I want to be optimistic. Really, I do. But, after some of the longest (and saddest) days in my life, I’m most hopeful when I’m heading to bed. The nightly escape into sleep is one of my happiest states. The prospect of turning off my thoughts, forgetting my daily responsibilities and resting my weary body makes me almost giddy (if I weren’t so tired).
Who can blame me for wanting to retreat from the world and all its conflict for nightly rest? Working from home has gotten stale (and often feels like a 24/7 gig); the news around me is terrible, volatile and unpredictable; my gym is closed, so I don’t have my community of fellow gym-rats to turn to during my workouts. Staying healthy and fit is more challenging than ever, and there are days when I don’t want to face the reality of the waking part of my 24 hours.
Sleep Quality and Mental Health
There is a flip side—I have my health; I have a job; I have friends and family; I have a comfortable bed. I have so much to be grateful for. I also have the option to retreat to sound sleep most nights. The quality of my sleep is good—once I hit the bed, I’m “out like a light.” I usually wake up feeling restored and ready to take on the next day. We know that quality sleep is essential for health (and reduces the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes), but it’s also important for mental health.
Quality sleep (not just quantity) appears to be at the top of a triad of health behaviors that predict good mental health. Recent survey research found that quality sleep was more associated with good mental health and well-being than exercise or eating healthy foods (raw fruits and vegetables). “Sleep quality and quantity were the strongest lifestyle predictors of depression,” the survey found. While all “three pillars of health” were linked to better mental health, the order of correlation was quality sleep, exercise then eating raw fruits and vegetables.
I talked to a few of my girlfriends about their sleep habits these days, and many of them were unhappy with their sleep routine. Some, like me, slept well but wanted more. We are the greedy sleepers. Others were fitful sleepers. They toss and turn or wake up several times during the night (that was me from March-June of last year when the healthcare crisis was at its worst in NYC). While others didn’t get enough sleep; they worked hard during the day, had shifts of homeschooling with young children at home, took care of older relatives, or watched shocking television news unfold into the wee hours of the morning and weren’t getting to bed early enough. Sleep is on all our minds for different reasons, but it seems everyone is talking about it.
Getting to Sleep: the Self-Talk Connection
Sleep and mental health are intimately related. So how do we prepare for a good night’s sleep from a mental health perspective? I could rattle off a bullet list of sleep strategies, but I won’t. That’s been done elsewhere well enough. I look at it differently. Getting to sleep (and staying asleep) is essential to my health, but factors like my mood (my state of mind) can influence my sleep quality. In turn, my mood is influenced by the way I talk to myself in my most vulnerable moments.
One of the essential factors to cultivating an optimistic viewpoint is how I talk to myself. Some call this self-talk. What do I say to myself about how I feel? How is my self-talk? How do I perceive my life and my progress toward my health goals? These important states of mind must be dealt with to settle down into sound sleep. How can any of us get quality sleep if our minds are racing with a million negative thoughts? I’m not going to suggest that you can simply turn those negative thoughts off. However, I’ve been able to chip away at my negative thinking by doing some self-reflection that affirms who I am.
As we start a new year and push ourselves to achieve new health goals, we also need to ask ourselves: What is right with me? What am I doing right today? The answer to that question sets the tone for whether you can move forward with an optimistic attitude (which may help you get a good night’s sleep).
Guiding Questions for Positive Bedtime Self-Talk
Below are some guiding questions that I use to shift my thinking toward positive thoughts before bed. Asking myself these questions helps me reflect on the things I am grateful for; gratitude is a positive state that puts my day’s events into perspective. I offer these guiding questions here in the hopes that they will lead you to some positive self-talk:
- What is right with me? What am I doing right today?
- What went well today?
- What am I grateful for today?
- Can I delay thinking about ____ until a time when I feel rested and better able to handle it?
- Must I get ____ done today, or do I have wiggle room to do it tomorrow or next week?
- Am I looking at things as black or white? Is there an option somewhere in the middle—is there a grey area I haven’t explored?
- Would reaching out to someone else make me feel better? Who?
- Would reaching out to someone else make them feel better? How would that make me feel?
- If I can’t settle into sleep, is there some other self-care behavior I can do? Take a bath, listen to music, light a candle and be mindful, meditate, have a healthy snack? What can I give myself?
The events and news of the day are going to take a toll on us. If it feels like you are being ripped apart and sleep is nearly impossible, it may be time to seek professional mental health advice. If ever there was a time to consider therapy, now is that time. Talking to someone about dark thoughts is an act of self-care, and can help shift your self-talk to build a more manageable and optimistic point of view.
Because sleep is so vital to our health, we’ll have to find a way to bring on the calm. I hope you’ll seek out positive self-talk as a strategy for gaining a new, more optimistic perspective. Once I shift to a place of gratitude, sleep comes on more easily. Try these guiding questions tonight, and let me know how it goes by commenting below.
Wishing you sound sleep tonight—and continued good health!
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