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How To: Get Restorative Sleep When Anxiety is Keeping You Awake

Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, co-founder of The Huffington Post, and author of The Sleep Revolution, shows us how to successfully slip off to dreamland.

How To: Get Restorative Sleep When Anxiety is Keeping You Awake

Not sleeping? It’s not just you. At the start of 2020, Americans were already sleep-deprived, with 40% getting less than seven hours of shut-eye per night. Add a global pandemic, a 24/7 news cycle, and the mounting anxiety and restlessness that go along with both, and it’s no wonder we’re all feeling like zombies. In fact, it’s being called “coronasomnia.” Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, co-founder of The Huffington Post, and author of, most recently, The Sleep Revolution, gives us her tried-and-true tips for quieting our minds and successfully slipping off to dreamland.

 

After more than a year of living through a global pandemic, when the 24-hour news cycle is swirling constantly, many of us aren’t sleeping very well. Is this to be expected given everything going on around us? How can we quiet the mind and still the anxiety in order to get some good sleep?

It’s completely expected. A good night’s sleep has never been harder to come by. Even coming into [2020], Americans were already sleep-deprived. And now the pandemic and a 24/7 news cycle has taken such a toll on our sleep that it’s being called “coronasomnia.”

In these unstructured times, we can quiet the mind and reduce anxiety by setting boundaries. One way is to set a news cutoff time at the end of the day, which can help us to not only put stressful news into perspective, but also to get a recharging night’s sleep for the next day. 

What are some actionable tips that each of us can take to have a better bedtime routine?

Everybody is different, so of course, everybody’s routine will be different, but, in general, your bedroom should be dark, quiet, and cool. Ease your transition to sleep with some regular activity that you find relaxing. This sends a signal to our mind and body that it’s time to wind down and put away the cares of the day. For me, I love reading real, physical books—especially poetry, novels, and books that have nothing to do with work. (For some great suggestions, check out Read to Sleep from Penguin Random House!)

It’s also good to change into dedicated clothes for sleep—pajamas, nightdresses, or T-shirts. Like a lot of people, I used to sleep in my workout clothes, but I gave that up when I realized the mixed messages that it sends to our brains.

Naturally, we associate sleep with the nighttime, but we can take small steps throughout the day that set us up for better sleep. For example, getting exercise throughout the day helps us sleep better—and it doesn’t have to mean going to the gym. Getting any movement—even a stretch break between Zoom meetings—can be sneakily effective. 

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The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington
The Sleep Revolution
By Arianna Huffington
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When you’re tossing and turning, unable to get to REM sleep because anxiety or worries are keeping you awake, what should you do? Should you write it down in a journal to get it off your mind? Should you just get up? Continue to toss and turn?

Writing in a journal before bed can be helpful—and might even save you some tossing and turning. Make a list of your priorities for the next day. This gets your plans out of your mind (where they can keep you from sleeping) and onto paper. Jotting down a few things you’re grateful for can also help put your worries into perspective.

Instead of reaching for your phone try some breathing exercises, or meditation, which has been shown to help people fall asleep faster, and does wonders for me. 

There are amazing listening experiences I love, like Meditative Story, a podcast we launched with WaitWhat, which is a first-of-its-kind listening experience that combines the emotional pull of immersive storytelling with the immediate, science-backed benefits of mindfulness. The people you hear from in Meditative Story are all sharing deeply personal stories of transformative moments in their lives. The result is a great bedtime story anyone can respond to. 

And I love listening to the collection of sleep experiences we launched in partnership with Audible, which includes bedtime stories by Keke Palmer and Nick Jonas, and guided meditations by Diddy, Gabrielle Bernstein, and others. I’ve yet to hear the ending of one. Which, of course, is the whole point! 

If, after about 20 minutes, you still can’t sleep, get out of bed and read a book or something similarly relaxing until you feel sleepy again. 

