THE BLOG

The Key to Better Sleep Could Be in Your Head

04/23/2015 08:23 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015
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If you're not getting enough sleep, the culprit could be your perspective on rest or your habits in the evening.

Over half of Americans adults regularly do not get enough sleep. While a significant number deal with sleep disorders that steal slumber, many of us simply don't make the time for adequate rest or struggle with stress and other preoccupations.

How we think about sleep, what's on our minds before bed and certain evening activities can affect rest. If you tend to be a sleep procrastinator or often find yourself missing important hours of sleep, it may be time to take a look within.

The Effects of Devaluing Sleep

Although awareness of sleep's importance is growing in the past couple of years, there are still cultural factors that lead many to devalue it in their lives.

In the American business world, there's the myth that in order to get ahead, you have to spend less time in bed. You snooze, you lose! Quite of few top execs brag about lackluster sleep habits, and many office cultures also tend to glorify running yourself haggard for the sake of a promotion. Other times, it just may feel like you have too much you need or want to do in a day to sleep a full eight.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 30 percent of the U.S. workforce averages less than six hours of sleep per night, with sleep deprivation levels even higher for night shift, transportation and healthcare sectors.

Devaluing sleep isn't just an issue in the corporate world, either. College and high schools can suffer from the same problem. From early classes, to sports, to homework and socializing, there's a lot to do, and sleep is often seen as wasted time or simply uncool.

One study estimates that 60 percent of college students have disturbed sleep patterns, and many turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. Other estimates say that 90 percent of high schoolers are sleep deprived according to CDC guidelines.

For plenty of us, sleep falls quite low on our to-do lists, and the side effects of not getting enough seem distant or unimportant. It's even possible to get used to the new normal of fatigue, and not realize just how impaired or sleep deprived you actually are which further leads you to assume you don't really need that much rest.

Changing Your Mind on Rest

Sleep is something we all know we have to do and most people know the basics of why we need it, so why aren't we getting enough?

For those who aren't suffering from sleep disorders, it often comes down to attitude and priorities. All of the sleep advice in the world won't do much to help if someone isn't interested prioritizing it.

Aside from fatigue, many of the side effects of sleep deprivation aren't readily visible or immediately noticeable either, making them easy to brush off. However it does affect you in big ways, both now and down the road. Here's a few encouraging reasons to close your eyes.

  • Your looks: After just one night of sleep deprivation, people perceive you as less attractive. Thanks to sallow skin, red eyes, and puffy and dark undereye circles, you come off as sadder, less healthy and less approachable. Over time, your body's ability to repair skin is also impaired, meaning wrinkles and aging rear their head sooner.
  • Your weight: Getting enough sleep and keeping a consistent schedule are associated with healthier body weight. Skimping on shuteye affects your workouts, your willpower to eat healthy, and your metabolism, making it easier to gain and harder to lose weight.
  • Your mind: Even though you may not actually notice a change in your abilities, not getting enough sleep affects your cognition, problem solving skills, your memory and your creativity. You're making it harder for yourself to excel at work and in your offtime hobbies.
  • Your mood: Tired people have more difficulty regulating their emotions, meaning you're more likely to snap at other people or misinterpret a situation. You're also less adept at catching humor, and have an increased risk of depression.
  • Your family: Think staying up late means more quality time? Think again -- your relationships are actually suffering. Being moody makes you less fun to be around, and sleep deprivation makes you more likely to argue and less likely to feel satisfied in your relationship. Parents' poor sleep habits also rub off on kids, increasing their obesity risk even if you put them to bed on time.
  • Your safety: It's safe to say that no one wants to be in a car accident. But, when you drive tired, you dramatically increase your risk of causing one or being involved one. Impairments to reaction time, alertness and decision making can even be worse than driving drunk, and drowsiness is related to 1,550 vehicle deaths, 71,000 injuries and12.5 billion in costs per year.
  • Your long-term health: Though far-off side effects seem less tangible, it's important to keep in mind just how broad of an impact habitual sleep deprivation can have. Your risk of everything from diabetes and heart disease, to stroke and Alzheimer's disease are all increased with insufficient rest, and with more unpleasant health effects discovered every year.

If you are a business owner or manager, realize that a corporate culture that devalues sleep is not doing your bottom-line any favors in the long run. You might squeeze out a little more productivity initially with long hours, but sleep deprivation comes with costs -- to the tune of $150 billion per year. Why so high? Well, turns out tired people are more likely to make errors, more prone to accidents, prove worse at concentrating and decision making, end up being less productive at work, and are more likely get sick and miss work.

