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7 Surprising Secrets to a Good Night’s Sleep

Tips to help you avoid the nightmare of tossing and turning

man stretching in bed as he wakes up
Nastasic

As many of us have discovered through experience, even just a couple nights of bad sleep can wreak havoc on our health. Poor sleep is often followed by irritability, grogginess, lack of focus and volatile moods.

What follows are some surprisingly effective tips that may be the extra nudge you need for a satisfying snooze.

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1. Fret strategically

Worry is a major sleep hijacker. Many sleep experts say that worry has its place in our lives — but not at bedtime. One definition of insomnia could be the mind having its payback for the thoughts you carefully avoided during the day. Wendy Troxel, senior behavioral and social scientist at Rand Corp. and author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep, recommends scheduling a worry exercise to help disarm obtrusive fears. “I think of it as a worry download,” she says. “It involves spending 15 minutes, several hours before bedtime, in which you allow your brain to go hog wild on all the worries and thoughts that come to mind. Write them down, make lists, think about the dry cleaning you forgot to pick up, the work that you still must do, the deadlines that are approaching, the doctor’s appointments that must be made. Let your brain run free for those 15 minutes.” When the timer goes off, Troxel says, you literally and figuratively close the book on that worry exercise. The worry exercise replaces the habit of worrying in bed, and it gives your brain a chance to experience the worry during a more productive time of day. Later, she says, you can return to the list and take action, completing tasks and crossing things off your list.

2. To share, perchance to sleep

Troxel says healthy relationships and healthy sleep are good bedfellows. “There’s a really important role for each partner to support each other’s sleep health,” she says. Being well rested, she writes, allows us to fight more productively and love more fully. She encourages couples to spend time together at night, unwinding, because that shared sense of connection is often inherently soothing. “Partners can also play a huge role in regularizing each other’s schedule — having a regular and consistent bedtime and wake-up routine are critically important for healthy sleep, particularly as we age,” Troxel says. 

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Partners who wind down together tend to follow a shared routine, reducing their chance of getting sucked back into work or binge-watching. When we are alone, we are more prey to bedtime procrastination. One of Troxel’s favorite ways of creating connection and fostering bedtime readiness is what she calls the high-low-compliment technique. “One partner describes a high from their day, something they felt good or proud about. Then the same partner describes a low or frustrating moment. The last thing that partner does is compliment the other partner. Then it’s time for the other partner to take a turn.” This simple strategy, Troxel says, facilitates emotional disclosure, which has been shown to be beneficial for sleep and for relationships.

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3. RISE and shine

While many people focus on the routine for winding down, how we wake up is just as important. “I call it a RISE up routine,” Troxel says. “‘R’ stands for refrain from hitting the snooze button, the ‘I’ for increase your physical activity level, the ‘S’ for splash your face with cold water, and the ‘E’ for expose yourself to sunlight.” 

One of the best ways to get the blood pumping is to get up, quickly, with some pep in your step. This doesn’t mean morning boot camp, but a quick set of stretches or squats can feel energizing. The combination of all these alerting behaviors is to cue your circadian rhythm from the get-go, so it kicks up in high gear early on.

4. Here comes the sun

The best sleep medicine, as counterintuitive as it may seem, may be sunshine. Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and author with James B. Maas of Sleep for Success! Everything You Must Know About Sleep but Are Too Tired to Ask, says that one good approach is to get plenty of light during the day. Natural light exposure from the sun “helps us train our internal biological clock to the pattern of life in our environment.” Sunlight also gives our circadian rhythm (the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle) information on when we are supposed to be tired and when we should feel alert. 

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Troxel also prioritizes sunlight in her RISE routine, recommending at least 10 minutes of light exposure, ideally soon after you wake up. If you can’t get outside, Troxel suggests raising the blinds and staying close to the window’s natural light. If you don’t have ample windows, you can turn artificial lights up to bright. In winter, if you don’t have access to high-wattage indoor light, Troxel says you might consider investing in a light box. “It’s optimal to sit in front of a light box for 20 to 30 minutes in the morning, reading a book or getting ready for the day.”

5. Appreciate yo’self

Most of us realize that feeling grateful is beneficial to well-being. But feeling that others are grateful for you is equally crucial. “Being appreciated offers a tremendous benefit to our mental health,” Robbins says. In bed, just before sleep, recount who has thanked you that day. Take a minute and focus on the gratitude you received and how good it makes you feel. For humans, the need to have a role and purpose runs deep. Any kind of gratitude practice helps you feel connected, which makes you feel safe. Both experts agree that feeling safe and secure is closely linked to our ability to fall — and stay — asleep.

6. Can’t sleep? Get out of bed

If you do wake up at night, says Robbins, commit to not tossing and turning in bed. “If you’re up and cannot fall back asleep for about 15 minutes, try to get out of bed, resist looking at the clock, and try to do something relaxing, such as a few gentle yoga poses or a meditation exercise on the floor, or read a few pages of a book in an armchair, then return to bed when you are tired.” 

7. Take baby steps

Start small. Just a few minutes of sunlight, daytime worrying, connecting with your partner before bed or pondering how others are grateful for you may help you fall asleep and snooze through the night. Turn these small steps into habits, and you’ll soon be sleeping like that proverbial infant.

Poor sleep linked to poor health

Not only does lack of sleep or disrupted sleep affect mood and memory, studies suggest that sleeping poorly triggers a cascade of other conditions. Some of the most serious potential problems linked to chronic sleep deprivation: high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, stroke and a greater likelihood of car accidents. Studies also link poor sleep to obesity, depression, reduced immune system function, higher stress levels and lower sex drive.

Sleep is inextricably linked to our mental outlook. Insomnia and depression, in particular, are a two-way street. Insomnia is a symptom of depression, but multiple studies have also shown that insomnia can predict the onset of depression, Troxel says. According to the Sleep Foundation, 40 percent of people with insomnia may also have a mental health disorder, and 75 percent of people with depression have insomnia.

As we get older, insomnia becomes more common. A study published in Current Geriatric Reports found that up to 75 percent of older adults experience symptoms of insomnia.

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