Staying Grounded During Uncertain Times, Pt. 1 — Creating New Rhythms for Better Sleep.
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
My heart breaks a thousand times a day,
thinking about the impact of this crisis on everyone out there. I think especially about the most vulnerable among us, who must somehow find a way to weather this without having access to the resources that many of us take for granted — from adequate food, shelter, and health care, to that ecosystem of support, connection, and community that keeps us tethered to all that is good and right in the world, in each other, and in ourselves.
I worry, too, about my own two sons, as any mother might — ceaselessly, in the deepest pit of my belly, where the grip of fear and dread at times feels unrelenting — but where love, too, keeps the lamp lit, illuminating a hope both inextinguishable and bright, for better, easier days, for time to mend the worry-worn heart, and find a new way together.
My love and concern extends to all my students, both past and present, and their families, who are hunkering down in their respective homes around the globe — and just down the street, too — and who are having to manage their own fear and anxiety amidst sudden and stark changes to their usual landscape.
I spent the morning FaceTiming one of students to help him workshop a paper he's writing about Romeo & Juliet. Poor guy — like many of us, he's having trouble sleeping because of anxiety, so much so that he was having trouble focusing, remembering and retrieving words — and stifling his yawns. We talked about what might help, even circling back to his childhood bedtime routine, often such a strong source of comfort and reassurance when growing up, to see if there might be something there he could tap back into to get grounded again in healthier sleep patterns. We talked for awhile about how sometimes implementing some small changes to one's routine can help reset the inner space to welcome back a greater sense of calm and surety. Lack of good sleep, as everyone knows, makes it impossible to show up — for others, for your work, and most of all, for yourself. And quite often, if not managed, it can snowball into a seemingly endless cycle of escalating angst and despair.
So what can help?
Create New Rhythms Around Better Sleep
We are nothing without our rhythms; they define how we spend our days, after all, and can offer a way through particularly tough times with a strong guiding hand that gently takes us from one next, right step to another.
We've been so rocked off course by this pandemic. For most people, what has been "normal" has been hijacked and replaced with something so utterly and disturbingly weird that nothing is making much sense anymore. Many of our usual rhythms have been decimated, and most not by choice. But we can re-establish new rhythms, and regain some semblance of control over at the very least some aspects of this crazy, unprecedented situation that often feels otherworldly in its scope and capacity for destruction.
From the time we wake up and start our day to getting ready for bed, our routines can bring us into a better space all around. Just the simple act of making one's bed or writing the morning pages when we wake up can launch one's day in the right direction. For children, adolescents included, establishing healthy structure and paying attention to rhythms in the home and natural world can bring about reassurance and surety in these increasingly uncertain times. The alternating expansion and contraction of their energy and activities throughout the day can be best balanced by regular routines that honor and celebrate the full scope of a child's development and needs, and provide a strong sense of surety in the world. For all of us, these rhythms and routines are things we can control, after all, when there is so much we cannot. Most especially, encouraging our children to continue to do the things they typically do to start our days, for instance, will help them retain some sense of normalcy, stay in their center, and cultivate tools for transitioning with resilience and grit.
Start here: Take a close, hard look at your current bedtime routine. What's working for you, and what isn't?
What might not be working:
Spending time before bedtime soaking up the blue light from your computer or phone can disrupt your body's ability to make melatonin, the body's natural sleep hormone that regulates our circadian rhythms and ability to sleep. Wrangling, even socially, with technology too close to bedtime sends the message to your brain that you're still in a high alert state, still in working mode — not the best for inducing deep sleep. Screen time can also do a number on your eyes, irritating them after a long day and making sleep less comfortable. Think about what you're watching on TV before you go to bed, too. I will confess that my love for British crime dramas — featuring quite a bit of gruesome, albeit fascinating, forensic pathology-gore and crazy good suspense — sometimes lands me in a disturbing dreamland at some point in the night. I have learned that by cleansing my palate before I go to sleep, by reading a bit of my go-to sleep-inducing novel of choice, listening to a soothing podcast, or watching an episode of something like the British Baking Show, I can reduce the likelihood that I'll end up awake and unable to go back to sleep at two in the morning.
