Veronica O’Brien: “Perfect your nighttime routine”

Evaluate your environment. Research shows that clutter can cause stress, so if your bedroom is a mess, then this could be subconsciously causing sleep disturbances. Moreover, research also shows that we sleep better in cooler environments. I don’t know about you, but bunding up in a bunch of soft blankets is one of the best […]

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Evaluate your environment. Research shows that clutter can cause stress, so if your bedroom is a mess, then this could be subconsciously causing sleep disturbances. Moreover, research also shows that we sleep better in cooler environments. I don’t know about you, but bunding up in a bunch of soft blankets is one of the best feelings in the world, but that’s difficult when the room is too hot. Other environmental changes are preferential. Consider your sensitivity to light or sound. Personally, I need to sleep with a fan on for white noise; the silence is impossible to fall asleep to!

Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?

In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.

As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Veronica O’Brien.

Veronica is currently enrolled in a Clinical Psychology doctoral program that emphasizes working with rural communities. Veronica’s research interests include holistic mental health interventions such as mindfulness; she has presented her research at several national conferences. She hopes to develop stricter protocols for mindfulness-based interventions to enhance its efficacy and understand its limitations. In addition to these roles, Veronica serves as the lead researcher at Truhugs to provide objective evidence-based articles on the benefits of weighted blankets.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?

Sure! Currently, I am enrolled in a Clinical Psychology doctoral program where I am researching holistic interventions and prevention techniques for mental health conditions. I received my master’s degree in Clinical mental health counseling in 2017; then, I worked for a non-profit agency where I provided therapeutic services to underserved children and youth with various presenting mental health symptoms. In 2018, I started working for Truhugs’ weighted blankets as their lead researcher/blog. During my time as a mental health therapist, I found that many childhood mental health problems stemmed from poor sleep, which sparked my interest in exploring solutions. Hence, my involvement with a weighted blanket company! Throughout the past three years, I’ve read (quite literally) almost every article related to weighted blankets and sleep to figure out how they work and how they can be used as a treatment for sleep issues!

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?

I wish that my story was more inspiring, but it really boiled down to a bunch of career assessments I took as a senior in high school. I wanted to be a music major, but I didn’t want to end up as a music teacher and was not talented enough to make a living off of just music. To figure out an alternative path, I logged online, googled “career tests,” and psychology continued to pop up. I don’t regret my decision to pursue psychology; the work has been stimulating and rewarding. I love that my career path allows me to utilize research to explore solutions to common problems. It’s funny how things sometimes just happen to work out.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

As I mentioned earlier, I am the lead researcher/ blog manager for the weighted blanket company, Truhugs. Working with them has allowed me to dive into the literature surrounding sleep and sleep remedies. The philosophy of Truhugs is transparency (which I’ve greatly appreciated), so as I write about the research on weighted blankets, I am not forced to make false claims to meet any agendas. I can simply write about how weighted blankets are or are not beneficial for various health conditions or symptoms. The ability to transparently write about weighted blankets and sleep through an evidence-based lens is my unique contribution that I hope to continue.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’m a very impressionable person, meaning that every article or book I read, I get invested into and want to learn more and more. However, with that being said, I would say that most recently, Chasing the Scream” by Johann Harihas had the most impact on me because it has shifted my perspective on the war on drugs. If anyone is evenly remotely interested in the United States’ history of substance misuse, I recommend that book. It’s eye-opening and breaks common perceptions and stigmas.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

One of my favorite quotes is, “Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity.” I think too often; we take advantage of small opportunities that come and pass without giving them much consideration. I’ve held onto this quote and used it to guide me as I navigate my professional life. Sometimes I am faced with decisions on whether to take up an opportunity or not, and I always remember this quote and how the opportunity may pay off in the long run.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?

Science says that we need less sleep as we age and that adults should get on average 7–9 hours of sleep. However, the real amount of sleep is dependent on how you sleep. If you are someone that often wakes up throughout the night and is overly fidgety, then you will require more sleep time to ensure that you get enough restful sleep in that 7–9 hours range. However, if you are someone who hits the pillow and can pass out cold for seven hours, then you will not need as much sleep time. Pay attention to how you feel when you wake up. If you wake up after nine hours of sleep time and feel exhausted, then your sleep is likely not good quality.

Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10PM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?

The goal is always 8 quality hours of sleep, and there can be some variation in the hours chosen to get this sleep. However, we naturally have a circadian rhythm that follows the sun’s pattern. Therefore, when choosing your hours, consistency and consideration of the sun’s schedule matters. This is why you see a lot of mental illness in people who work overnight jobs because we are meant to be awake when the sun is up.

The amount of time needed in bed can be different across people — It depends on how you sleep. There are interventions and tools that you can use to enhance the efficiency of your sleep; however, if you are someone who needs to lay in bed for a couple of hours prior to falling asleep, then getting to bed earlier is better. Also, as I mentioned previously if the quality of your sleep isn’t great, then you’ll want to spend more time sleeping to make sure you hit those crucial sleep stages. With all the available smartwatches out there, I recommend that everyone invest in one to track their sleep. You may think that you’re getting a solid eight hours, but the smartwatch (or actigraphy) may show that you only get six actual hours of sleep. This is the easiest way to figure out where you’re at in terms of sleep quantity and quality.

