Let’s talk about one of the simpler causes of sleep problems in young adults: losing sight of the importance of preparing for sleep.
We need to set the stage for sleep
When we were little kids, getting ready for bed meant taking a bath, putting on pajamas, brushing teeth and hair, and often, reading with a parent. We were told to stop anything exciting or alerting before bed, so that we could calm down and emotionally prepare for bed. So, what happens as we get older? Does this need to stop? No, in fact, with the stress of adulthood, it may become more important than ever. Young adults often find themselves more alert at the time at which they are being asked to go to bed, and they don’t feel “ready” for bed. Not feeling “ready for bed” has many causes in young adults, but a key cause is biological. There is a hormonally driven, biological shift with puberty that results in feeling sleepy later and feeling unable to get out of bed until much later in the morning. So, what can young adults do?
Winding down before bed helps manage the increased alertness teens feel
If the need for disengagement from exciting or activating activities does not go away as you age, we need a plan to bring this back into our lives. If you stay mentally, physically, or emotionally active up until the time you go to bed, you will likely find yourself awake in bed. So, a wind-down routine should involve activities that have a low level of excitement or alertness before bed to set the stage for a natural transition to sleep. Staying busy and engaged right up until the desired bedtime will inevitably result in feeling wide awake in bed. So, how do you find an effective wind-down routine, and how do you make it a habit?
1. Switch out of your “Doing Self” and into your “Being Self”
Your “doing self” during the day is concerned with action, problem-solving, and getting things done. It’s an important part of yourself, but it is a self that is not compatible with sleep.
Why is your “doing self” incompatible with sleep? To “do” things requires great mental energy, and sometimes physical energy too. Mental energy is needed to do things because getting things done requires creating a plan and future-oriented thinking to monitor for possible barriers to the plan. If you need to complete a homework assignment, you need to make a plan to do it, anticipate anything that could get in the way, and then remove possible obstacles. This skill set is associated with success, but it is incompatible with sleep. In contrast, your “being self” lives in the present moment—a moment that just is. The “being self” does not try to change your thoughts or emotions, and it does not try to avoid experiences—the “being self” notices and accepts. Why is this important? Sleep is not something you “do.” Sleep is a process that unfolds naturally, and you cannot resist it—sleep will always find a way to happen. If you stay in your daily active mind-set (i.e., your “doing self”) right up until the time you go to bed, you will likely find yourself awake in bed because there is no transition to just being.
2. Identify devices causing problems, and schedule that device’s bedtime earlier than yours
Something that could interfere with winding down is anything that can increase alertness, for example, exposure to blue light. Blue light is important for sleep because we need it during the day to help set our body clock, but expose yourself to it in the hours before bed and it can delay falling asleep. Replace high-blue-light device activities (i.e., phones, tablets) with lesser blue light activities such as listening to music, podcasts, and watching television. Of course, there are lots of good wind-down activities that do not involve devices at all (i.e., reading without a device); these are particularly ideal options for the hour or so before you intend to go to bed. You don’t necessarily need to eliminate devices altogether, but the earlier you power down; the better sleep results you will likely get.
3. Avoid activities that leave you feeling charged-up
Blue light is not the only alerting factor with devices. Devices associated with upsetting news (e.g., chats), exciting sensations (e.g., gaming), or a sense of “missing out” (e.g., social media accounts) can leave you feeling more alert.
Another factor to consider is whether the activity is emotionally alerting, or difficult to stop. Gaming is a good example of an activity that can leave you feeling very alert and may entice you to play long after you intended to stop. If you find yourself feeling emotionally activated by an activity you do before bed, it is important to experiment with the timing of the disruptive habit, or replace it with something more helpful. If you are unsure of what to do during your wind-down period, brainstorm ideas ahead of time and write them down. Create a long list of possibilities for your pre-bedtime routine. What about reading, listening to podcasts or audiobooks, adult coloring books, painting/sketching, building models/robotics, solitaire, taking a bath, or yoga/meditation? What you do is less important than making sure you track your results and stick to things that successfully prepare you for sleep.
Finding a grown-up version of getting back to what worked as a kid will help prepare you for sleep, and create healthy sleep habits that will give you the sleep of your life, for the rest of your life.
One piece of advice may not provide the sleep results you want because there is often many differing causes for young adults’ sleep problems. Evidence-based self-help books like Goodnight Mind for Teens, or free, evidence-based self-help apps like Doze can help you to discover the reasons for your specific sleep problem, as well as easy-to-implement solutions.
Colleen E. Carney, PhD, is an associate professor and director of the Sleep and Depression Laboratory at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON, Canada. She was a National Sleep Foundation Pickwick Fellow at Duke University Medical Center, and founded the Comorbid Insomnia Clinic at the Duke Insomnia and Sleep Research Program.