on getting quality rest is to optimize our routine and light, noise, and temperature exposure. We’ll get to each of these in turn, but one often neglected aspect is safety.
Sleep is a vulnerable state to be in. Many soldiers are trained to sleep for no more than two to four hours at a time and only when there’s a fire team partner standing watch while on patrol. This experience can leave lasting effects on the service member, and changing this pattern can seem difficult.
Whether our irregular sleep habits have been shaped by a deployment or the demands of work and family life, adjusting to a pattern of healthy, deep sleep is going to take some work.
Luckily, because sleep is a learned process, we have the ability to relearn how to sleep well. A big part of this process is starting an evening wind-down routine that tells the body that our environment is safe to become unconscious in. By properly preparing for sleep, we signal an energy shift in our day and let the mind and body know that it’s almost time to rest for the night.
The Function of Sleep
From an evolutionary standpoint, shutting the body down for a third of the day doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. When we’re asleep, we’re not finding a mate, we’re not reproducing, we’re not caring for our young, we’re not foraging for food, and perhaps most importantly, we’re vulnerable to predation.
Based on these reasons, we might conclude that sleep is one of the most dangerous things we could do. But, as we have learned through science and empirical evidence, sleep is critical to our existence. It’s essential for our basic physiological operations. When we don’t get enough, bad things happen. We can survive longer without food than we’re able to go without sleep. Sleep has proven to be a crucial part of not only our existence as a species but of our overall well-being.
But what if we don’t feel safe when we sleep? Humans have evolved to sleep much better when we feel safe, comfortable, and loved. Knowing there is someone trustworthy near us while sleeping allows us to more readily accept our vulnerability. This is partly why we sleep better in groups.
Of course, not everyone has the ability to sleep in a group, but there are other ways to create a sense of safety before going to bed, and today we’ll talk about the evening wind-down routine.
Our brains usually do well with routines that require little effort. The monotony of this routine allows the brain to feel serene and safe. If we’re in a state of serenity, everything is perfect for sleeping. We’re placing ourselves in a safe, loving environment and tend to fall asleep very easily. In contrast, if we’re in danger, somebody yells “fire!” we probably won’t get any sleep. Implementing an evening wind-down routine is the first step to creating a space of refuge to sleep in.
But what happens when we perceive chronic danger?
Danger is the same thing as other chronic stress situations. What happens is that we won’t allow ourselves to sleep for long durations. It’s more like survival sleeping, a mode of sleep where we are sleeping in short increments at a time. In this mode, we sleep as little as possible and manage with as little as we can.
For example, for a soldier deployed in a combat zone, the thought of being attacked is a constant stressor robbing them of any amount of quality sleep. And, as mentioned, they’re trained to only sleep for short periods of time.
While this training was crucial for survival during these situations, it may not be working so well now. Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night to the slightest creak, only to find yourself checking all of the windows and doors in the house to ensure it’s safe? You might feel that this set of rounds is necessary to resume any sort of sleep. You need to know that the environment is safe and secure in order to relax and head back to the sack. This habit can be damaging not only to our sleep but to our overall health and wellbeing.
Because we felt relief from our rounds, we’ll likely want to get up every night to repeat the same process. By repeating this activity over and over, an automatic habit is formed to wake each and every night to conduct a security check.
An amazing Veteran once shared with me, “If I am asleep, Bradley, something bad will happen to my family.” If this sounds familiar, you’re definitely not alone. It’s a common thought for many individuals who have experienced traumatic situations. Their bodies internalize this event and hit the save button. I recommend the book The Body Keeps the Score if you’re interested in a deeper dive. This belief brings out a feeling that is as real as that of the sun setting on your face and is felt daily by a lot of people. They appear automatic and are out of our control.
As stated earlier, sleeping in its very nature is steeped in vulnerability. It’s giving up control. In order to allow this, we need to feel safe, comfortable, and loved. It’s important to ensure that these three factors are met when rethinking our sleep strategy.
So, what’s the first practical step to reprogram our sleep strategy?
The first step to implementing an evening wind-down routine is to create an energetic shift in the day. You have spent the last twelve hours or so committed to your day, now it’s time to send a signal that you should relax and start thinking about sleep. At least one hour before bedtime, the transition signal should be sent.
You may be thinking, I’m too busy to even consider this. I agree there will always be exceptions, but let these be exceptions and not the norm. I can guarantee that no matter what you’re working on, nine times out of ten, prioritizing your sleep and continuing your task tomorrow is more important.
