Our sleep series, The Wind Down, provides a minute-by-minute peek into the wind-down routines that get well-being experts ready for bed. Today, we’re relaxing with David Rosmarin, Ph.D., a psychiatrist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School who has cracked the code on how to fall asleep fast—even when stress and anxiety creep in.
To put it mildly, unless I consistently get a high quality and reasonable quantity of sleep, I’m not the best version of myself.
Given the grind of my schedule (I’m an academic at Harvard, an author, the founder of an anxiety clinic with over 1,000 patients at any time, and father to six awesome kids), I don’t have much flexibility in the mornings. With rare exception, I need to be out of bed by 6:15 a.m. each weekday to get everything done.
So, unless I prioritize my bedtime, which means being in bed at some point between 10:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., I’m going to be sleep-deprived, which leaves me palpably more worried, apprehensive, anxious, keyed up, and on edge (also cranky, uptight, and a bunch of other things I’d prefer not to share…)
The problem: What happens when I can’t sleep because my head is spinning? What happens when this “anxiety expert” gets anxious at night? I have three go-to strategies, which work over 90% of the time:
First, if I cannot fall asleep, I do not stay in my bed for more than 20 minutes. I find that this helps “teach” my body that bed is not a place to worry or ruminate. Instead, I get up and read a light book—nothing technical or scary, and of course, I am talking about an actual physical book and not a Kindle or other electronic device. Usually, I find myself getting drowsy within a half hour, and at that point, I try to fall asleep again. On rare occasions, I need to repeat this routine twice or three times, but I can’t remember the last time it took me more than an hour or so to fall asleep with this approach.
Second, after a few minutes of reading, I take a break to jot down some brief notes about what I’m concerned about. I actually write them on a pad of paper with a pen, as opposed to using a device. Usually, my worries are something related to work or family, and getting them out (even in a disorganized manner) helps me to feel confident that I can address them the next day. At night time, I am off-duty, even if my mind is trying to remain at work.
Third, the day after a restless night, I push myself a notch more than usual: I aim for a solid aerobic workout in the morning and keep active throughout the day. No naps! Keeping up with a higher level of activity (physical, social, and cognitive) helps me exhaust my body and increase my chances of getting to bed early the next night. I’ll also take a look at my “anxiety” notes from the night before, organize them into a to-do list, and speak with my wife about what’s on my mind. Just talking with her makes me feel better, but I’ll also work on setting clear goals to tackle whatever issues kept me awake.