Oftentimes, the heaviness of anxiety and worry can cause us to feel tired, and yet, we can’t sleep. Is that normal? Can we trick our bodies into sleep when they feel this way?

That’s a perfect occasion for meditation. It’s not a trick, but it works like one!

What’s one thing everyone can do to get better sleep?

My favorite sleep tip is this: before bed, escort your devices out of your bedroom. Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep—our to-do lists, our inboxes, the demands of the world. So putting it to bed outside your bedroom as a regular part of your bedtime ritual makes you more likely to wake up as fully charged as your phone. 

Should we be relying on things like melatonin, CBD, and other sleep aids, or do those get us into a bad cycle of grogginess?

Natural sleep aids work for some, but as a long-term solution, there’s no substitute for taking the time to make sleep a priority.  

A favorite natural sleep aid of mine is taking a hot bath or shower before I go to sleep. It eases the transition and helps me symbolically wash the day away. I also recommend sipping chamomile or lavender tea to ease yourself into sleep mode. Drinking something warm and comforting can put you in a calm frame of mind and help you shed your stubborn daytime worries.

 

Why Grown-Ups Still Need Bedtime Stories

Kathryn Nicolai, creator of the podcast, Nothing Much Happens, and author of Nothing Much Happens, on why we’re never too old for a good story.

Are bedtime stories just for kids? Can adults benefit from bedtime stories?

Bedtime stories are for everyone! Most of us are climbing into bed at night overstimulated by our devices, with busy minds that are trying to keep track of too many things and often with a good dose of anxiety in our systems. Bedtime stories are a way to change the channel, to give the mind a place to rest and a soothing sensory-rich experience that the reader can wrap around them like a warm blanket.

Using a technique like bedtime stories also helps to create a habit that trains the reader to naturally relax and prepare for sleep. None of us think when we’re lying in bed, an hour into scrolling, that we are getting closer to a good night’s sleep. We can feel it interfering with our bodies’ preferred schedule, but it can be addicting and so difficult to set down. Having a bedtime story, especially one that feels soothing and comforting, that transports you to a place you’d love to be, makes it a pleasure to set the phone down and pick up the book. Habits are much easier to make and keep when they are enjoyable, and adults, as well as children, deserve to feel safe, soothed, and content when they close their eyes at night.

How does a bedtime story ease the mind and promote good sleep?

Not every story is a good bridge to sleep. I called my podcast and book Nothing Much Happens because I wanted to convey right from the beginning that these were stories that, while they dove deep into the small everyday pleasures of simple activities, would always be conflict-free. As a lifelong pre-sleep reader myself, I’d often struggle to find a place to rest my thoughts if the book on my nightstand was too eventful. I got attached to characters quickly and if there was conflict in their storylines, which of course there nearly always was, it’s how books usually work, I’d toss and turn.

A useful bedtime story needs to offer the reader a soothing, relatable experience without too much action. Instead, the moments are fleshed out with sensory details. In fact, this is a way of practicing mindfulness. When you read along with a narrator and focus, for example, on the smell of summer air after a thunderstorm, or the texture of a velvet curtain pulled across a window, or the sound of dry leaves blowing in an autumn breeze, you are settling yourself firmly in the present moment of that world. This keeps your mind from wandering away and brings a feeling of safety and peace, at which point, drifting off to sleep is natural and easy.

How can you use stories to quell the anxiety that keeps you awake? What’s the science behind it?

There are a couple of things at play here. One is the natural tendency for our minds to wander, and when they do, to wander into negative territory. This has to do with our built-in negativity bias, which basically means we, as humans, tend to give more importance to scary stuff than sweet stuff. It was something that helped our ancestors survive, but now it can easily keep us up at night worrying and ruminating.

Add to that something called your Default Mode Network, which is basically the background programming of your brain. It’s what your brain does when it doesn’t have a job to do. Ever wake up at 3 AM and feel your brain start to race and know you’re not going back to sleep anytime soon? You’re in default mode! The good news is that you can shift out of it by giving your brain something to do. (This is called the Task Positive Network.)

