I’ll turn off the screens at nine so my brain has a chance to settle before sleep. I’ll go to bed by ten and listen to a guided relaxation as I fall asleep. I’ll wake up early enough to go for a walk or to the gym before work.
Going to bed earlier is a common goal in self-care. We are committed to it but at nine o’clock we’re only ten minutes away from finishing an episode on Netflix so we watch the rest of it then the next one while we’re making tomorrow’s lunch and another after that. We get to bed at midnight and are too exhausted to get up when the alarm goes off. We berate ourselves. Why can’t we do something so simple?
Look at the situation through a trauma lens. What was bedtime like for you when you were a child?
Children who grow up with violence in their home listen to parents partying or arguing and they lie in bed wide awake, stiff with fear around what could come next.
If you were abused sexually, the terror and violation of that is associated with being in bed.
A child is bullied or shamed at school and they huddle under the covers, playing the scene over and over in their mind, overwhelmed with disgust for their weakness.
Children need a safe environment in which they feel protected and like they matter. Not feeling connected is a threat too. We feel sad and lonely at bedtime.
Kindness and compassion arise naturally for children in these situations. It makes sense why we avoid bedtime. These feelings don’t magically heal when we’re out of our childhood home. We bring the dread of bedtime into our adult life.
Many of the habits that torpedo good self-care relate to the survival mechanisms of flight and freeze. We feel unsafe and we try to protect and shield ourselves from danger. Because we’re engaged, we might not even be aware of the uneasiness or dread that keeps us up watching one more episode on Netflix.
Bedtime may also be the only time during the day that we don’t have voices in our ear: podcasts, tv shows, talking. We don’t want to lay in bed for an hour trying to fall asleep while our mind brings up one thing after another.
It’s natural to want to avoid these feelings. A few glasses of wine or bowls of ice cream numb us out enough to sleep. We listen to podcasts or read until our eyes close and we fall asleep. We take sleeping pills. These strategies turn into long term habits that are difficult to change because they are rooted in protecting ourselves. We need to honor that.
We take steps to create more safety in our present day lives and to heal childhood developmental trauma, and our nervous system relaxes and heals. We work with our mind to let go of core deficiency beliefs. We firmly stop entertaining catastrophic thinking and listening to the inner critic. This is long term radical self-care that supports our efforts to change these long standing coping strategies.
Look at your sleep habits through a trauma lens and with kindness. How long have you avoided bedtime? Do one or more of the situations described above match your experience?
When we’ve been traumatized we have a low window of tolerance for emotional discomfort and the result is we let our body “take one for the team”. We know we’re going to be exhausted and struggle the next day if we don’t get enough sleep. We’re not weak because we can’t follow through with our intention. We’re traumatized and anxious.
We need to develop the capacity to be kind and supportive and to be on our own side. Condemning ourselves always makes our life harder. Frustration, impatience and downright aggression work against success.
The part of your mind that thinks short term only: I love this show and I want to see what happens.
The adult part of your mind that wants the best for you: I’m going to be tired all day tomorrow and I really need to be at my best for that meeting or because I don’t want to be cranky with my children or I’ve so been looking forward to dinner out with my friends.
What part of your system is making the decision? What is going on in your body? Is fear or anxiety keeping you disconnected? We have to be IN our body to take care of our body.
Make a deal with yourself. Turn off the screen, brush your teeth and do ten minutes of Extended Exhaling or Alternate Nostril Breathing. If you still want to turn the show back on, do that without judgment. Continue to work with attuning to your experience with kindness. Find ways to enhance your sense of feeling warm and safe. Put your hand on your heart and offer yourself your own attention and lovingkindness.