Updated: Mar 31, 2021
Getting enough sleep is essential to our health. Countless legends tell us of ancient healers whose first response to being asked, “how can I heal?” went something like this: “sleep for three days and then come back to see me.” And for good reason: sleep helps the body repair itself. While we sleep, the brain can pay attention to all kinds of important information going on inside the body, rather than focusing on everything going on outside of the body, like it has to do in waking life. Modern medicine tells us that the brain triggers certain hormones while we sleep that encourage tissues to grow, blood vessels to repair, organs to nourish, and muscles to relax. That while we sleep, all kinds of information gets assimilated through our system—we process what we saw that day, what we thought about; how and what we felt, and where in our bodies we felt it; where we went and what we did; what we ate and how we ate it; who we talked to and what kinds of conversations we had; how we moved our bodies, how long we sat at our desks, and where in our bodies we’re tight.
So much goes on in a day for us, and Ayurveda tells us that we are what we digest—physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Sleep helps us to digest and assimilate all of our life experiences, and when we don’t get enough of it (or enough quality sleep) our bodies have a hard time keeping up. We end up feeling tired more often, and frustrated more easily. We can become irritable, irritated, uninspired, depressed, fearful, anxious, or manic. We can experience changes in our heartbeat, sensitivity to light or sound, and/or tension in the body or heaviness in our hearts. Our digestion can get thrown off, and so can our ability to handle stress and to process our emotions—because many of the hormones that help to stabilize mood get released while we’re asleep.
So, what can we do to help sleep more deeply and thoroughly on a consistent basis? First things first: learn to recognize what in your life is currently causing you stress. Identify your stressors and your usual go-to stress responses. That will give you insight into how you can begin to have a conversation with your stress (and your body), and learn to self-soothe; when you notice yourself getting stressed or feeling stressed, you can pause, take a breath; honor yourself for the new awareness, and take a mental note of when you started feeling that way—was it after a certain kind of conversation, or after talking with a certain kind of person, or after doing a certain activity, etc. Then, without judging yourself or anyone or anything else, just notice. Come back to the breath, allow yourself to focus on the sensation of the breath flowing in and out of the body. Notice the sounds that are around you in the moment—or maybe just the sound of your breath. Breathe in that you are aware, breathe out that you are relaxed. Let the body settle, let the breath deepen, and give yourself time to respond to what sparked the stress within you from a clearer, more grounded point of view.
Talk to your body. I know this can sound incredibly foreign if you’ve never heard of such a thing or never tried it; but, I can assure you, it is profound. When you’re feeling stressed, close your eyes and notice where in your body you’re feeling the tension. If it’s in your shoulder, ask your shoulder what it’s trying to say and listen for (and expect) an answer. The answer might not be in words; it might be a feeling, or a visual, or a different kind of sound. Just notice. Notice if after about a minute or two of breathing and paying attention to that part of the body the sensation changes. Again, just notice.
You can do that as many times throughout the day as you need. It gets easier with practice. Talking to your body won’t guarantee that any physical sensations of stress will go away entirely; however, that has happened for countless people, countless times. Be patient with yourself. This practice is more about getting in touch with your emotions than it is about fixing something that’s uncomfortable. Let yourself be with the discomfort and to speak to it. Tell that part of your body that it’s safe, and that you’re listening. Practice this for 1-5 minutes at a time and notice what happens for you when you do.
Another great way to be in a daily practice that’s conducive to better sleep is to journal. In your journal, if you do tend to be a high-stress person, you can make a list of all the people, activities, thoughts, dynamics, and obligations that stress you out. You can even make two lists—one for the things that stress you out in general, and one for the things that stress you out on a more daily, consistent basis. Then, just notice. Without judging yourself or any (or all) of the things, just notice. You’re taking stock of your life and the way you’re structuring your time and energy, and there’s nothing that needs to be “fixed” in that moment. On a separate sheet of paper, you can start to journal about all the things that bring you joy, generally and on a daily basis. Then, on another sheet of paper, you can journal about some of the ways you can possibly lessen the amount of time you spend doing the things or talking to the people that stress you out, and ways you can spend more time doing the things that you love. You can also allow that list to deepen, by reflecting on what boundaries you need to set, or things you might want to learn about in order to handle those stressful situations differently.
