Healthy Sleeping Habits

Sleep Stories and Podcasts for Adults: The Secret to Better Sleep

Photo: Getty Images/Innocenti
Most of us outgrew the ritual of being read bedtime stories once we learned to read on our own. And, since then, many of us might've even swapped books altogether for pre-sleep streaming binges. But with pandemic-related sleep disturbances and nightmares on the rise, those soothing tales of yore—with a grown-up, digital-age twist—might just be worth revisiting. With elements of guided meditations and audiobooks, sleep stories for adults (like bedtime story podcasts, for example) mimic the comfort of a childhood ritual while using intentional calming techniques that quiet the noise that's come to define being an adult in the 21st century.

Do bedtime stories work for adults?

It's worth mentioning that elevated stress and anxiety can alter the quality and quantity of our sleep by overstimulating the sympathetic nervous system. Because, well, between a pandemic, a tense election cycle, and a societal reckoning with systemic racism, many are still experiencing heightened stress and anxiety. “An increase in stress can trigger the activation of the fight-or-flight response," says therapist and sleep medicine expert Annie Miller, LCSW-C, founder of DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy. "Our brain feels more in danger, and the release of stress hormones, like cortisol, can keep us awake."

Staying indoors more, as many have been over the past two-plus years while quarantining, can also play a role in sleep troubles because less sun exposure can disturb circadian rhythm and make falling and staying asleep more difficult. In addition, a decrease in social events means we’ve blended the line between life and sleep, often reading, working, scrolling social media, or watching television in bed—all of which weakens the brain's association between bed and sleep. “Since the pandemic started, sleep schedules have changed," says Miller. "Many people seem to be staying up later and sleeping later, and for some of us, the change in sleep patterns and a lack of consistent sleep schedule can trigger insomnia symptoms.”

We're not destined to endless, sleepless nights, though, and sleep stories for adults are one potential tool that can help mitigate sleep challenges. By promoting mindfulness, they can help to lower stress-induced insomnia. Kathryn Nicolai, storyteller, meditation and yoga teacher, and creator of the podcast Nothing Much Happens: Bedtime Stories for Grownups, has long believed in the power of stories for helping to improve our lives. Nicolai launched the podcast in April 2018 to help relieve the stress and anxiety so many of us face. “Our world is increasingly chaotic, and if I can help people get a good night’s sleep, that’s everything," she says. "I knew I wanted to share these stories with other people to give them a soft landing spot for their mind.”

Nothing Much Happens promotes restful sleep through stories that emphasize sensory details, which anchor your attention in something beyond the stressors of daily life. The stories also lean strongly into the seasons to create room for nostalgia about the sweeter parts of life—whether that’s cozying up with a cup of coffee during fall or watching the fireflies light up on a summer night. Nicolai, author of the just-released book form of Nothing Much Happens, says she strategically mentions sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, and noises that feel inherently familiar to everyone, and according to Miller, she's on to something: rooting your mind in the senses is a fundamental practice of mindfulness that helps increase the relaxation response to settle the brain before bed. “Mindfulness helps bring us back to the present moment and can decrease activation of the sympathetic nervous system," Miller says.

Bedtime stories are a great way to set aside the drama of the day and practice mindfulness, because they invite you into another world between reality and dreamland. And, bedtime story podcasts are a helpful, accessible strategy for implementing the habit. “Reading [or listening to] books, regardless of your age, takes us on an adventure that’s outside our normal life experience,” says Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, executive director of counseling service Innovation360. “Our brain responds very well to routines. When we create healthy bedtime routines for ourselves, our sleep can greatly improve. As your brain begins to associate bedtime with relaxation instead of stress, sleep will become easier."

What are the best sleep stories and bedtime podcasts for adults?

Regularly listening to bedtime story podcasts like Nothing Much Happens can be a game changer when you’re struggling to sleep well and often. So to get started with your own relaxing bedtime routine, check out the following five bedtime story podcasts.

1. Get Sleepy: Sleep Meditation and Stories

Get Sleepy relies on mindfulness elements, like body and breath awareness to prepare listeners for childlike stories about treehouses and spaceships. The writers and meditation specialists who create each story are guided by sleep experts, so you can count on this one to do the trick.

2. Boring Books for Bedtime

Boring Books for Bedtime uses real literary works to, per its name, bore you to sleep. Expect to hear big ideas from writers like Henry David Thoreau, and to travel through place and time to locales like 19th century Scotland.

