A few months back I was discussing with a friend who is also a doctor and he mentioned that he had not been sleeping well. Asides the fact that he has to work at night missing out on the body’s much needed circadian rhythm sleep (your body benefits more from sleep if you are able to fall asleep before midnight and stay asleep afterwards), he still finds it difficult to get good quality sleep when he tries to sleep. You know that feeling of ‘feeling tired every day’ even though you slept the night before?
Now while there a lot of memes out there that tell you to ‘sleep when you are dead’ and how sleep is for people who will never ‘change the world’ what these memes miss out on telling you is that sleep is the most underrated way the body and brain replenishes itself, restores hormonal balance and renews the body’s cells. Again, while we share these memes and feel worthless when we read them and the captions that follow, these memes do not show you the effect of poor sleep on poor health, obesity, heart disease, stroke, mental illnesses and even the productivity/creativity for which we are told not to sleep. Now how are you going to change the world if you are not alive and well to do that?
According to Arianna Huffington, it’s a “complete delusion” that if you get little sleep and take poor care of yourself, you are going to be more productive. She goes on to say “I’m not saying that you can’t succeed by burning out. But you can succeed much more effectively, and much more sustainably, and with much less damage to your health and your relationships,”
Anyways back to my colleague, I shared with him a time in my life (March, 2018) when I was suddenly finding it difficult to sleep at night. I would drop my phone as usual and climb into bed but the sleep would not come. My brain kept on ‘firing’ and running from pillar to post, like it had a will of its own and I could not will it to shut down. Unfortunately, since I could comfortably do a lot of work on my phone, I would pick my phone to pass the time, drop it an hour or two later and still not be able to sleep. Research has shown that the light – the blue light your phone emits is designed to stimulate the nerves in your eyes and keep it alert. So, going back to the phone was a very bad choice.
Sadly, I was becoming less productive as I slept more during the day without any resistance but as the night approached, I became anxious. I wished I could just shut my eyes and open it and it would be daybreak, I wished the night did not come at all. Why did the night have to be so long? I worried that I function better if I fall asleep by 10pm at least and woke up by 5am. I worried that if I ended up sleeping late and waking up late, I would have a really bad, grouchy and unproductive day – with all these conversations and more running around my head – anxiety piled up and sleep was far away from me.
One Friday night, I decided I was going to take a well-deserved, refreshing break.
I informed my assistant of my unavailability and deleted all social media apps. The plan was to take a screen break. I also told my husband the times my phone would be on because ‘hey communication is important’. My break kicked off on Saturday, the rest of the week was spent leaving my house without my phone. I bought 4 hard copy books off Amazon, borrowed 2 more from the library, spent time taking long walks in nature, exploring my environment, reading and discovering new places. In that period, I learnt to celebrate life and notice even the slightest beauty around me. The beauty of sitting in Starbucks reading a book about Starbucks and not having to think of my to-do list.
I found more peace within me, the anxiety reduced albeit disappeared and I kicked off my sleep routine again and even added more. One of the things I learnt in this period was ‘self-care is not self-bondage‘, just because I functioned better if I slept at 10pm and woke up by 5am does not mean that earth will cave in if it did not happen twice a week. I learnt to just relax and stop worrying about sleep not kicking in. Most importantly I learnt how refreshing it can be to fully unplug.
I have unplugged from social media for a period of 5-6 months before now but this one had a different purpose and it was achieved too.
I also had the opportunity to speak to a therapist afterwards who recommended Melatonin and even though I don’t use it often these days, it really helped.
Here’s what my intentional sleep routine looks like, note that a sleep routine does not start at night but is actively present in your day as well.
· A cup of chamomile tea at 6:15pm, I have an alarm that reminds me.
· Dinner and a night bath before 8pm and a tab of melatonin if I need to.
· Magnesium supplements daily: most of us are magnesium deficient because Magnesium is not as available in our foods as it should be because our soil is now deficient in Magnesium and it is very essential for muscle relaxation and so much more.
· Some form of exercise every day – walking, dancing, weight lifting – all forms of body movement count.
· I did go off caffeine for a long while during and after that period but I have it now occasionally and make sure it is before noon, even green tea.
· Sitting down on the table every night to plan my day on paper so I don’t have to think about it in bed.
· An alarm that goes off at 9pm reminding me it is time to drop the phone
· A bedside lamp and a hard copy book if I really want to read.
· Dropping my phone on my table to charge while I crawl into bed and making sure it is not the first thing I look at on waking up. Turning off the WiFi or putting it on airplane mode is also a good habit.
· Giving up control. Sometimes, trying so hard to control everything from what time you sleep off to how well your day will go can also be a problem. So, as I lie in bed, I have quiet gratitude conversations while scanning all my body parts in my head starting from my feet and giving thanks for it all. The art of body scanning involves visualizing that body part, acknowledging its position and existence. Most times I sleep off while doing this.
· Other times, I visualize my day as a mum and wife with a full time job as a coping mechanism for when I graduate and move back home fully to help me adapt faster and mitigate ‘culture shock’.
· On some weekends, I have a long bath soaking myself for over 30 minutes in Magnesium and essential oils. Boy!!!1 The muscle relaxation is better experienced than described. You will likely sleep off before you get into bed.
While all these may sound hard to do, you get to a point in your life where you choose and draw the line for what serves you best, what keeps you at your optimal best and what is depleting you. I find that most of the random thoughts that stop us from sleeping are sometimes a combination of all the social media narratives we just finished looking at. Besides, you owe it to yourself to LIVE YOUR BEST life now, for the moment and for the future.
Now I understand that the advice on getting good quality sleep may sound to a Lagosian (or someone living in Tokyo) like telling someone who lives on minimum wage to pay for health insurance but my 2 cents would be to maximize your weekends and your ‘days off’ including National Holidays. Unfortunately, most of us pack up our weekends with what I call OPA – ‘other people’s activities’. A client once complained to me how it is impossible for her to take out time to organize her life over the weekend so she can have a great week. When I asked what happens on her weekends, she mentioned that she usually had too many events/commitments to meet up with. I had to draw her attention to the fact that these events even though they were valid and she meant well, they were not HER priority and they were depleting her rather than replenishing her. No, I’m not against having a social life and attending social events but I have one philosophy ‘he who must save others must first save himself’- remember the flight attendant giving you the run-down before takeoff? (even though you never really listen as you whisper it is not your portion), an oxygen depleted individual cannot help others find oxygen. Maybe these are not even events but your to-do list, you created that list yourself right – you can also redo the list and take a break.
With an average life expectancy of 54 years in countries like Nigeria and stress (oxidative stress) being at the background of nearly every disease, we all owe it to ourselves to take better care of our body. Did you know sleep improves immunity? Sleep is not for the weak and selfcare is not luxury, if we take time to recharge our phones and even go bunkers when we can’t, our bodies deserve much more.