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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Olarte

Sleep is a performance, not a light switch

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

Some folks assume that because I'm a therapist and sleep enthusiast, I must get an effortless 8 hours per night. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I can remember as far back as 3rd grade, nights when I'd wake up at 3AM and wander my living room, unsure of how to cope with insomnia. I eventually had my tonsils removed, which reduced the likelihood that I'd wake up due to sleep apnea. But my unrequited love affair with sleep has persisted well into my adulthood. But one valuable lesson for me has made the difference between 8 blissful hours and a 4AM dance party in my brain: I have to treat sleep like a performance, not a light switch.

During intake, and throughout treatment, you will experience my tendency to examine sleep routines and habits. The overwhelming majority of the time, I get the response "sleep is fine." Upon further digging, I often discover that "fine" is the last word I'd use to describe my clients' sleep habits. From 9PM battles to dragging kids out of bed for school at 9AM, countless parents are struggling to implement basic principles of sleep hygiene. There are plenty of resources I'm happy to share here that teach about the basis of sleep hygiene. But I want to share how shifting my mindset helped me deal with my own chronic insomnia.

Falling asleep is not like a light switch

My efforts to sleep at night start hours before I crawl into bed. This is because sleep is a performance, not a light switch. Treating sleep like a switch that you can abruptly turn on and off may not only make it difficult to fall asleep, but also increase the likelihood that you'll wake up within a couple of hours. The first major change I made was to reduce my coffee intake, which you can read about in my nap-a-latte post. Stopping coffee at 1PM is one of several things I've done to sleep better.

At least six hours before bedtime, I start drinking herbal tea with calming properties. Everyone's body reacts differently, but for my body, tea with lemon balm and lavender has worked wonders. Some folks have different allergies (chamomile may actually trigger allergies, so proceed with caution here). This tea doesn't put me to sleep, but I can feel it helping my body and brain start to let go, to mellow.

In addition to consuming calming, herbal tea hours before bedtime, I also dim the lights around me. This isn't easy because I sometimes do online therapy sessions or miscellaneous work until 9PM (I'm totally guilty of working on this blog post after 9PM...). To reduce the impact of lighting, I keep two small desk lamps with amber lights on both sides of my laptop. This provides just enough light for me to see clearly, without wakeing me up. And that "night light" blue light filter that comes built into PC's now? I keep it on 24/7. Because getting a good night of sleep starts *hours* before I actually try to sleep.

Seriously though...put the phone away

The parents who don't complain about their kids' sleep habits have one thing in common: they control their kids' access to phones. Yes, even the parents of teens. Many parents become anxious when I explain this strategy, and it's an important aspect of setting limits with your child. This is one of many reasons why I require parents to meet with me frequently.

I'll spare you the nerdy shenanigans about how blue light makes it harder for the brain to power down...but those magical rectangles are also a source of infinite entertainment. Who wants to sleep when you can doomscroll through Reddit or keep up with the latest on Tiktok?! Don't even get me started on kids texting each other. Smartphones provide zillions of reasons to not go the fuck to sleep.

"But Dr. Stephanie, my kid will scream and throw a fit if I take away their phone!!"

If you're experiencing this problem and your kid is feeling cranky in the morning and prone to meltdowns throughout the day, it's time to make those difficult changes. This is probably crossing that threshold between needing and not needing to be in therapy. If you've tried practicing what you preach (i.e., putting your own damn phone away) and you're still having trouble setting limits with your teen around their phone usage at night, let's talk. It won't be easy, but it *will* be worth it.

Teenagers still need a bedtime routine

I really appreciated a parent's moment of honesty when they admitted "I have a strict bedtime routine for my smaller kids, they brush their teeth and we read a story, but I'm not sure what my 13 year old needs at bedtime." But kudos to this parent, because they're the same parent who set a timer that turns off their teen's phone at 10PM!

So what to do with your adolescent goblin at 9 or 10PM? Should you read them a bedtime story? Do they still need a glass of warm milk? Maybe? Look for ways to connect with your teen on their terms. Setting a bedtime routine in adolescence doesn't need to involve watching them brush their teeth (although it's not unheard of for some teens to still need supervision in this). But it might be an opportunity to 1. get a sense of how their day went, and 2. convey warmth and love to help them fall asleep.

A teenage bedtime routine might include removing all electronics by a certain time (I'm going to tell you 8PM, knowing full well most parents will stretch this into 10PM or 11PM). This is a great time to read a book instead, or practice gentle stretching. Teaching your teen about sleep hygiene now increases their chances of being successful adult sleepers.

You don't have to do this alone

Lack of adequate sleep has a pretty earth shattering effect on society. But sadly, this shenanigans isn't usually taught in schedules are a big part of the problem here. But that's a post for another day. If you're feeling lost about how to maximize your performance in sleep, that's totally a reason to involve a professional. I myself have sought professional help for this. Feel free to ask your pediatrician during well visits, or your school counselor. And if you want even more personalized support in this, call a kick-ass, no BStherapist *cough cough*. But seriously, go the f*&$ to sleep.

Note: This post was originally published on November 20,2020 and republished with minor revisions on April 16, 2021

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