What the heck is a sleep coach?
That was my first thought when my previous employer offered me an opportunity to connect with one of these specialized coaches.
I’m a professional leadership coach myself and even I was skeptical about what exactly I could get out of a session with a sleep coach.
But I was desperate.
It had been two months since I had a decent night’s sleep and I’d found myself in an unfamiliar downward spiral of sleeplessness.
Poor sleep meant that every day began with a struggle. I’d snooze my alarm countless times before caffeinating my way into some semblance of blurry alertness. I struggled to concentrate and my work in the office was suffering. I’d often find myself in such bad shape that in the middle of the day I’d have to taxi home for a power nap, just so that I could remain awake for the rest of the day.
My ineffectiveness at work meant that more work piled up leading to a constant undercurrent of stress and anxiety.
I was in bad shape, and I needed help. That’s when I decided to meet with a Sleep Coach.
In the beginning, I was skeptical.
In the end, I was well-rested.
Hopefully, after reading this article you will be, too.
What I learned
Stress and anxiety are designed to keep us awake
Imagine that you’ve had a long day and you’re pretty exhausted. You’re taking a walk in the woods when you come across a bear.
One thing is guaranteed to happen: you’re going to wake up and become alert very quickly.
That’s because your brain wants to keep you alive (thanks, brain).
When the brain perceives danger in this way it triggers a cascade of stress hormones that increase your heartbeat and respiration rate in order to provide the energy and oxygen to the body that will be needed to fuel a rapid response to the danger. This is known as the “fight-or-flight” response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations.
Here’s the problem: your brain can’t differentiate between a bear and a looming work deadline, so it treats them both the same — as life-threatening dangers. It releases heavy doses of adrenaline and cortisol designed to keep you awake and alert until you are “in the clear.”
In the case of a bear encounter, you know when you’re in the clear, and the stress response is unlikely to last longer than 10–20 minutes. You either get eaten by the bear or you escape.
But what about looming work deadlines that surface one after the other? When do the stress and anxiety taper off?
In my case, they weren’t tapering off, and so my body was doing everything it could to keep me awake.
Noise is not the problem
One of the first things I pointed to as a culprit in my sleeplessness was my noisy apartment.
I lived on an incredibly busy intersection in downtown San Francisco. I could hear every car passing, every honk, every shout (there were many). My walls were also thin so I could hear my neighbors on either side washing dishes, turning on their TV, listening to music.
I was certain that if I could just move to a quieter apartment then my sleeping woes would be cured, but my Sleep Coach disagreed.
She told me that noise is rarely the culprit in sleeplessness. The reason is that our brains actually get used to noise very quickly.
An article from Medical Daily explains how a recent study demonstrated this process:
“The researchers found that when mice were exposed to a week’s worth of loud noise — noise comparable to a lawnmower or hairdryer — their auditory cortexes became less generous with the amount of neurotransmitters they would release, when compared to mice in quieter environments. In other words, the mice’s brains would adapt to the sound, allowing it to become background noise, and saving neurotransmitters for new sounds.”
If you’re having trouble sleeping, noise is not the reason.
If you are expecting not to sleep well, then you probably won’t
“How would you describe your relationship with sleep?”
This was one of the first questions my Sleep Coach asked me and one that I’d never reflected on before.
I told her that I had always had an incredibly positive relationship with sleep. Anyone who knew me would tell her just how much I loved my sleep. I truly enjoyed sleep. I looked forward to it. I would skip fun nights out or head home early just to be able to sleep.
I literally smiled every time I crawled into bed.
But recently that had all changed.
My relationship with sleep had turned negative. Now when I talked about sleep I talked about it in a negative way. Sleep was now frustrating.
Sleep and I had had a falling out. We just weren’t tight anymore.
My Sleep Coach helped me understand the psychological impact of this newly formed negative association with sleep. Over the course of three months, I’d had 90 bad nights of sleep and now, I was expecting not to sleep well.
Every time I crawled into bed I was telling myself that I wasn’t going to sleep well. And that was a key part of why I wasn’t sleeping well. It was the classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If I wanted to start sleeping better, I was going to have to change the narrative I was telling myself about sleep.
Sleep is a lot like pizza dough
There was one aspect of my sleeping woes that had me confused. I was sleeping longer than ever before, yet I was more tired than ever before.
When I was sleeping well I was sleeping 8 hours a day. But now I’d wake up so tired that I’d go back to sleep for an extra hour. Then I’d take a nap in the afternoon. Then I’d still be so tired that I’d try going to bed an hour early.
My normal 8 hours of sleep were getting stretched to 10–12 hours of sleep.
My coach helped me understand that sleep is like pizza dough. You don’t want it too thin or too thick. You want it just right.
In my case, my sleep was getting stretched too thin. I was in bed longer than normal, yet I was getting less sleep than ever. My 8 hours were getting stretched so thin that the crust was actually starting to crack.
Sleeping only 5hours a night is akin to cutting off a chunk of the pizza dough altogether. You don’t want to do that. Sleeping 10–12 hours a night was akin to stretching my pizza dough too thin. You don’t want to do that either.
I needed to stop taking naps, stop hitting snooze, and start getting out of bed and starting my day regardless of how tired I was.
I needed to take a page out of Domino’s playbook and learn how to roll better pizza dough.
Our sleep brain is like a toddler
We have to train our brains like we train a toddler.
A toddler needs to understand that food is for eating — not for throwing. They need to understand that pools are for swimming — not for peeing.
Your brain needs to understand what your bed is for.
I wasn’t explaining this very clearly to my brain.
Every time I got into bed and checked my phone I was telling my brain that my bed is a place for text messaging. Every time I got into bed and watched Netflix I was telling my brain that my bed is a place for entertainment. Every time I got into bed with my laptop I was telling my brain that my bed is a place for work.
I was training my brain to stay awake in bed.
From here on out I was going to have to train my sleep brain like you’d train a toddler.
“Hey brain, do you see this big, comfy bed? That’s for one thing and one thing only: sleep. Every time we get into this bed, we are going to sleep. Got it?”
Things I implemented that worked
All of these learnings boiled down into a list of 9 actionable changes that I was able to implement, each of which proved immensely valuable.
I recommend picking one or two actions from this list and giving them a shot.
- Worry Scheduling: your brain can’t sleep when it’s stressed and anxious. Schedule 15-mins every evening to do your worrying. Write down everything you’re stressed about, anxious about, worrying about. This will allow your brain to release some of these tensions and to transition into a different state before bed.
- Relationship Reflection: reflect on your relationship with sleep. What kind of relationship is it? What kind of relationship was it? Are you expecting to sleep poorly? How might you begin to change the narrative you’re telling yourself?
- Sleep Routine: go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. For me this is 10pm–6am. No exceptions.
- Bed=Sleep: once in bed, don’t do anything other than sleep. No phone, no TV, no reading, no writing. You have to teach your brain that your bed is for sleep.
- Buffer: allow your brain to prepare for sleep by giving yourself a 1-hour buffer of no screen time/stimulus before bed.
- Just Say No: no naps, and no coffee or alcohol after 2 pm
- Monitor: keeping track of your sleep patterns can provide tremendous insight and motivation to sleep better. This app is a great place to start.
- Sunshine: get exposure to direct sunlight within your first hour of waking up. Light is the principal control of our day-night cycle and will not only charge you for the day but will also help you sleep better at night.
- Supplement: there is an all-natural magnesium supplement that works miracles when it comes to sleep. It’s called Calm and can be mixed with hot water and consumed before bed.