Last week, I shared my evolving relationship with alcohol. I’m off it, basically. A big change has been at night; a glass or two of wine with Carrie used to be my nighttime ritual. It would help me unwind from a stressful day, relax and reconnect with my wife, and get me ready for bed. So when I decided to give up alcohol – or at least make it an occasional rather than regular indulgence – I knew I had to figure out another way to unwind before bed. I haven’t really settled on anything yet. I’ve only explored some of the research on nighttime unwinding and thought I’d share my findings with you.
I’m not going to include routine, everyday advice like “Read a book” or “Have sex” or “Listen to calming music,” despite their effectiveness. You already know about them so it would just be redundant (but do them nonetheless!).
Even though I just discussed the importance of breaking up a routine before it becomes a rut, routines are excellent tools for establishing habits and ingraining positive conditioning. If you do the same thing before bed to unwind and prepare for sleep, your body will associate that thing with unwinding and sleepiness. That’s not a rut. That’s a win.
Let’s get to the rituals.
Sit around a fire.
The best part of camping is always the campfire at the end of the night. You’re there under the stars, usually with loved ones, close friends, and just enough soft light to see their faces. You pass around stories and laughs until that comfortable silence settles in. And you just stare into the flames. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans (and even the ancestral hominids that also controlled fire) capped off the night by staring into the very same fire you have today. As time has gone on, the radio, the TV, smartphones, tablets, and laptops have replaced fire as the glowing source of energy we stare into at night, but wild unadulterated fire still works best. Plus, firelight is naturally low in circadian-disrupting blue light.
Use the fireplace, build a fire pit out back, light a bunch of candles – just make it a point to look at fire.
Smell something nice.
However fraught with controversy and potentially confounded by placebo effects, aromatherapy has been used for thousands of years to reduce stress and promote relaxation. And modern clinical evidence suggests that the scent of certain essential oils can reduce stress. Take lavender, which increases parasympathetic activity and improves sleep in insomniacs, lowers nighttime blood pressure and improves self-reported sleep in hospital patients, and reduces anxiety and improves sleep in intensive care patients. Even if it is placebo, does it really matter? The whole point of a bedtime ritual is to plug into the power of placebo to “trick” your body into getting ready for sleep.
Lavender looks to be the essential oil with the most efficacy. Something like this works well.
Give a massage.
Receiving a massage is a fantastic stress-reliever, and it would be ideal if everyone, everywhere, received nightly massages. I’d imagine c-reactive protein levels would drop and sleep quality would universally improve. It could be the single most revolutionary health measure ever taken. Unfortunately, getting a massage means paying for one or convincing your significant other or friend to give you one. Some of you may be lucky enough to be in a position where that’s possible, but most are not. But what if you gave a massage to someone at night? What if you offered it up on a regular basis? No one’s going to turn you down, and research suggests that people who give massages receive multiple benefits. For one, you’ll feel less anxious. Two, a good massage artist (even an eager amateur) treats their work like a meditation; you must be mindful of what you’re doing as you’re doing it and pay close attention to the interplay between your hands and their skin, fascia, and musculature. Three, giving a massage to someone makes that person far more likely to return the favor.
This is an easy one – just offer a massage to someone you’re willing to touch. They very rarely decline. You could take some lessons or find an online massage guide, but simply exploring their body while taking care to pay attention to the feel of their tissues is a good enough start.
The human tongue and vocal cord aren’t only good for basic communication about mundane topics relevant to immediate survival. Humans are born storytellers. No, we don’t all have the ability to paint verbal pictures or keep a crowd of thousands enthralled, but we can relay simple narratives. We can read out loud. We can build stories with a partner by trading off, one line at a time. Even the humdrum daily “how was your day?” chat we all have with our roommates and loved ones is a form of storytelling, so that will work, too. Storytelling or reading books to your children before bed results in improved sleep duration and better cognitive development, and I’m convinced those benefits are maintained in adults who hear and tell stories at night. Whether you’re telling or hearing the story, you’re in another place – far from the daily stressors that make unwinding so difficult and so necessary.
If you don’t have any good stories handy, start by just telling someone about your day. And if you don’t have anyone to discuss your day with, keep a journal or write it down. It’s being in “storytelling mode” that probably matters, whatever the medium you use to tell it or hear it.
Historically, tea preparation is highly ceremonial. I would recommend against a 4-hour Japanese chaji if you’re trying to get to bed at a reasonable time, but you can certainly come up with your own condensed tea ceremony. Or if formality doesn’t interest you, at least pay attention to the details as you brew it: the steam’s hiss, the sizzle of the water against the pot, the initial rinsing of the tea, the first sip, the “aaaaah.” This will become a routine or a series of sensations that can help signal bedtime to your body (provided you avoid caffeinated teas, of course). And that’s not even getting into the potential psychoactive effects of various teas, many of which can induce relaxation and sleepiness while reducing anxiety and stress.
Practice your breathing.
If you recall from yesterday’s Dear Mark on the acid/base balance, the primary way we expel excess acids is through the ventilation pathway. By inhaling oxygen and by exhaling carbon dioxide, we maintain homeostasis. But breathing also impacts our anxiety levels. Short rapid breaths both increase and indicate anxiety and stress, while calm, slow, deep breaths that incorporate the diaphragm – not just the chest – are soothing. They trigger the parasympathetic response that reduces stress and anxiety.
Instead of chest breathing, try breathing through your chest and belly. Focus on expanding your ribcage and settling into the breath. Relax your abs and don’t suck in your stomach. Take it slowly – this isn’t a race – and breathe deeply. Try to inhale and exhale smoothly, free of judders. As you may discover, breath practice often turns into a sort of meditation. That’s totally fine.
For some, it’ll be a quick sprint out in the street or some Tabata intervals on the exercise bike. Others will relax by hitting a deadlift PR, calm and smooth and zen-like. It all depends on how you respond to the movement. Personally, heavy lifting gets me amped. Anything intense, actually – sprints, metabolic conditioning, Ultimate Frisbee – will energize and prevent me from sleep anytime soon. And going for a walk or hike just before bed makes my mind go. If I do that, I’ll typically stay up writing or thinking about the grand new idea I happened upon. Believe it or not, what I like to do these days before bed is a bit of yoga. What kind? Who knows. I cycle through a few random poses that Carrie’s showed me and they seem to work. I don’t think the specific pose itself is as important as just doing a few, if that makes sense. According to the research, yoga certainly reduces anxiety (more than walking) and improves quality of sleep, probably by increasing GABA levels.
Most people will unwind more effectively using “gentler” movements like stretching or yoga. But a few of you will probably benefit from more intense exercise, especially if you’re coming off a particularly grueling day and you just need to blow off some steam. Try different ones out to see what fits and stick to it once you’ve settled. Remember, it’s all about the routine.
That’s what I’ve got, folks. How about you guys? What routines, habits, or rituals do you use to unwind at night?