Recognizing Sleep Procrastination

Another way we set ourselves up for tired days is by putting off bedtime and sleep on purpose. According to National Sleep Foundation surveys, the majority of people know they need sleep and how to get it, but don't take action. Instead, we would rather do other things late into the night and deal with the fallout later. "Just one more chapter/episode/level, and then I'll call it night," you might find yourself thinking.

A study from the Netherlands noted that people who with lower self-regulation tend engage in more bedtime procrastination, which they defined as going to bed later than intended barring external circumstances.

Sometimes it's out of sheer boredom, other times it may be a result of trying to decompress or just trying to squeeze more fun out of the day. Night owls often have difficulty shutting down earlier, too, even when they have to wake up early for work or school.

Even when you may want to sleep, stress from work, relationships, health and other sources can make it physically and psychologically harder to relax, and negative rumination can increase risks of insomnia. Both can either lead to turning thoughts inward and bouts of insomnia, or trying to distract yourself.

Setting Yourself Up For Healthier Sleep

In addition to being aware of the value of sleep, making some changes to your evening can be helpful for defeating sleep procrastination. First, your mindset -- know that you'll be in a better position to get work done tomorrow and that you'll feel mentally and physically better if you turn in at reasonable hour tonight.

Next, think about what's usually behind your desire to avoid sleep. Do you stay up late because you're not looking forward to work in the morning? Find something else like a tasty breakfast, inspiring playlist, or fun workout to look forward to. Feel like you don't have enough time to enjoy your night? Work on improving your time management and streamlining your schedule. Feel too wired? Cut out caffeine earlier in the day, get exercise, and/or take a bath in the evening.

If stress or negative thoughts are what keep you up or lead you to seek distractions, there are few strategies you can employ, including:

  • Guided relaxation: Listening to a calming audio track that guides your breathing, movements and thoughts to a more relaxing state can be an effective way to destress quickly. There are quite a few free tracks, videos and apps out there to try.
  • Visualization: Another way to encourage relaxation is to visualize a relaxing scene in detail and immerse yourself. You can find guided tracks to walk you through, or practice this on your own.
  • Exercise: Getting regular cardio exercise during the day is associated with longer, higher quality sleep. Certain studies have also shown benefits from yoga practice.
  • Sleeping earlier: Sounds obvious, but one study found earlier bedtimes and more sleep were associated with less repetitive negative thoughts at night.
  • Meditation: Meditation is a longer-term strategy that can help reduce stress and make it easier to cope. Quite a few schools and styles of meditation exist, but regular mindfulness meditation practice is one method that has recently shown promising benefits for sleep in studies.
  • Think happy: People with more gratitude sleep better at night according to research, and one study found keeping a daily gratitude journal improved sleep. Gratitude actually has a measurable impact on neurotransmitters, so it's not just conjecture.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: CBT therapists work with people to break destructive habits or thought patterns, which may be worth looking into if rumination and stress are seriously impacting your sleep or quality of life.

Another important thing to address is your bedroom and potential distractions. Activities frequently used in the act of sleep procrastination include smartphones, tablets, computers and TVs. All of these electronics multiply the problem: they provide mental distraction and the light throws of melatonin, keeping you up even later.

A better way to approach your night and support healthy sleep is to turn off electronics at least 30 minutes before you turn in, and keep phones outside of the bedroom or in do-not-disturb mode during the night. If hitting the off button is a struggle, try using your TV or DVR timer or put outlets on a timer as a reminder. Android and iOS apps (look for timers or parental control apps) are also available to put tablets and phones to bed at a set time.

More lower-key ways to spend your time before bed include reading mellow books, coloring, sketching, journaling, talking, listening to calming music, and stretching. A comfortable bed, clean bedding, cool temperatures and darkness all make it easier to drift off as well.

You don't need to have a precise bedtime or pressure yourself to sleep right away (which can actually create more stress), but have a timeframe in mind that allows you get at least seven hours actually sleeping each night. For example, if you wake up at 7 AM, you might start winding things down by 10:00 or 10:30 PM, aiming to be in bed close to 11 PM.

The mental shift towards prioritizing sleep and recognizing it's beneficial role in modern life isn't always easy. It takes some work to block out the distractions and focus on your own well-being. But, when you consider all of the benefits you gain by simply getting a little more sleep, it's clearly worth the valuable time and effort.

Do you struggle with sleep procrastination or have difficulty fitting enough into your day? What helps or most encourages you to get to bed?

Firas Kittaneh is the CEO of Amerisleep, an eco-friendly luxury mattress company. Firas writes more posts on the Amerisleep blog about getting better sleep, healthy living and being eco-friendly. Follow him on Twitter.