My eyes shift open. I'm no longer playing center forward for a random soccer team, but laying in my bed, sweating on a hot August night.
I glance outside my window. It's still dark. Shit, I think. Once I'm up for about 10 seconds, I'm up for good.
I try to go back to sleep for a few minutes, attempting to find the crevice in my pillow where my head will find stillness. My mind is already on; I feel energy moving through my bloodstream, as if my body is a desktop computer that's turning on. There's no sense in staying in bed and waking my partner by my efforts to toss and turn my way back to sleep.
I walk across the room to my phone. 4:45 AM. Phew. My phone has read earlier times when I've gone through this process in the last few weeks. I get a glass of water, head to the living room, and read through yesterday's news, waiting for the sun to rise, waiting for everyone else's day to start.
I'm hopeful that this recent stretch of insomnia is connected to the heat wave we're experiencing in Boston (and coinciding absence of air conditioning in our third floor apartment). According to American Academy of Sleep Medicine, I'm not alone in these experiences. 30-35% of adults will go through a short period of insomnia, similar to what I've described. 10% suffer from long-term insomnia, which the AASM describes as 3 nights per week of difficulty falling/staying asleep for over 3 months.
Michael Finkel wrote a brilliant article about the science of sleep in this month's National Geographic. Finkel describes the stages of REM sleep, suggesting that allowing the body to sleep a minimum of seven hours per night increases productivity and decreases likelihood of heart disease, depression, diabetes, and dementia. He echoes other scientists and psychologists in his diagnosis for a societal decline in quantity of sleep: overactivity and overstimulation:
"The problem is that in the modern world, our ancient, innate wake-up call is constantly triggered by non–life-threatening situations, like anxiety before an exam, worries about finances, or every car alarm in the neighborhood."
The National Sleep Foundation recommends cognitive behavioral therapy for folks who suffer from insomnia. Features of CBT include restricting sleep through eliminating naps, which trains your body to be sleepy when bedtime actually comes, reclaiming bedrooms as strictly a place of sleep, as opposed to an office, conference room, and play room for kids, and keeping a sleep diary.
Couples therapy can be a great format for practicing better sleeping habits. Here are eight ways that you can sleep better with your partner.
1) Set a consistent bedtime for all members of your family. Adults need an average of seven hours of sleep per night, while the amount of hours children need varies by age. If you have children, commit to early bedtimes (8 PM or earlier), and use the time that the children are asleep to connect and relax together.
2) Be willing to live a bit messier. Assume that the checklists that you create for yourself, particularly around the presentation of your space, are seldom going to be fully complete. Be kinder to yourself when domestic and professional tasks are left undone at the end of the day.
3) No electronics in bed. There are several excellent infographs in the NatGeo article about how different types of light negatively impact our sleep; there are fewer greater culprits than our electronic devices. To quote on of the stats: "The bluer and brighter the light, the more likely it is to suppress melatonin release and shift our sleep cycle." Smart phones and e-readers can delay quality of sleep by up to an hour; tablets by up to an hour and a half. Prioritize sleep by committing to turning off all electronic devices an hour before your chosen bedtime.
4) Avoid stressful conversations after 8 PM. This might be the most challenging of the eight tasks, as many folks don't get home from work much earlier than eight. Identify topics that create stress for the relationship, and schedule tough conversations for when both of you have time to address them. Find ways to personally care for anxiety, and know that committing to these intentional conversations makes it easier to manage the stress of not getting to immediately process stressful situations.
5) Use candlelight in your bedroom. The color of light in your room significantly impacts your ability to access your parasympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system responsible for rest), and candlelight's darker orange tone limits the amount of light transmitted, while still providing enough light for folks like my partner and I who like to read before bed. It also sets the mood for steps 7 and 8.
6) Move out of co-sleeping as soon as possible if you have kids. Make your bedroom a place where only you and your partner have access to. This commitment represents the boundary between parent and child, allowing your children both the space to practice self-soothing and the enjoyment of being children. It also helps with:
7) Have sex before you go to sleep. Commit to a night per week where you and your partner explore your bodies. This could result in an orgasmic experience, or it could look like a mutual backrub. (Or somewhere in between. Or both.) Talk with your partner ahead of time about what you'd like to happen during the sexual experience, and be intentional about relaxing together beforehand.
8) Have sex in places other than your bed. Some sleep scientists incorporate behavioral psychology into this feedback: The more that you do other things in your bed other than sleep, the more likely your body will have a hard time falling asleep in bed. Talk with your partner about other places to have sex (the couch, the shower, somewhere in the kitchen, etc.). Regardless of whether or not the above theory is true, diversifying the setting of sexual experiences can spice up your sex life.
Better sleep leads to better communication, better emotional management, and better health. To learn more about how you and your partner can sleep better together, give me a call at 617-750-0183, or feel free to schedule an appointment online.
Jeremiah Gibson, LMFT, CST, specializes in working with couples with young children. Sleep is a common topic that arises in our conversations.