Limiting caffeine intake, as well, can help reduce your chances of not only having trouble falling asleep but waking up in the middle of the night as well. After suffering a spat of absurdly early waking episodes a few weeks ago, I gave up coffee, and now instead sip tea most of the day, limiting my black and green tea to morning hours. It has helped enormously. Chocolate, too, contains a large amount of potentially disruptive caffeine — hot cocoa at bedtime can be delicious, but not always the right choice if sleep is a vulnerable spot.
So what can help?
Remember when you were little, and you took a warm bath, ate a bowl of sliced bananas, brushed your teeth, got into your jammies, and snuggled up with a parent, who read to you from a favorite book? For me, I remember well the comfort that came from being able to let my thoughts and feelings unspool during "pillow talk" with my Mom, whose sheer presence was a balm for me. And the "rub backs" I'd ask for, too, helped provide deep solace in the form of touch. For my little brothers, I spent endless hours reading them Good Night, Moon and Go Dog Go. My own kids loved being read to for the longest time — I remember on many occasion losing my voice after reading chapter after chapter of The Hobbit and those 800-page Harry Potter books, rolling out all the different characters as best I could. "Mom, I don't think Ginny would sound like that." I miss those days!
Bath, books, bed. There's a reason why it worked — doing the same thing every night around the same time sends the signal to your body that you are ready to sleep. Taking a warm bath helps wind you down, and actually prepares your body to welcome sleep more readily. Spending time with loved ones helps you feel less alone, more connected, taken care of, loved, seen. Being read to or reading on your own allows your mind to ease into that altered state of consciousness; it's a release from the burdens of the more hurried spaces we so typically inhabit during our waking hours, and a nudge into that other world that promises restorative, restful sleep — the most important reboot there is. And a back rub? No explanation needed.
There's an abundance of good things that come from reading — whether done in solitude or together — and there are so many ways to enjoy those good things. For families staying in place together, a family read-aloud, with everyone taking turns, and having fun with the different voices, can be a great thing to do. Young children can read aloud to the family pet, siblings, parents. Couples can read aloud to each other. For those on their own, listening to audio books and soothing podcasts, FaceTiming with a friend to read aloud together, or even making recordings to share with others, can be a wonderful way to tap into the joys and benefits of being read to — and to lessen the feeling of being alone. For everyone, just taking time before bed to read a favorite book can be a wonderful way to end the day.
Some favorite bedtime (and anytime) podcasts for me include Live Awake meditations; Poetry Unbound with Padraig O'Tauma; and On Being with Krista Tippett. I often share and reference these in my work with students. They are wonderful resources as well as good company.
With all this anxiety running amok, getting out of your head and back into your body before bedtime is essential. Yoga, and in particular, doing several cycles of moon salutations, above, can gently and swiftly prepare the body for better sleep. Even five or ten minutes on the mat can offer a sweet slide into greater comfort. As well, writing in a journal at bedtime, whether to map out the next day or write down a few things that you're feeling really glad about — however small — can minimize anxious sleep and engender a deeper, more enduring sense of gratitude. Throughout the day, but especially at bedtime, sometimes a mantra is what is needed, a positive affirmation to replace the nagging, cloying negative thoughts that will inevitably come up during these difficult times. I love this one by Hello Tosh Design Co.
For my student, we talked about the importance of talking about things as they came up, writing them down and processing in a notebook, and working them out through regular reboots throughout the day. Exercise. Fresh air. Being in nature. Listening to music. Staying connected with friends — even from afar. Doing the things that bring pleasure and joy, comfort and surety. I'll explore more of that in my next posts. For now, wishing everyone safe passage through these crazy days.
I am well. My family is well. We are safe. We have what we need. We're all in this together — and we will get through this okay.
I leave you with this reminder — to simply breathe. The trees breathe in, we breathe out, a certain majesty. (Poster by Matt Willey.)