Here’s where the stories come in. The stories I tell in my book and on my podcast highlight the sweet stuff that our brains often ignore, pointing the reader toward things to admire and appreciate so that worry can be replaced with gratitude (and readers often tell me this trains them to be more mindful of good things happening in their waking hours as well). I walk folks through the technique of using the details of the story to build out the world of Nothing Much in their minds so that when they slip into default mode, they can task their brains with thinking back through the sights, sounds, and smells. And it’s that shift that will let them fall asleep or return to sleep, often within minutes.

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Nothing Much Happens by Kathryn Nicolai
Nothing Much Happens
By Kathryn Nicolai
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How did you come to start your podcast, Nothing Much Happens? Have you been surprised by its incredible success?

I’ve been telling myself bedtime stories since I was four years old. It’s always how I’ve fallen asleep or returned to sleep in the middle of the night. I was looking for a way to share the technique and my stories with other people. I felt like I had a superpower that so many people needed. Ironically, I was up in the middle of the night with a sick dog and it hit me. A podcast! I could read people to sleep wherever they were. I ordered a microphone right there, sitting on the floor in my living room at 4 AM with my beagle in my lap. We launched about a month later. In some ways, I am surprised by how many people it has touched since then (currently at about 40 million downloads). It was this little idea I had, something I knew worked for me but wasn’t sure it would interest many others. In another sense, I’m not surprised at all. Everyone will experience sleeplessness or anxiety at some point in their lives and after the year we’ve just been through, those issues are more widespread than ever. In the intro to the podcast, I always say, “Welcome to bedtime stories for grown-ups, in which Nothing Much Happens—you feel good and then you fall asleep.” I think everyone wants to feel good. Everyone needs sleep.

What are three things everyone should do to build habits for nurturing sleep?

  • Think about the environment you are sleeping in. Does it feel relaxing? Oftentimes, a few adjustments can help. For example, I sleep better in a made bed so I make my bed each morning. Maybe you are more comfortable in a cooler room, or with soft music, or a noise machine playing. Sleep affects pretty much every area of your health and life, so spending a little time and energy to do the prep work pays off.
  • Stop scrolling. I know everyone is sick of this advice, but it honestly is the most important thing to do to improve your sleep. Figure out your ideal sleep time. Then, set an alarm for one hour before; when it goes off, screens go away. Be disciplined with yourself and, after a bit, it will feel so good to stop looking at the same four apps over and over. Then, use that time to read, journal, be intimate with your partner, or just relax.
  • Take a few deep breaths. You can use your breath to shift your nervous system and stimulate your vagus nerve (long story but trust me, you want that). When the light is off and you’re ready to sleep, take a slow deep breath in through your nose to a count of three, then purse your lips like you’re breathing through a straw and exhale slowly to a count of nine. Do this at least three times. Then touch your lips together and do your best to breathe through your nose throughout the night.

What’s one of your favorite stories in your book, Nothing Much Happens?

There is a story called “Light and Fog,” which is about stepping back into the world after a bit too much time inside. I also want to recommend a very simple story, the first one I ever wrote called “A Block from Home.” It was a story I told myself for years and it is a fan favorite. It also has a beautiful full-page illustration by Léa Le Pivert that is charming and makes you want to climb right in and join us in the Village of Nothing Much.

 

Modern Sprout’s Guide to How Plants Can Help Us Sleep Better

Aromatherapy might be the key to winding down and catching more zzzs. It’s well-known that plants like lavender and eucalyptus have healing powers that can make us calmer, but did you know aromatic herbs can actually change brainwave patterns? Download Modern Sprout’s aromatherapy guide below to learn how fragrant plants can help you achieve a full eight hours.

Click on the image to see a printable PDF. Credit: Modern Sprout1
Click on the image to see a printable PDF. Credit: Modern Sprout

Modern Sprout is a Chicago-based company that creates products focused on connecting people and plants.