As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35 year old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?

We need sleep. It’s as simple as that. Without sleep, there is a heightened risk of mental illness, chronic health conditions, and general discomfort. I’ve said this to my college students, pulling an all-nighter to study for an exam does more harm than good for your grade and your health. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that we need sleep to retain information long-term, and studying all night is not conducive to information retention.

Many things provide benefits but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?

Absolutely! I cannot emphasize the importance of sleep enough. Sleep is the primary culprit of so many issues that we phase. For example, if you are dealing with anxiety, then these symptoms can be exacerbated by sleep deprivation. Because sleep plays such a major role in many health conditions, it is my belief that sleep should be of the utmost priority in everyone’s life.

The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the three main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?

  1. Time. We are bombarded with articles and news bits on things we should be doing to improve our health, but all of the information can be overwhelming, and it makes it challenging to know where to start.
  2. Habits. Let’s face it; it’s hard to change our ways. Who wants to go through the effort of cognitively going through the motions of habit change when following the same routine is so much easier? We are all busy, so busy that the task of adjusting our lives can feel daunting, so we stick with familiar habits. I’m guilty of this too!
  3. Credibility. Not all information is credible, and not all information will be effective for us, so it can be overwhelming to sift through the mountains of information to determine what would be beneficial versus a waste of time. For example, sometimes there are claims of health-benefiting tools and techniques that sound great but aren’t evidence-based, so people try them without the hoped-for success and get discouraged. This discouragement then creates a sense of distrust for future information.

Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?

Absolutely. There are reduced boundaries between our work and personal lives, and this was amplified by COVID-19 as many started working from home. This lack of division has made it even more difficult to wind down and relax after work. It’s also made it easier to work overtime and experience increased stress. I also believe social media has made it more challenging to wind down at night, as many (including myself) will scroll through social media feeds at night, which can prolong feelings of alertness.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Sleep aids. I’m not talking about medication; sleeping pills can actually be counterproductive with long-term health sleep habits. Instead, consider a sleep aid such as a weighted blanket. Research surrounding weighted blankets has shown that they can reduce sleep latency, restlessness.
  2. Use your bed for sleeping. If you are someone who struggles with falling asleep, then it’s essential for you to only use your bed for sleep. If you do work in bed or eat in bed, then it may make it more challenging for your brain to associate sleep with your bed.
  3. Perfect your nighttime routine. Drinking caffeine or exercising too close to bed can make it difficult to wind down for bed, so consider when it’s best to start winding down. Experts state that screen time can mimic sunlight and mess up one’s circadian rhythm, so if you are someone who is sensitive to screen time, then limit screen time 45 minutes before you want to fall asleep. Many newer smartphones also have blue light filters, which can help as well.
  4. Evaluate your environment. Research shows that clutter can cause stress, so if your bedroom is a mess, then this could be subconsciously causing sleep disturbances. Moreover, research also shows that we sleep better in cooler environments. I don’t know about you, but bunding up in a bunch of soft blankets is one of the best feelings in the world, but that’s difficult when the room is too hot. Other environmental changes are preferential. Consider your sensitivity to light or sound. Personally, I need to sleep with a fan on for white noise; the silence is impossible to fall asleep to!
  5. Quality and quantity matter. Make sure that you are getting 7–9 restful hours of sleep each night. If you are tossing and turning throughout the night, then those 7–9 hours in bed will not help you feel refreshed.

What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?

If someone consistently wakes up during the night and can’t fall back asleep, then there may be a need for behavioral modification. The gold-standard treatment for sleep is behavioral modification, meaning that if you are in bed and can’t fall asleep, you should get up and do something until you feel tired again. Activities done out of bed while trying to fall back asleep should be non-stimulating, so avoid screen time. If you are someone who occasionally struggles with waking up and not being able to go back to sleep, then try relaxation exercises.

What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?

Some people swear by naps, saying they improve their daily functioning. Others find that naps deter a good night’s rest. What does the research say? Sleep research, especially with self-report measures, is inherently limited because people often misreport their sleep (unintentionally). However, people who get enough sleep during the night shouldn’t nap because there is an increased risk for health issues with too much sleep. Someone who regularly doesn’t get enough sleep during the night may benefit from naps as the naps will compensate for the sleep deficiency. Much is still unknown about naps and how they impact health. However, the general consensus is people who don’t require naps have better nighttime sleep quality.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

As someone who is invested in mindfulness meditation, I’ve always wanted to meet Jon Kabat-Zin. I’m fascinated to learn more about his journey of taking the eastern concept of mindfulness and turning it into a westernized psychological intervention.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

If you’re interested in all things mental health and sleep, I encourage readers to check out the Truhugs blog. We explore multiple facets of sleep, including common disturbances and techniques to promote the best sleep of your life.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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