Once you’ve taken the time to get clear on what your stressors are and what your responses to stress are, you can take more conscious actions to manage your stress. You can learn skills like mindfulness, self-soothing, non-violent communication (just to name a few), and/or you can talk about your feelings and feel your feelings more often—this one also sounds foreign or unnecessary if you’re not used to it, but this really is the key to all things wellness. When we stifle our emotions, when we don’t express the things we know we need to express, when we close off our emotional system, our physical system can close itself off little by little over time, too. We train ourselves that our needs, our voice, or emotions aren’t as important as being liked, being agreeable, getting the job done, making money, etc. And that signal, on a subconscious level, in a way, tells the body that it doesn’t always come first. This is a big deal when it comes to sleep. Sleep is the time for the body to come first. For it to do what it does best: support you—and for it to do so with undivided attention. When we feel our feelings, share our feelings, and connect with our bodies throughout the day, our bodies don’t have as much unprocessed, unclear material to sort out in the night, and our system can focus more on repairing and rejuvenating.
There are just a few more things we invite you to think about when it comes to getting better sleep. Exercise/movement throughout the day is a big one. Moving in whatever way sets your soul on fire can get your energy flowing, boost your mood, and help you feel soothed and grounded and connected. If for you, that’s hiking in nature, hike on a regular basis. If it’s dancing, sign up for a dance class or put your favorite tunes on at home and have a dance party with your houseplants, or your best friends, or your partner, or yourself. If it’s running, run all over your neighborhood. If it’s yoga, practice at home, at the park, at the studio, wherever you feel called to be. Whatever it is for you, make it a priority. Let it nourish you, and let it be time for you to show up for your body, with your body, and to unwind from the stress of the day. If you’re working out because you feel obligated, the invitation is to take a day off, go for a slow walk in the park, and take note of all the flowers, the birds, or the bumblebees that you see. Give yourself time to slow down, to be present, to nourish yourself. Return to working out when it feels like something that supports your system, rather than something to fight with yourself to accomplish along the way.
Creating an evening ritual that you do every night before bed is also a great way to signal to the brain that it’s time to unwind for bed. After a week or two of doing a nightly ritual, you might notice that it’s easier for you to fall asleep quickly and to stay asleep longer. You can take a few minutes to meditate, to journal, to sip a cup of herbal tea in silence, to stretch, to look at the stars, to draw, to dance—whatever; just one or two things that you can do every night before settling into sleep that relax you. Minimizing screen time 1-2 hours before bed is also a great way to relax the body and keep you as plugged into a natural circadian rhythm as possible. So maybe allow your evening routine to incorporate practices that are off the phone: a bath, a walk, light stretches, reading, listening to an audiobook, watching the stars—anything that makes you feel calm and grounded not involving screen time on your phone or computer.
Drinking a glass of room temperature tart cherry juice before bed can also help us sleep deeper throughout the night, as it helps the body release melatonin (the sleep hormone), so if you like tart cherry, maybe add that into your nightly routine. Golden Milk is also also a delicious, Ayurvedic tonic that can soothe the system and support sleep. If you've never tried it, you're in for a treat. Combine one cup of warm milk with half a teaspoon of: turmeric, cardamom, and nutmeg, with a pinch of black pepper and a full teaspoon of raw honey. Sip slowly.
Eating nourishing foods for the body, staying hydrated, and drinking a minimal to no caffeine throughout the day can also help the body rest well in the evenings. Doing some deep belly breathing before bed can really help to calm the sympathetic nervous system and activate the parasympathetic—the nervous system responsible for rest and digest. To do this, you’ll place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart; then breathe into the belly, expanding it out like a balloon, and carry that inhale all the way up in the chest—getting a really full, deep breath. Exhale slowly, counting to four or five before taking your next full, deep belly breath. Do this for 1-10 minutes before bed. You can follow it with 10-30 minutes of gentle yoga or light stretching if you want to enhance the practice.
Overall, there is no quick fix when it comes to sleeping better, and every body is different. Finding what nourishes, soothes, and grounds you, and then doing more of that is essential. It sounds so simple, but it can be hard! It can bring up all the parts within us that feel unworthy, uncertain, incapable, or incomplete. Again, the invite is to be with it…all of it. All of your fears, all of your doubts, all of your emotions, and let them flow. Cry if you need to. Dance if you need to. Stretch if you need to. Write if you need to. And then curl up in bed, find your breath, and devote your focus to letting your tension go, as you drift off to sleep.