3. Calm Sleep Stories

For the uninitiated to the Calm app, the platform offers a whole section of bedtime-friendly podcasts, making it one of the best sleep apps. Calm’s sleep stories add soothing sound and music to the spoken prose, which adds up to a solid dose of storytelling and sleep-inducing tones.

4. Sleep Whispers

When you need to escape from the noise of daily life (whether that includes the to-do list in your head, the literal sound of noisy neighbors, or both), let BBC host Whispering Harris be your guide. In Sleep Whispers, he reads both traditional bedtime stories and Wikipedia articles with a hushed, quiet voice you can’t help but ignore.

5. Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast is perfect for those who want to be read actual works of literature. Browse through 100 episodes based on themes, characters, and places that’ll guide you into stress-free sleep.

6. Spotify’s Sleep Podcasts & Shows

Spotify has it all: music, genres and moods, podcasts and shows—and on every topic including sleep. Whether you opt for an episode of Sleep Toolkit, the the sleep stories podcast, The Sleepy Bookshelf, or an Aura Cleansing Sleep Meditation on Spotify, a 1-Hour Sleep Clinical Hypnosis soundtrack, or Deep Healing Sleep Music, the result is the same: an easier descent into sleep, and deeper, more restorative sleep as a whole. (FYI: If you like the idea of being lulled to sleep but don’t fare well with stories, the increasingly popular Brown Noise for Sleep channel might be just for you.

Sleep Story FAQs

Since sleep stories are often thought to be relics of childhood, many questions exist on the topic. Keep reading to find answers to the most commonly asked sleep story questions.

Are sleep stories good for you?

According to a Calm spokesperson, sleep stories not only help people get a better night’s sleep, but their effects have a residual impact on your health, work, and daily life. “In a Calm study of people who used Calm Sleep Stories™ for eight weeks, 92 percent reported higher sleep quality, 74 percent saw improvement in mental health, and 72 percent reported less stress,” they reveal.

Do bedtime stories help with insomnia?

In a Calm Science study, of those who self-reported an insomnia diagnosis, 92 percent reported that using Calm helped them improve or manage their insomnia symptoms, a Calm spokesperson reveals.

What makes a good sleep story?

When you think of what makes a good book, you likely think of a plot that’s impossible to put down; one that’s unlikely to soothe you to sleep. Sleep stories, on the other hand, are designed to relax and soothe the listener to promote sleep.

“There are a few elements that make Calm Sleep Stories™ stand out above the rest: writing, voice, delivery, and scores,” a Calm spokesperson says.

“Sleep Stories™ are designed in both narration and writing to be peaceful and soothing. Our starting point is developing a simple, descriptive story with an uneventful storyline. Instead of an elaborate build-up, a good Sleep Story™ provides a gradual unwind: a calming mix of words, music, and sound effects. They intentionally get less interesting as the story goes on. Also, the character you follow is relatively simple, a stark contrast to ‘multi-dimensional’ characters you meet in novels and movies.” As a result, these stories help lull listeners to sleep instead of keeping them invested.

Don’t believe me? Over the years, I’ve personally sworn by Calm’s “Wonder” Sleep Story narrated by Matthew McConaughey, which I still don’t know the ending to despite listening to it hundreds of times. That alone makes me believe that it’s one of the most calming bedtime stories for adults out there.

How do bedtime stories put you to sleep?

It’s common to head to bed only to feel wide awake while recounting the day as you try to fall asleep. “It’s a process that scientists call the ‘cycle of rumination,’ where we get stuck thinking about the day we had, conversations or stressful moments,” a Calm spokesperson says. “Naturally, this can make falling asleep difficult.” With this in mind, Calm (and other sleep story creators) aim to gently soothe listeners in a way that makes them relax and focus on the story, as opposed to any hangups from their day. “When you become relaxed and tuned into the story, you begin curbing outside thoughts, allowing you to drift off to sleep easier,” they explain.

Do sleep meditations actually work?

Sleep meditation is unique in that it helps listeners practice mindfulness while also lulling them to sleep.

“Sleep meditation is a practice that can help us fall asleep and stay asleep longer,” says a Calm spokesperson. “Unwinding from a busy day isn’t easy but the research is clear: mindfulness and sleep meditation can really help. When we get into bed with our to-do lists still reeling through our minds, sleep meditation gives our mental processes a rest, calming the nervous system of the body and creating the conditions for sweet, deep, natural sleep.”

That said, for the full benefits of meditation, it’s best to make time for wakeful meditation, for if you always fall asleep mid-meditation, you may never fully harness the monumental mental health benefits of the practice.

 

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