When the beings who will inhabit our planet in 5000 A.D. will discover how much we used to talk and write about sleep, they will understandably wonder what problem we ever had with something as natural as that.
In fact, we often read about sleep and techniques for resting well and deeply, and it’s because in many ways it is nothing more than the opposite of stress: if on the one hand, when we are alert, we are stressed and anxious about work, money, and various issues, on the other hand when we should be resting we fail to do so adequately because … we are too stressed. This is why we are obsessed with sleep: because we sleep badly, and it doesn’t happen because we don’t know how to do it but because we are too stressed to do it.
A myth to debunk
One piece of historical news you may have already heard is that the invention of electricity disrupted the natural rhythms of sleep: being able to stay awake longer by extending the hours of light certainly had positive influences on society’s productivity and even on its sociality (we also go out in the evening and at night, since darkness is no longer a limitation to social life) but it disrupted our biorhythms: our ancestors went to sleep at sunset and woke up at sunrise.
Is that true then? Not so much, or not in those ways, not least because–for one thing–it would have meant that at the equator they slept 12 hours a day in the Nordic countries very little or very much, depending on the season. The truth is that, according to some studies, in ancient times people did indeed go to bed early but slept an average of 6.5 hours, and especially in the middle of the night they woke up to accomplish household chores or even to visit friends and relatives. In the middle of the night!
Come on, tell me the secret to sleep!
To unveil the secret – or secrets – I leave it to the expert Camille Stoddart who wrote about it on The Guardian: the secret, put simply, is to stop stressing about the need for sleep.
Is that all? Well, yes and no: the gist of the message is that but there is also something else. It’s better to elaborate, through her own advice. But before dealing with them, as Stoddard herself says, never forget a fundamental characteristic of sleep: like digestion, sleeping is a passive activity. When you have eaten, you do not order your digestive system to process the food you have ingested: it already knows what to do. When fatigue overtakes you, you don’t command your body and mind to fall asleep or change modes-they already know what to do.
Got it? With this overlooked obviousness in mind, here is Stoddart’s advice.
1. There is no effective secret
When you go through a journey to improve the quality of your sleep, you think that applying a technique will take effect immediately. However, think how long it took you to mess up the quality of your night refreshment: years and years! Do you think you can solve this mess with some meditation technique or by turning off the lights half an hour before you fall asleep, trusting that your stress will disappear? Come on, you can’t really think that.
In fact, it never happens. Techniques for relaxing before falling asleep work, but never in the short or very short term.
2. Breathe less, and better
The problem in this case lies not in how (they work) but when: doing breathing exercises before falling asleep can unnerv rather than calm. If they fail or if the benefits are not felt because of fatigue, frustration and subsequent nervousness are inevitable. Are we talking about calming down, aren’t we?
To make a (beneficial) mindful breathing routine more effective, it is best to practice it when you are partially distracted by something else (such as watching TV) or away from the time of falling asleep. Since these exercises generally take 10-15 minutes, you can do them in the office as well but still not necessarily just before falling asleep.
Mind you: they are not bad for you. The problem is that if they do not relax you, the result you get is the opposite of what you want, and it is not up to you or the exercises themselves. It just depends, probably, on the time of the day you practice them.
When in short to do these exercises? As far as possible far from the time of sleep, up to one of the best placements of the day: in the morning just after waking or in the early hours. Breathing slowly and focused sets you up for a good day and helps concentration (and it only takes 10 minutes).
3. To sleep well, you have to get tired
Sleeping is natural to such an extent that we do not have much power over it: we cannot fall asleep on command or even wake up. It is estimated that sleep cannot take place until after at least 16 hours of wakefulness. By subtracting, as you see, you get the famous 8 hours of sleep.
On average, in short, a human being is active for at least 16 hours a day. Which means he is not asleep “only” for 12 or 8.
The really important thing is not to stress too much because the real enemies of your refreshment are stress and anxiety, not sleep.
4. Routine should not be a nightmare
There is a little-discussed aspect of routines. Yes, that’s true, they give rhythm and certainty to life but what happens if we live them with anxiety? What happens if we skip that meditation session that seems to be so good for us? What happens is that instead of relaxing, we become agitated. With the result that we will sleep very badly.
How to do it? Distracting ourselves and doing what we love to do. Do you like to read or listen to a podcast after dinner? Then do it. Similarly, don’t go crazy about the times after which to go to bed: one day of the week may be at one time, another at another time.
Above all, learn to listen to your body and not impose anything on it that it does not want to do or that it perceives to be harmful.
5. Being in a waking state is perfectly fine
Insomnia is the result of the fear of being awake (thus failing to get a good rest). As long as one is not sleepy, in short, it is useless to strive to fall asleep.
Stress is also generated by having ambitions and simultaneously not being able to fulfill them. So: do what you want and don’t care about others’ opinions.
6. Smile more
Okay, now you’re joking, right? No. Smiling not only makes you feel good but also has a very specific physiological repercussion: it releases serotonin, dopamine and endorphins, consequently improving mood. And the great thing is that just the act-even if you fake it-“tricks” the brain into releasing those substances.
In short, you find yourself already able to use the main tools to assist sleep:
- Don’t stress if you can’t fall asleep
- Breathing should be done early in the morning or at least distant from bedtime
- Go to rest when fatigue has taken over.
As with many other things in our “natural” lives, our relationship with sleep requires naturalness. In short, if you want to be as natural as possible and have a relaxed relationship with rest, learn to indulge it and not evoke it. Those who sleep well are generally tired or simply relaxed.