Each night, as my anxiety peaks and any hope for a peaceful rendezvous with Mr. Sandman slips away, I’m often able to pinpoint cause of my sleeplessness. It’s a mix of looming due dates at work, my reading load for grad school, and existential fear. But the worst culprit by far is one I hadn’t noticed. Janet Kennedy, PhD, a sleep psychologist in New York City, refers to certain sleep troubles as “performance anxiety.” In other words, I have so much FOMO when it comes to getting enough sleep that I just can’t drift off.
“The more we focus on trying to sleep and trying to sleep right, the more elusive sleep can become,” Dr. Kennedy tells me. “We can control some aspects of sleep—like our lifestyle, health, schedule, and activities—but the falling asleep [itself] is outside of our control.” Data-driven sleep apps, like calculators and REM-trackers, often feed the problem. It’s frustrating when our perfectionist tendencies, when we can’t “achieve” the night of blissful rest that we so desire.
“You think, ‘I’m scared of what will happen if I don’t fall asleep right now,’ and then you can’t fall asleep.”
Chris Winter, MD, a sleep specialist in Virginia, says that the cultural narrative around lack of sleep is more harmful than helpful. Studies have shown that skimping on slumber makes you angrier and causes you to dream less—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When we approach a loss of sleep the same way Coach Carr approaches sex in Mean Girls (i.e., Don’t lose sleep because you will get cranky/unproductive/sad and you will die!), we don’t do ourselves any favors. “Sleep problems often work best in a climate of fear. You think, ‘I’m scared of what will happen if I don’t fall asleep right now,’ and then you can’t fall asleep,” says Dr. Winter.
But how do you get yourself to relinquish control? After all, Google search for “tired” have steadily increased since 2004, suggesting that we’re pretty interested in a good night’s sleep or not getting one often enough.
Both experts I spoke with agree that peaceful sleep requires handing over the reigns to your body. To whom, you ask? Yourself! That seven-to-eight hour window is based off averages collected in public surveys, Dr. Winter explains. Your nightly amount of sleep might be closer to six—or nine. Discovering how much sleep you need starts with choosing a time to get up.
“The best way to [find out how much sleep you need] is to get up at the same time each day (including weekends) and stay up at night until you are very sleepy,” Dr. Winter says. “Over time, the body will settle into a rhythm and it will let you know you when you should go to sleep. You’ll notice that you get sleepy and wake up at roughly the same time every day.” By setting a time to wake up rather than a time to fall asleep, you’re giving yourself the night off (literally) from the pure torture that comes with staying up past your “bedtime.”
“Over time, the body will settle into a rhythm and it will tell you when you should go to sleep.”
Once you’ve found a sleep cycle that works for your schedule, turn the focus to other things keeping you awake over which you have real control. Ditch that afternoon cup of coffee, charge your phone far from the bedroom, or schedule time to worry during the day so your inner dialogue isn’t running laps at night. If despite all efforts you fail to fall asleep when you want to, Dr. Winter says that’s no big deal—so long as you take that time to relax.
“Think about how you’re either going to sleep great tonight or you’re going to wake up at 2 a.m. and never go back to sleep but that’s fine. It’s going to be okay,” he says. Get cozy under the blankets, focus on your breathing, queue up some “slow lit,” and just enjoy relaxing.
“Control is not, ‘I have to sleep or bad things are going to happen.’ But rather, ‘I’m going to set myself up to sleep right. If I can’t, that’s fine. I’ll just let myself relax and sit here until the sleep comes,'” says Dr. Winter. Of course, should you experience more advanced sleep disorders or chronic insomnia, book an appointment with your doctor.
I’ll leave you with this, friends: Approaching bedtime with a healthy serving of JOMO might just help you reach the joy of PTFO.
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