A good night’s sleep can make us more empathetic, more creative, better parents and better partners, according to Aric Prather, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who treats insomnia and is the author of the new book “The Sleep Prescription.” Sleep can help us manage stress; it can make us competent and capable and better able to take on the day. But Prather says we too often view sleep as an afterthought — until we find ourselves frozen in the middle of the night, our thoughts racing, fumbling for rest or relief.
Here are some of his science-backed tips for sounder sleep.
DURING THE DAY
Carve out time for “scheduled worry.”
“No one ever says, ‘I was awake in the middle of the night, and I was only thinking of good things,’” Prather said. Throughout the day, we might be too busy to linger on our thoughts, but at night, when we try to let our brains pause without distractions, “our thoughts can get very, very loud,” Prather wrote.
To beat back nighttime rumination and anxiety, Prather recommended in an interview devoting part of your day to worry. Block out 10 to 20 minutes to write down what you’re anxious about, or just think about it, without searching for a solution. If you do that consistently, he said, your worries won’t seep into the night — and if they do, you can remind yourself that you have a dedicated time to address them the next day.
Instead of reaching for caffeine, plunge your head in the freezer.
If you regularly reach for coffee to get you through an afternoon slump, you’ll still have caffeine in your system by bedtime, said Prather.
Instead, he recommends getting an energy boost elsewhere. You can go for a brisk walk in the afternoon, or spend five to 10 minutes taking a break from work and engaging your brain in a simple task — pull weeds in the garden, reorganise a bookshelf, turn on some music and really focus on a song. Focusing on a non-work task can energise our brains, Prather said, jolting us out of our routine. Or, for a more extreme option, stick your head in the freezer. That brief shock of cold activates your arousal system, Prather said, like jumper cables on a car battery to wake you up — no coffee run needed.
IF YOU’RE STRUGGLING TO STAY
ASLEEP IN THE NIGHT
If you can’t sleep, move.
As people age, especially in their 50s, 60s and 70s, sleep can become more fragmented, Prather said. People may need to urinate in the night more frequently, or pain might keep them awake. But it’s essential that older adults get sufficient rest — a recent study found that adults older than 50 who slept for five hours or less each night had a greater risk of developing chronic diseases than those who slept for at least seven hours.
In general, if you are struggling to fall or stay asleep you should get out of bed, Prather said. Give yourself 20 minutes or so to try to sleep, but if you’re still wired, head to the couch or living room and do something quiet, Prather advised, like knitting or meditating. You only want to associate the position you sleep in with actually falling asleep; if your body gets used to staying awake, and struggling to sleep, in that position, you’ll have a harder time conditioning yourself to sleep through the night. — NYT