Sleep is one of those topics, like the weather or traffic, which usually signals a lackluster conversation. If one of your coworkers says something like, “Hoo, boy, Mondays are long. I feel like I’m still not caught up on sleep from the holidays,” that’s usually a good time for you to finish getting your coffee and hurry back to your desk, lest you get caught in a small-talk trap.
However, unlike the weather or traffic, sleep is incredibly important. Without proper sleep, we suffer physically, mentally, emotionally, and interpersonally, and an acute, or a chronic sleep problem can leave us feeling like hollow shells of our real, vibrant selves. Of course, getting regular, quality sleep is much easier said than done, and in stressful times of life when we need good sleep the most, it is usually one of the first things to disappear or be neglected.
For me, sleep was always the one thing I got right. Even when I worked solely for myself and had no external constraints on my schedule, I made my sleep a priority, which made my life better in all kinds of ways. Having a strong sleep foundation gave me energy for my creative and professional endeavors and it was one of my greatest weight loss assets when I decided to lose 50 pounds after I turned 60 years old.
That all changed, though, when I was cast in a performance of the Vagina Monologues. We rehearsed two to three nights a week, and traffic meant I would get home after 11pm on rehearsal nights, only to find myself revved up, and unable to get to sleep till wee hours of the morning. It only took a few nights of living this relentless late-night schedule for me to realize that I felt terrible.
Even when I technically slept long enough, the quality of my sleep had tanked, and I went through my days feeling lethargic, dull, and uninspired. With my lack of motivation from sleep deprivation, I started to revert back to my old eating habits and lost interest in my usual exercise routine. According to the Proceeding of Natural Academy of Sciences “An increased of food intake during insufficient sleep is a physiological adaptation to provide energy needed to sustain additional wakefulness.” I felt stressed out and even developed a skin rash on my abdomen, which isn’t unusual claims Board-Certified dermatologist Dr. Howard Murad, “A lack of restful sleep suppresses the immune system, which can lead to skin-related problems, such as rashes. “The most important thing you can do for your skin may be getting a great night’s sleep.” The ideal amount ranges from six to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, time enough to move through the five phases of sleep advises Dr. Murad. Soon, in addition to feeling stressed about my exceptionally busy life, I started feeling stressed about how little sleep I was getting every night, which began a vicious cycle of anxiety and insomnia. Lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling and feeling like my stress kept me hovering an inch off the mattress, I knew that something had to change.
I started with mindful relaxation exercises I learned from my studies at the Himalayan Institute to release the acute stress, which affects heart rate variability during sleep and could potentially affect our overall health. A sleep study conducted by University of Pittsburgh Department of Psychiatry, “Changes in heart rate variability associated with acute stress may represent one pathway to disturbed sleep. Stress-related changes in heart rate variability during sleep may also be important in association with chronic stressors, which are associated with significant morbidity and increased risk for mortality.”
Giving myself time to relax my body and mind enough to fall asleep became my nightly practice, I began sleeping better once more, but it still took me a week to recover from my nights of limited sleep and two weeks for the rash to go away.
I know now that the secret to good sleep is consistency. Today, I have dinner every day around 6 or 6:30 in the evening, and after that, I shut down all stimulation from social media. I also go to bed at the same time every night—a time I have chosen based on how many hours of sleep I need in order for my body to wake up naturally, instead of jarring sounds of clocks or phones beeping me awake (I can’t tell you how much better and more refreshing it feels to wake up on my own.)
It’s not sexy advice, I know.
Having a strict evening routine and bedtime that is inflexible except for special occasions sounds so…well, boring. It may sound silly, but it did take me a while to accept that I wasn’t being boring or un-exciting by sticking to my new schedule.
Ultimately, I reconciled myself to my new and healthier sleep habits when I realized that my un-glamorous schedule was what allowed me to do glamorous things with my life. I spend my days feeling sexy during modeling photo shoots in Manhattan, striding confidently into auditions, and memorizing lines for acting parts with ease. I get to write about ideas I’m passionate about, perform in incredible shows with amazing women, and build an empowering and creative career. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School research suggests “Sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways. First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.” Without good sleep, I wouldn’t have the energy for any of the things that make my life exciting and fulfilling, and because of that, I am committed to my healthy sleep schedule.
What could you accomplish if you felt refreshed, motivated, and truly awake every day? The answer might only be a few good nights’ sleep away.