Sleep as the Foundation of Your Self Care Strategy

(Transcribed from 3/13/18 Facebook Live. Catch me when I'm live on Tuesdays at 2:30 PM CST to get questions answered by going here.)

I feel like with this recent daylight savings, it would be very timely to talk about sleep and how it affects everything else that we do. It’s not usually a huge problem for me to get to sleep— waking up is its own story. I’ve battled with that, off and on, for a long time. But I want to talk about why it’s important. I think a lot of us understand logically that we spend a third of our lives sleeping, so of course it’s important. However, when I start talking about self-care, many people are think, “Oh, that means making sure I get massages, or I go to the chiropractor, or I go to the acupuncturist, or I get my nails done,” or whatever case that might be. That is HIGH-level self-care, which is still something you should strive for. But the foundation needs to be established. If you can’t stick to your basics like sleep, your loftier goals just can’t be done.

When I talk basic needs, if anyone’s familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I mean your basic necessities: eating right, sleeping, drinking enough water. You know, the foundation. And to be frank with no judgement, eating right is a challenge: there are temptations everywhere. And even with exercising right and doing these other self-care habits like meditating and journaling… These are things that I try to do in my own life and highly recommend to other people and clients, but that requires a cognitive ability and willpower that you just aren’t going to have when you’re not sleeping right.

How many people wake up late, so you rush to get to work and run through a drive-through to get a coffee, which is basically a milkshake? The cappuccinos and the frappuccinos that I love, let’s be honest, have a lot of calories, a lot of sugar. But we never dwell on it for long, because we think to ourselves, “Oh, I need something, I’m late….” and you’re already just reacting to your day at that point. You’re feeling sleep-deprived and now you feel rushed and all these different factors. You set yourself up to fail. And nobody wants to do that. We all think it’s impossible, and it’s not, but we shoot ourselves in the foot before we even start. That’s where most setbacks end up happening— I don’t necessarily like to call them failures.

We all do it: we all are almost preparing to be set back over and over again. It becomes a cycle. Like I said, we all cycle through, “I’m gonna do this!” And we’re now well into March. How many people have said, “I’m gonna do this in January and I’m gonna keep it up!” and maybe in March you’re not doing it anymore. That’s okay: forgive yourself for that.

And this is why I’ve been making this resource bundle, this wellbeing clarity toolkit, which I will link. I’ve been crafting that, because I want people to start setting themselves up for success. You are going to have a good plan in place, you are going to know what it looks like once you’ve completed what you’ve wanted to complete, you are going to have some of those accountability frameworks in place. But the basic, basic, basic stuff still has to be met. I can’t tell you how many times for myself, I stayed up late doing God knows what, and that means, “Hmm, I’m gonna sleep in in the morning,” which means, “Oh, I don’t have to meditate today,” which means “Oh I didn’t really HAVE to do yoga today, that can wait until tomorrow, that can wait until I get home from work.” And, surprise surprise, you’re exhausted after work, so that doesn’t end up happening. I do it. I’ve actually fallen off the wagon for a lot of habits that I’m slowly trying to build back into my life.

But I realized in myself two things that were stopping me from getting the right amount of sleep that I needed: I didn’t have an evening ritual in place to signify to myself that it’s time to wind down and time to sleep. I worked or YouTubed or whatever the case may be, well past when I should have gone to bed. because I didn’t have those familiar rituals to let my body tell me that there’s something I needed to do: sleep. I like reading as a wind-down for me, especially reading fiction and not necessarily anything related to work. Writing in my journal is a good evening ritual, for some people it’s meditation. Whatever the case may be, you have to tell yourself, “It is time to shut it down.” Preferably some ritual that doesn’t involve your phone or your computer, just because that light and that stimulation is going to have a lot of the opposite effect.

That was the first thing, having that evening ritual. Second thing, was telling myself how much sleep I really need. Because people who are chronically sleep deprived, like so many of us— again, no judgment here, that includes me — we have a completely broken idea of how much sleep we need. And part of that is culturally, how many people are answering work emails at midnight, or still well working into two in the morning on a project. It’s part of our culture to think, “Oh, we don’t need sleep! Whatever… That’s what coffee is for!”

Part of that is cultural, that mindset where we don’t need sleep, when I don’t even have time to show you the dozens and dozens of research studies that link it to early dementia, strokes, getting colds and the flu. Sleep affects so many things that we really are only just now starting to piece out. If you want to know more, Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson and The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington are two of my favorite sleep books right now.

This cultural expectation to value work over sleep, or this warped idea of, “Oh, I’m fine on six hours.” Are you really fine on six hours? Because most people are not. In fact, there are some people out there who probably need nine, maybe ten hours. Obviously that’s not as common, but they’ve told themselves that they need six or seven hours for so long that they can’t even make up that sleep debt anymore.

I know this is something that will be difficult for a lot of us, but I was just like that. I had told myself, “I am perfectly fine, I am functional, I am great with seven hours.” Because some people can do quite well on seven. I do need eight, as I’m realizing, and part of that is that I have an alarm… but when I don’t set my alarm, that is when my time spent sleeping — to the letter — is eight hours. And then when I stay in bed past that, I’m groggy and feeling like crap all day because I slept too long. But that seven hours I was doing for years, was not doing me any favors as I’m realizing, because your body knows what it needs.

When you think, “Oh ... I tried to do this, but I fell asleep,” your body needed that. Don’t feel bad when you fall asleep reading, or watching TV. If you’re falling asleep, you’re making up sleep debt, which all of us have. We are not sleeping enough, and our bodies decide, “Alright… Lights off! Because I’m getting this rest one way or another.”

Don’t beat yourself up for that. But you also need to be in tune with your body. How much sleep does your body need? And it’s wrong to try and tell it what it does need: “I need seven, I need six… I can do fine on four.” You might be fine, but is your brain telling you that, or is your body desperately telling you, “No, I need eight. You need to give me eight.” You need to be in tune with that, and a big factor in determining that is — and you may not want to try this on a day  you need to head into work early; maybe if you’re going on vacation — when does your body want to wake up on its own? If you didn’t have an alarm to wake you up, what would wake you up?

Those are two things to look at: evening rituals, how you’re going to wind down; and how much sleep your body truly needs, to start looking at that closely and making note of it in the mornings. Because a lot of times it’s hard to wake up, and it really shouldn’t be.Part of that difficulty for us  is that mistaken belief of, “We only need such and such amount of sleep.” If you’re having a problem with that, I would definitely keep that in mind. Maybe it’s hard because you need to give yourself that extra hour. You don’t necessarily have to do it all at once, but I try to wake up fifteen minutes earlier at a time to ease into it. And if you’re having problems falling asleep, the evening ritual is going to help with that. Because your brain keeps turning and that’s the way our culture and our bodies have grown accustomed to. Your brain wants to keep going, to keep thinking about what it needs to do tomorrow.

But your evening ritual is there to wind it down, and say, “Hey… Those are all things that can wait until tomorrow. Right now, we’re reading. Relax.” I find that the people who have a hard time falling asleep can find some benefit from that, while the people having a hard time waking up can benefit from looking at how much you need to sleep and planning accordingly. Again, not setting your alarm is a dicey proposition, so maybe set it as late as possible while still being able to get up. And if you can wake up before then naturally, then all the better.

You will find what works for you with time. Since sleep is different based on the individual, it’s a lot of experimentation. Feel free to reach out and tell me what is and isn’t working for you. Because some of the things I’ve said may not work for you at all, and that’s fine. I’m not saying that what I’m talking about is going to work for everyone all the time. But if you have any other feedback or questions in regards to this, feel free to let me know!