More than one-third of American adults do not get enough sleep on a regular basis, according to the CDC. From having difficulty in performing your daily tasks to unintentionally nodding off in class or, worse, while driving, sleep insufficiency is something worth taking seriously.
While the number of hours you sleep each night is definitely an important factor, our attitudes towards sleep reflect a lot about our attitude towards life in general. All of us, in some way or another, are affected by what one has called “the great acceleration” – where everyday life is put into constant overdrive. Not only do we work longer, play harder, and sleep less, but we struggle to grasp any deeper meaning behind rest in general. Aren’t we just losing time?
From a Catholic perspective, in addition to all health considerations, resting can be a divine act. Remember that on the seventh day God “rested from all his work” (Gen 2:3). Here the Lord voluntarily limits himself and gives space for creation to flourish. Resting is not just about recharging batteries so we can get back on the assembly line. It is that moment of humility and freedom when we let go and trust in our loving Father. Grateful for the good, repentant for the bad, we need to take our hands off the wheel and trust that for those who “love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose…” (Rm 8:28).
While it may not be the first thing that comes to mind, good sleeping habits can be key to spiritual combat. Even Saint Thomas recommended sleep and baths as a remedy for sorrow. Lack of sleep lowers our defenses and leaves us more vulnerable to all sorts of tensions, irritations, and temptations.
The struggle itself of trying to fall asleep can lead people to depend on pills, alcohol, or masturbation. It’s not surprising then that sleep deprivation is shown to affect mental health and can lead to depression or even addiction (HBF).
How you sleep can depend a lot on other factors such as your eating habits, exercise, and prayer life. Being fit and healthy not only helps you to better cope when you can’t fit in those 7-8 hours, you are also more likely to get a better quality night’s rest.
Before getting to the actual routine, here are few things to keep in mind.
How many times have you burned through those last few emails or pages in order to finish up right before bed? Then you pull the emergency brake, park yourself in bed and… surprise, surprise, your brainwaves are still bouncing off the walls and you can’t go to sleep.
Peter Litchfield in his Six Steps to Sleep (a highly recommended, easy-to-read book that is the main source for this post), suggests the following: “Start your preparation routine at least 30 minutes before going to bed. Complete at least four of the activities listed above in routine order each night. Take your time. Don’t rush through the routine. Be methodical and enjoy the winding down of the last minutes of your day.”
In my experience, flight attendants start their “preparation for landing” routine about 20-30 minutes before landing; every time the process is the same. Analogously, maintaining a bedtime routine is a great way to let your body know that it’s about time to land the bird.
Litchfield notes that “when practiced consistently, this routine encourages the brain to move into ‘sleep mode’, releasing melatonin and reducing brainwave activity for relaxation…”
Evidently, each one needs to figure out what routine works best for the lifestyle they live. Here are 9 things I suggest that you try to include in your routine.
Exterior order contributes to interior order. Make sure things are put in their place and prepare what you will need for the morning.
Remember “bath time” when you were a kid? Litchfield says it’s great for adults too: The call for ‘bath time’ meant that it was time to prepare for sleep, and a bath was followed by getting into your pajamas – the final action of the day. This mentally deep-rooted routine can be used to trigger the bed-sleep association in adulthood. Wash away the day by taking a hot shower or bath, or at the very least by washing your face. Think of this activity as if you are washing away the day’s stresses and events from your mind, and of course the day’s dirt from your skin. This cleansing of the day is fundamental in drawing a mental line between day and night.
“Some people swear by the soothing effects of chamomile tea, even though scientific research on the subject has been mixed. One clinical trial found that chamomile can reduce anxiety in humans, and in large doses, help animals sleep, but more trials need to be conducted to see if the same holds true for humans. A 2011 study published in the journal Emotion suggests that hot drinks might help people feel less lonely and more secure — both factors that can contribute to a good night’s sleep.
If you have an upset stomach late at night, the old wives’ tale that peppermint tea can help might be true, according to 2006 research by scientists at Tufts University. They found peppermint tea to be a digestive aid — it may even have anti-allergenic potential — meaning it can help you drift off to sleep more serenely.” (Everydayhealth)
Has it ever happened that just as you lie down, the ceiling suddenly transforms into a billboard reminding you of everything you forgot to do that day? What’s more, all the little worries and anxieties that we managed to keep underneath the rug while we were on the run now resurface. “This is because we push stress to the back of the mind, then, the moment we take leave of a hectic day to lie down and sleep, the associated negative emotions move to the forefront of the mind and we begin to think, dwell, and contemplate.”
Putting things down on paper can help. Litchfield reminds us: Emptying your mind onto a page defragments the brain, helping you to achieve mental clarity and empowering you to move forward. Things always seem far clearer and simpler when they appear in front of our eyes, rather than remaining jumbled up inside the mind – where they lie waiting to move to the forefront of our consciousness the moment we try to go to sleep.
In addition to writing how your day went or what’s been going on in your heart and mind, try to look back at your day and see what God might have been trying to say to you. Recall your triumphs and your defeats. Make a mental note or keep a list of certain weakness or sins that seem to be repeating themselves (keep this for confession).
Finally, put everything in His hands. Pray the publican’s prayer a few times: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk 18:13).
If you have time, you can incorporate your journaling and examination of conscience into the traditional Compline, or Night Prayer. You can find this prayer on apps like Ibreviary or Universalis. You can also find it online here. If you would like to learn how to make good examination of conscience, check out our article here.
Choose something that isn’t going to over-stimulate your brain. Litchfield suggests that “fictional books make for perfect pre-sleep reading because such stories take the mind away from real life problems, helping you to let go of stress and worry.”
I would also suggest adding stories and biographies of saints to your list. Here is a list of 30 that can help you to get started.
For those who struggle to fall asleep, the worst thing is to get anxious about not being able to sleep. It turns into a vicious cycle.
Married friends have suggested the following:
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