What’s your usual pre-bed routine? Checking your email, watching late-night talk shows, or reading mystery thrillers? If it’s any of the above, you may be overstimulating your system instead of soothing it into snooze mode. “The mind needs to wind down before bed,” says Heather Gunn, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh’s Sleep Medicine Institute and specialist in the effect of social behaviors on sleep. Bedtime stress has been linked to poor sleep quality, but starting a relaxation program can help you sleep better at night, even when you’re feeling scatter-brained. Catch your Zzz’s with this five-step relaxation program from Gunn.
Step 1: Set a “Buffer Time”
Start a wind-down routine one to three hours before bed, Gunn says. In the time after your day “ends” and before you go to bed, avoid activities that keep your mind going. It could be anything from having a stressful conversation to checking your bank statement to doing paperwork. “[Disruptive habits are] counterproductive for sleep, and a common reason people have difficulty falling asleep,” she says.
Step 2: Dim the Lights
Gunn’s favorite tip for relaxing before bed? Turn down those lights. “It’s a nice way to tell your mind to transition into less activity,” she says. Bright lights stimulate the arousal part of our brains to wake up. Dimming the lights starts the process of reducing things that stimulate your senses.
Step 3: Unplug
Low lights put you in sleep mode, but technology has the opposite effect. “Looking at a bright screen can actually make it harder for your brain to start that de-arousing process,” Gunn says. With so many ways to plug in, technology has become a huge factor for people who struggle with sleep, she says. Gunn recommends disconnecting a few hours before bed. Leave your laptop or tablet outside the bedroom.
Step 4: Find a Pastime
What kinds of activities do you find relaxing? Add those to your “buffer time,” Gunn suggests. Mindfulness practices and muscle relaxation techniques are known to improve sleep quality. “Everyone can vary. For some people, mindfulness can have the opposite effect,” she says. “It’s all about finding a way that works for you.”
Having a vino nightcap doesn’t count. “Oftentimes people might try a glass of wine before bed to help relax. In general, alcohol right before bed has been shown to disrupt sleep,” Gunn says. Instead, unwind with a tea ritual or guided relaxation podcasts.
Step 5: Sleep!
“In the midst of stress, the goal is to try and put up a barrier. Put your sleep in a cocoon so that your sleep can be protected,” Gunn says. “Help shift the mind from ‘going, going, going’ to slowing down a bit.” If you dim the lights, unplug, and do something that relaxes you a few hours before you hit the pillow, you’ll improve your chances of nestling into a quality night’s sleep.
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