Devised by sleep psychologist Shelby Harris, PsyD, in collaboration with meditation app Calm, the five sleep languages categorize people’s sleeping habits based on the hurdles they face getting a good night’s rest. In treating patients for sleep issues over the years, Dr. Harris noticed that the sleep struggles her patients were experiencing tended to fall into one of five general categories. And she used those observations to create the five sleep languages: the "Words of Worry" sleeper, the "Gifted" sleeper, the "Routine Perfectionist" sleeper, the "Too Hot to Handle" sleeper, and the "Light as a Feather" sleeper.
“Figuring out...the primary thing that gets in the way of you getting good sleep can give you [a clear idea] of what you might want to focus on first.” —Shelby Harris, PsyD, sleep psychologist
These broad categories are meant to be a starting point, and certainly, some people may find that they exhibit habits from more than one of the sleep languages. “Figuring out your main characteristic or what might be the primary thing that gets in the way of you getting good sleep can give you [a clear idea] of what you might want to focus on first in order to improve your sleep,” says Dr. Harris, whom I spoke with in relation to her partnership with Calm.
While every type of sleeper can benefit from practicing good sleep hygiene, Dr. Harris also has specific tips for people who align with each of the sleep languages. In this way, the categories can guide you to the particular information you need on how to get better sleep, based on the main type of sleep challenges you're facing. “It's about making good sleep more approachable,” says Dr. Harris, of the five-part framework.
Below, find a breakdown of Dr. Harris's five sleep languages, including her tailored solutions for how each type of sleeper can catch more restful zzz's.
The 5 Sleep Languages and Tips for Translating Each Into a Better Night's Rest
1. The "Words of Worry" sleeper
A busy mind that won’t turn off and that turns easily to despairing thoughts is the hallmark of this sleep language. “Words of Worry” sleepers either have trouble falling asleep or wake up throughout the night because of their anxious thoughts. They may also fall into the trap of rumination (engaging in a repetitive negative thought pattern that can trigger or worsen stress, anxiety, and depression) or catastrophizing (jumping to worst-case-scenario conclusions).
If this is your sleep language, Dr. Harris suggests starting a pre-bed wind-down routine somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour before you plan to go to bed in order to give yourself plenty of time to switch gears. As part of that ritual, include activities that will help you to quiet a racing mind and shift into a calmer state of being, like practicing a sleep meditation or even singing your worries to the tune of, "Happy Birthday" (one of Dr. Harris's personal favorite sleep tips). And aim to avoid potentially stress-inducing activities like working from your bed and doomscrolling social media and the news.
If you find that you often wake up in the middle of the night and can't fall back asleep, your best bet is to get out of bed, go to a different room, and do a quiet activity (like reading), until you start to feel drowsy enough to get back to sleep.
2. The "Gifted" sleeper
As the name implies, this type of sleeper is very good at sleeping (perhaps, too good). They can fall asleep pretty much anywhere and at any time, no matter the light, noise, or comfort level of their surroundings. And as a result, they're typically a very good napper, too.
That ability to drop into sleep at a moment's notice, however, can actually speak to an underlying sleep issue. (Remember the too good part?) "If you're a gifted sleeper who has no problems throughout the day, that's totally fine," says Dr. Harris. "But if you're excessively sleepy and falling asleep anywhere and everywhere, I would argue that you may actually need to see a sleep doctor because you're likely at high risk of a car accident [if you drive], and you may have an undiagnosed sleep disorder or medication issue that could cause more problems in the long run."
If you speak this sleep language, consider if you just aren't spending enough time in bed. Falling asleep super quickly, in fewer than five minutes, may just be a sign of sleep deprivation, according to Dr. Harris. But, if you're getting plenty of sleep each night (the recommended seven hours or greater), and you still feel as if you could fall asleep at any point throughout the day, then Dr. Harries recommends seeing a sleep doctor, as the quality of sleep you're getting is likely lacking.
3. The "Routine Perfectionist" sleeper
This sleeper is the one who feels the need to abide by a strict sleep schedule and precise pre-bed routine...sometimes, to a fault. They may feel anxious or stressed about not getting enough or good-quality sleep if the conditions around their sleep or bed setup don't exactly match their ideal. And as a result, they tend to face the most difficulty sleeping when traveling or otherwise sleeping away from home.
If this is you, it's important to remember that while establishing and maintaining a pre-bed routine can be beneficial, an overly rigid routine can, paradoxically, make sleep harder to come by—especially if it triggers anxiety around sleep. After all, sleep is something that tends to get more elusive the more you explicitly chase it.
For that reason, Dr. Harris suggests switching up parts of your sleep routine on occasion (maybe you listen to an audiobook one night or try wearing an eye mask on another) and changing the order of things you do before bed to keep it fresh. Also, it's important to acknowledge the fact that sometimes, the distractions of life will get in the way of your sleep schedule and routine—and that's okay.
4. The "Too Hot to Handle" sleeper
This sleeper is the person who always tends to overheat at night—the one who's waking up in a pool of sweat or tossing and turning beneath the covers, feeling like they're too hot to even fall asleep in the first place. While anyone can fall into this category, people who are experiencing perimenopause or menopause are commonly "Too Hot to Handle" sleepers, given the prevalence of hot flashes and night sweats during this phase of life.
If this resonates, you'll benefit greatly from swapping out your pajamas and bedding for more breathable, moisture-wicking options and turning down the temperature in your bedroom, so that it's ideally somewhere between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Dr. Harris.
5. The "Light as a Feather" sleeper
A person who speaks this sleep language may not have issues getting enough sleep but will still wake up tired because the sleep they clocked wasn't deep, restful sleep for any number of different reasons (including not prioritizing sleep, having a sleep disorder, or experiencing a side effect from a medication). They also tend to be especially sensitive to sound and light and are roused easily from slumber.
If you're in this camp, it's best to focus on improving the regularity of your sleep, which can, in turn, boost sleep quality. That means setting and sticking to a consistent bedtime and wake-up time (which can help ensure that your body moves through all the stages of every sleep cycle, including the deepest ones) and avoiding napping during the day, so that your body is at peak tiredness come nighttime.
And again, if you are getting a sufficient amount of sleep on the regular, but still feel like you're missing out on deep sleep or not waking up well-rested, Dr. Harris suggests seeing a sleep doctor just to make sure that a sleep condition like teeth grinding or sleep apnea might not be the root of the issue.
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