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How to Improve Sleep

Work Hard, Sleep Harder: How a Mental Break Can Improve Your Sleep

Unsplash/Vladislav Muslakov

If you're like me, you have a million things running around in your mind going a mile a minute. A lot of the time, it seems like an endless stream of things you have to do, things you can't change, and things that won't quit. At work, you have meetings, assignments, deadlines, and not-too-friendly coworkers. Maybe you have children and they didn't like the meal you sweated over the stove to make (sigh). You're such a busy person that you might not see your significant other as often as you want, which places a rift in the relationship. And when you find some downtime, you clean your home, prepare for the next day, make tomorrow's lunch, catch up on Jane the Virgin, and even do some freelance work because you've been eyeing that very cute scarf at Nordstrom. By the time you fall facedown onto your pillow, you should be ready for bed. But despite how exhausted you are, your mind is actively thinking about the stress of the day, the stress you'll probably have tomorrow, and how you really have to come up with a new dinner recipe for the kids. I mean, you're already stressed from the day, and now that you can't sleep, you're thinking about it all after the fact in a place that should be a comfort zone. So how can your body rest if your mind can't?

Researchers say taking a mental break after a long day can help you get a good night's sleep, so I put their research to the test to see if an anxiety-ridden person like myself can actually have a better chance of falling asleep quicker and staying asleep longer.

It typically takes me several hours to fall asleep. And while I wait for sleep to embrace me, I get bored and start to watch TV or play Cooking Dash on my phone or just toss and turn worrying about work and the next steps in my life. Yes, very existential questions seem to be at the forefront of my head when I probably shouldn't be thinking about anything. Before I know it, it's 3 a.m. Time really flies when you're concerned about life, doesn't it?

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A recent study published by the American Psychological Association found that if you have a mental break after a long day, you can have a better night's sleep. Researchers discovered that employees who experienced judgment or were verbally abused at work had more symptoms of insomnia. However, people who were able to detach after work by relaxing in some way slept much better. Researcher Caitlin Demsky, PhD, of Oakland University, says mental breaks like doing yoga, listening to music, or going for a walk can help you let go.

Neuroscientist Matthew Walker, who is a sleep consultant to the NBA, NFL, and Pixar Animation Studios, wrote in his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams that humans are the only ones to "deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no sound reason."

Walker says that drinking alcohol or caffeine can disrupt your REM (rapid eye movement) dream sleep, especially if you have it after 1 p.m. Alcohol, Walker states, is a sedative, and sedation is not sleep. It can even cause you to feel drowsy afterward. And a hangover is just not part of the sleeping process!

So how can you improve your sleep?

Walker suggests waking up and going to sleep at the same time, keeping the bedroom cool in temperature, dimming the lights, and turning off screens like cellphones and TVs. He also said if you can't sleep, you should do something quiet and relaxing until you start to feel drowsy.

My day job (well technically it's my night job) is at a news station. So I wasn't planning to do any kind of yoga to put me to sleep after a long shift of breaking news stories and getting home at 1 a.m.

Day 1

I've always wanted to try meditation, but didn't get around to it for a long time. So I put away the cooking game on my phone and downloaded several meditating apps until I found Simple Habit. I chose a sleep-oriented meditation plan, played rain background music, and let myself experience what it was like to be somewhat absent-minded, in the best kind of way. For once, I understood what it was like to not reflect on my hectic day and really feel my body as I breathed in and out. I focused on what the guide was saying, but I wasn't collecting any information; I was just listening and processing. It wasn't like my mind was blank, and if I thought about something from my day, I acknowledged it, but I didn't let it bother me. Most of the time, I was focused on being calm and on my breathing instructions. By the end of my session, I had already fallen asleep. I didn't wake up for the rest of the night — thank goodness.

Day 2

I decided to take out my oil diffuser that I got for Christmas and actually put it to good use. I opened up my Ellia essential oils and dripped in a few drops of the scent called (very fittingly) Let Go. I let the hints of peppermint, lavender, and basil fill the air as I read Modern Love by Aziz Ansari. It was a way to take my mind off of the workload I know I have to accomplish in the morning. I mean, I could have watched Riverdale, which is what I sometimes do after work, but there's too many jump scares and then I'm worried someone is going to murder me in my sleep. It's probably not the best tactic for going to bed on time! With reading a light book, I was able to remain in a harmonious state, distract myself from my life, and focus on something else. As I began to get tired, I listened to my body and closed my book, turned off the lights and the diffuser, and drifted to sleep to the lingering aroma.

Day 3

It was a hectic night with a few breaking news stories, and sometimes the local stories I have to write really stick with me hours later. I tried journaling all of my thoughts once I got into bed. Whatever popped into my head, I wrote down, and I found most of the things I was worried about were my future tasks, hypothetical scenarios, and accomplishing some short-term goals. I then began a new page where I wrote down all the things I have to do, from making lunch to work assignments. When I actually looked at it, I realized that it only felt like a lot of work because I kept recycling the information in my head, but when I physically saw how many things I had to do, it wasn't so bad. That in itself helped me to relax. I then opened up the Calm meditation app and chose a story to listen to. Most of them were children stories like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. I chose a free one and listened to the speaker soothingly read aloud a story. I found myself going in and out of sleep, but I wasn't even worried about where we were in the story. A feeling of calmness blanketed over me and I just accepted whichever part we were in. After a few minutes, I finally fell into a deep sleep. I didn't think listening to an audio book could actually put me to bed because usually I want to pay attention to everything. I'm just hardwired that way. But once I realized the goal of the story was to help me rest, I succumbed to it.

With each day, I also incorporated some of Walker's strategies to help me sleep like turning on the air conditioner and cuddling up with a fuzzy blanket, or if I briefly woke up, I would put on my eye mask, which physically shuts my eyes and most importantly blocks out all light. I alternated between meditating, sleepy stories, reading, and journaling throughout the week. During the weekend, when I had the whole day to myself, I drew myself a warm bubble bath and listened to a podcast and then music. I even made a plan to go outside and read in the grass. Being one with nature has always helped me to calm down.

By the end of the week, I realized that I was actually happy and awake. I wasn't tired or craving coffee because I was naturally awake. My body also started waking up at the same time every morning, which is probably because I started going to sleep around the same time every night. I felt relaxed in the morning, I went to work, and I didn't allow the stress of the day to come home with me at night. Sometimes I talk to a friend about my day, but I never really feel satisfied. So now, I pray about the situation and I journal about it — and then let it go. Using that as a mental break helped me to put the mess aside and out of my mind. And through meditation and breathing, I'm slowly learning to let go of the things I cannot change, and the things I did and have to do at work. I've decided to have boundaries with my work life. No more emails or watching the news when I'm not at work. And I'm giving up focusing on coworkers who are giving me a hard time. I'm leaving it all behind every night thanks to my mental break. I'm also finally making time to do the things I never get to do, simply because I don't make time for them. If I love to do it, like reading and writing, I should do it! No more excuses.

If you feel like you're about to explode, you're exhausted, and you can't get a hold on life, you might want to try a mental break. It won't change all your problems, but it will at least help you see things from a new perspective and remove some of the day's baggage. That way you can shed off the day's messes, go into that happy place, and drift away on a cloud to blissful sleep.

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