Retraining Your Brain for Improved Sleep: Part 2 – Good Habits Consistently

by Mar 30, 2017

STOP: Read Part 1 First and Then Come Back to This Page

Now that you understand how the Wake-Sleep system functions and you’ve downloaded your Sleep Diary, it’s time to learn about healthy sleep habits and what you can do right now to begin the process of retraining your brain for better sleep. Notice that the Sleep Diary is for 6 weeks. Retraining your brain for improved sleep will not happen overnight. You will need to commit to practicing these good habits throughout the next 6 weeks, and then you can personalize which habits you feel were helpful and worth keeping as life long habits.

The 20-20 Rule: 20 Minutes in Bed, 20 Minutes Away From Bed

This is one of the most important habits for retraining your brain and it addresses stimulus control. As mentioned in Part 1, people who get poor sleep have associated their bedroom and bed as a place where they can expect to struggle falling or staying asleep. The 20-20 rule is simple in theory, but an ordeal in practice, and it works! When you get in bed, it is fine to spend anywhere from 10-20 minutes engaging in a relaxing activity. After about 20 minutes you’ll want to turn the lights out. Once lights are out, the 20-minute countdown has begun. You now have 20 minutes to fall asleep (remember, do not clock watch). If you have not fallen asleep within 20 minutes, it is now time to leave the bed, and leave the bedroom. Yes, you read that correctly.

Improve sleep by changing your habits

Staying in bed to toss and turn will only further associate the bed and bedroom as a place of stress. You must now spend 20 minutes away from the bedroom to engage in a relaxing activity in darkness or in low lighting, no blue light from screens! I prefer to listen to a guided meditation for 20 minutes, but find whatever is right for you. Even if you feel drowsy after the first 10 minutes outside of the bedroom, you are not to return until the full 20 minutes are over. This is when the clock restarts and you now have another 20 minutes to fall asleep. Repeat this step for as long as it takes until you are asleep. Yes, it is an ordeal, but it works. You will no doubt be tired the next morning, and just as any other poor night’s sleep, it is important to make up for lost sleep by catching a nap anytime during your day so long as it is before 1pm, and so long as it is no longer than 30-minutes. Once you’re over the 6 weeks of “retraining mode” it is fine to nap later than 1pm, in fact, the ideal time to nap is around 2pm-3pm after lunch. But while you are retraining your brain, do not nap after 1pm or else you are delaying the time that your Wake System will wind down, and therefore, delay when your Sleep System is gearing up.

Even if we get stressed out during our workday, the remaining cortisol levels in our bloodstream can affect our ability to relax at night time, which can be disruptive to our sleep.

Change Your Negative Thoughts About Sleep

For many people, one of the things that gets in the way of falling asleep is turning off the mind. Do your thoughts race when you turn out the lights? Do you think negative thoughts about not sleeping, or perhaps how you will feel or perform the next day because you aren’t getting the recommended 8 hours? It will reassure you to know that this 8 hour rule is a myth! For a more in-depth understanding of this, read The myth of the eight-hour sleep. In fact, getting 6-7 hours of sleep each night, instead of the standard 8 hours may lead to a longer life. Many sleep experts agree than at minimum, getting 5 – 5.5 hours of sleep is “enough” to function the next day. Knowing this can help (if you’ll pardon the pun) put to bed the concerns or negative thoughts that “I won’t be able to function tomorrow at work.” Letting go of the 8 hour sleep myth, and reassuring yourself that 5 hours will be “good enough” can be powerful cognitive tools to help you relax and catch Z’s.

Improve Relaxation Skills for a Better Night’s Sleep

It is helpful to practice relaxation skills throughout the day and night time. Here’s why:

  • When we’re stressed, the hormone cortisol enters the bloodstream and can stay in the bloodstream for many hours
  • This means that even if we get stressed out during our workday, the remaining cortisol levels in our bloodstream can affect our ability to relax at night time, which can be disruptive to our sleep
  • Practicing relaxation skills throughout the day will help to regulate cortisol levels in the body; Practicing relaxation skills at night will help the body and mind to fall asleep more easily

Progressive muscle relaxation exercises can do wonders to mitigate the impact of stress on the body. Tension-relaxation exercises leave the body feeling a wave of relaxation that can run from head to toe.

Make Lifestyle Changes For Improved Sleep

There are many different options to make adjustments to one’s lifestyle to improve their quality of sleep. Often times when we are making changes, it can be helpful to start small and choose something that you feel you’ll be more likely to follow through with. Choose any from the following list:

  • Set a regular sleep-wake schedule (even on weekends)
  • Avoid alcohol close to bedtime
  • Finish eating dinner 2-3 hours before bedtime (and restrict liquids close to bedtime)
  • Avoid caffeine at least 6-8 hours before bedtime
  • Avoid activities that will arouse you before bedtime (arguing, paying bills, etc.)
  • Avoid medicines that may disrupt sleep
  • Establish a regular routine of relaxation before bedtime
  • Avoid exposure to bright light before bed time (use blue light filters if you must use screens, and set the lighting to low)
  • Regular cardiovascular exercise will help you get a better night’s sleep, so long as it is done at least 3 hours before bedtime
  • Make sure your bedroom is dark, cool, comfortable, and quiet (to the extent that you can control this)

It is strongly recommended that you consult your physician first to make sure you understand the cause of your sleep problem and treat it appropriately. The importance of sleep cannot be overstated. Sleep deprivation for just 6 weeks can lead an otherwise healthy person to develop clinically significant depressive symptoms. A good night’s sleep is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle. It is my hope that you found some use in this article. Good luck catching those Z’s!

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD, and specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His clinical specialties include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, therapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to Your Couples Therapist Blog.
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