Consider the word “comfort” for a moment. We seek comfort at night and what does it mean to feel comforted? I thought this was a suitable question to ask when writing about refuge as it is related to sleep. Comfort means “to give or add strength to” (“fort” is the Latin root for “strong.” “Com” is a prefix that means “alongside of”). The bedroom should be a place where we’re made strong again by being comforted. It’s no wonder we sleep under a “comforter.”
Humans are creatures of habits. The majority of what we do throughout our day is habitual whether we realize it or not. Turning your evening wind-down routine into a habit will signal to your brain that it’s now time to start preparing you for sleep. Once this routine becomes habitual, the resulting routine will allow a sense of safety.
Going to bed should not be a hassle or a chore. It’s something you get to do and is going to help you be better tomorrow.
Sleep deprivation can be harmful to our health. One night of poor or short sleep has been shown to make the body cells slightly more resistant to insulin, which makes it harder to fuel your cells with energy and easier to store fuel as fat. (More on hormonal health in future lessons.) Also, being tired lowers our inhibitions, making it more difficult to say no to processed, sugar-laden foods.
Components of a wind-down routine:
At one hour before bedtime, you might change into bed clothes and brush your teeth, then read some fiction, journal, maybe do some relaxation exercises, or contemplation (prayer or meditation) to help you put a button on your day and signal to your body that it is now time to sleep.
This may seem very basic, but basics are the building blocks of routine, and routine is king in helping us feel safe ahead of sleep.
Prep your bedroom. The general strategy is to keep your sleep environment cool (between 62-57 F), dark, and quiet. If you’re unable to feel safe in a dark room, the use of a night light may be beneficial. If you’re uncomfortable in the quiet, you could experiment with some white noise or a small fan in the background. It’s also beneficial to reserve the bedroom for sleep and sex only.
Your sleep environment should be a location where you feel free of any triggers that might cause you distress or distraction. Charge your phone in a different room. If you use it for an alarm clock, consider a wake-up light, which can offer some great benefits. Also, make sure your bedroom is tidy and your bed is made and decluttered. You may feel safer and more comfortable sleeping with a trusted friend or family member in the same or nearby room.
Take a warm bath. This will actually lower your core body temperature, preparing your body for sleep. I know this may sound counterintuitive, so let me explain. After taking a warm bath your blood will move to the surface of your skin, moving the heat out of the core of your body, thus lowering your core body temperature which is what you’re looking for before hitting the pillow.
Read some fiction that you find calming and doesn’t require too much brainpower to enjoy.
Avoid stressors such as ruminating on work issues, marital problems, or family difficulties. The last thing you want to do is to go to bed feeling anxious or angry. This will be deleterious to your sleep. We can do this by “release writing“– where you release your thoughts onto a page so your brain feels less inclined to hang on to stressors while you try to sleep.
Turn off screens an hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted from such devices is similar to the midday sun. Exposure to that light in the evening tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime. This will delay the onset of sleepiness and affect your sleep quality in a negative way. If this is impractical for you, you can reduce the effect by wearing blue light blocking glasses from sundown until you go to bed or by enabling a blue light filter on your device.
Listen to some soft, soothing music while focusing on your breathing.
Embrace a mindfulness or meditation practice to prevent rumination and to allow your mind to release the day. When beginning a mediation, I recommend guided meditations from Tara Brach and Rick Hanson.
Another option for a meditation practice is something called “yoga nidra,” which I’ve found to be very helpful. Yoga nidra literally means “yoga sleep.” I find it a great alternative to meditation. It’s basically a body scan that helps you move into deep relaxation. During the process, you’re moving from thinking and doing, to being and feeling. It has also been shown to be an effective means of recovering the immune system. Here is a short 10-minute video I recommend to get you started, and if you have a little more time, here is a slightly longer script that is great.
We begin to embrace the vulnerability attached to sleep when adopting a wind-down routine. With consistency, this new habit can be the key to serenity and safety, unlocking the door to dreamland as you reap the benefits the next day.
Today’s Assignment – Journal Entry and Practical Exercise
- View this introduction video to starting a meditation practice.
- Do a “My day is done” journal. Complete a free-flowing brain dump into your journal as mentioned above. When you’re finished entering, write the phrase, “my day is done.” This will help put a ‘button’ on your day and send another signal to your brain that it’s now OK to sleep.
- Prepare your bedroom, as indicated above, for tonight’s sleep.
Exercise will only benefit your sleep. Complete the following routine at least 2-3 hours before bed.
In 10 minutes, do as many rounds as possible of the following:
20 Air Squats
10 Air Squats
5 Air Squats
30-second Plank hold
(Repeat from the top)