Monthly Archives: January 2016

The importance of sleep

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We all feel so much better for a good night’s sleep.  But how many of us make it a priority in our busy lives?  There are so many things that can get in the way of us having enough time to sleep well and for enough hours.  I work with new mums, and remember well the effects of disturbed nights when my own son was small – nobody understands why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture so well as a mum who is up all through the night! In Sarah Moss’s book, Night Waking, the protagonist Anna muses during yet another night up with her son as to how many years of her life she would gladly exchange for a full 8 hours:

It depends on how long my life will  be.  Of a hundred years, I would give ten. I think about how much reading I might be able to do between being ninety and a hundred. I would be at liberty to live in what my mother used to call All This Mess and upon KitKats and salt and vinegar Hula Hoops.  I’ve always fancied sheltered accommodation. I used to cycle past some flats…and I’d peer in and see old ladies with flowery wing armchairs…reading or watching television in the middle of the morning. When they were in those kitchens I bet they were baking cakes for themselves….No, I’m not giving up a decade of sugar-fuelled self-indulgence, even for sleep….OK, five years of a hundred. As long as the sleep is in solitude and somewhere soundproof and I know that Giles is on call for the children.

Moving to a global scale, what would I pawn for sleep? Would I, given the chance, have peace for Palestine or twelve hours in bed?….It’s a good thing Satan doesn’t come and chat to the mothers of sleepless toddlers in the middle of the night.

It is not, of course, only mothers who suffer from lack of  sleep.  Insomnia, meaning the inability to get to sleep in the first place or waking during the night, several times or for lengthy periods of time, is thought to affect up to one in three people on a regular basis, according to the NHS website.

People who suffer with insomnia may frequently feel so tired that it is difficult to get through the day, lacking the focus, concentration, and the energy to accomplish what they wanted to, either at work or home. They may experience physical fatigue, in the muscles of the body, headaches and  low mood.  Insomnia may also be caused by low mood, stress and anxiety, creating a vicious circle which can be hard to break. Even if it is theoretically possible to take a nap during the day, some people will find that very hard to actually achieve.

Yet more people have no difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, but still feel tired in the morning because they didn’t get enough sleep to feel fully rested. They have gone to bed later than they meant to, or consistently don’t get to bed until 5 or 6 hours before they need to get up. They hit snooze on the alarm clock over and over in the morning, but those short 5 or 10 minute naps don’t cut it when what they really needed was a full night’s sleep.

So, how much sleep do we need? There is no set amount, as we all vary, and it will also depend on our level of exertion.  So some people might feel fully recharged after 7 hours or so, whilst others might need 9.  I personally fall somewhere in the middle, needing ideally about 8 hours to really feel I’ve had a good sleep. I get up early at 5am to do my morning yoga and meditation practice, so really would need to be asleep at 9 to achieve this – unfortunately, I don’t actually manage this all that often!  Especially when I teach one evening class which ends at 9.45! But I can get by on 7 hours reasonably comfortably – anything less, though, and I really start to feel the worse for wear!

I teach lots of techniques in my classes which can  help to energise us when we’re feeling a bit depleted.  They’re often particularly appreciated in my postnatal classes!  A good stretch to the back and leg muscles can help to boost energy levels, as in a standing forward bend, for example.  Dru yoga’s Energy Block Release 1 stretches the whole of the spine and the body in all directions, and is a particular favourite of mine on  low-energy days! But (and I know this is a real shame!), in the end there is no substitute for getting enough sleep, more often than not. We need to make sleep (and rest) more of a priority in our lives. We need to practice ‘sleep hygiene‘, cultivating habits which help us to switch off and get a good night’s sleep. Some of these habits include:

  • going to bed at a regular time
  • setting some time aside before going to bed to relax
  • having a warm bath
  • having a warm drink
  • not using screens and electronic gadgets before bedtime, and never in the bedroom
  • dim lighting
  • avoiding heavy meals in the late evening, try to eat earlier and not in the two hours before going to sleep
  • reading (for pleasure, not studying!)
  • gentle exercise like yoga,  rather than extreme exertion in the evening (but exercise daily!)
  • avoiding alcohol and caffeine
  • practising meditation or a deep relaxation before going to sleep
  • getting up and doing something else for a few minutes if sleep isn’t happening, rather than getting anxious about the time, and how long it’s taking you to get to sleep
  • dealing with any anxieties before going to bed, and if you wake up worrying over something, write it down in a notebook and promise yourself you will deal with it in the morning
  • wear earplugs and an eye mask if light and noise are stopping you from sleeping
  • drink plenty during the day but decrease during the evening

If you’re reading this and thinking that it’s all very well, but you just don’t have time to take it easy in the evening, and prepare for a good night’s sleep, it might be worth thinking about the consequences of not making sleep a priority. It is becoming well-known now that inadequate sleep can increase our risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. What if you’re one of those people who is proud of how little sleep you need, and the amount of hours you put in at work? Well, I would suggest that, whilst you might get away with it for a while, in the end, lack of sleep will impact your wellbeing and the quality of both your life and your work.  I have recently been reading Arianna Huffington’s Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life, in which she talks about the ‘third metric’ of success – adding the idea of wellbeing, wisdom, wonder and giving to the traditional worldly way of judging success in terms of money and power. On the subject of sleep she quotes a 2013 study which showed that the brain has two fundamental states – one of being awake, totally aware, and one of sleep.  During the sleeping state, the brain ‘cleans up’, clearing out harmful protein wastes which build up in between its cells (Arianna Huffington ‘Thrive’ p76). These wastes may be associated with brain changes in ageing and dementia. So, if you want your brain to be fully awake during the day, you need to ensure it’s getting enough sleep at night.  And if that isn’t happening easily, try some (or all!) of the suggestions above to see what works for you. Catch-up naps in the day are also good if you have had a poor night’s sleep (without guilt!)

And, if none of this is working for you because you actually are a mum with a wakeful child – don’t despair!  Things will get better as your child gets older, but the age-old advice to sleep when your child sleeps is worth remembering – yes, even though the washing and ironing is waiting for you!  It can wait a little longer.

 

 

 

What is happiness?

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jumpforjoyI’ve  been pondering this question a lot over the past few weeks.  We all wish each other a happy new year, we all wish happiness for our friends, our family and ourselves. So, what do we mean by that?

Do we want ourselves, and others, to be jumping for joy?  Is that really what we want, all the time?  Is joy a sustainable emotion? Or is it followed soon enough, for most of us, by the inevitable not-so-wonderful experiences of our lives?  If moments of pure joy are really to be fully appreciated, they need to be just that – moments.  High points of happiness, in which we are bubbling over with pleasure, excitement, exuberance.  Which are all the better for the humdrum nature of much of our lives. And which are unsustainable in the long-term.

So, what is happiness?  Is it merely the absence of sadness? Can we define it only by what is missing?

For me, happiness is a calmer emotion than joy.  There’s a bit less excitement, a bit less disruption to my equilibrium!  It can be quiet and still, calm and peaceful, brought on by the simplest things – spending time with loved ones, cooking, reading, walking by the sea or in the countryside. By laughter. By yoga and meditation.  By being alone, and by being with others. It’s less fleeting than pleasure, which is ‘only the shadow of happiness’, according to a Hindu proverb.

Happiness, it is true, can be lost.  But happiness can also be found. It can be cultivated quite deliberately. Happiness takes practice, but can become a habit. It’s a skill that can be learnt, and relearnt. Even when you think it’s gone forever, it can creep up on you and surprise you.

As Matthieu Ricard says in his book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill:

‘..achieving durable happiness as a way of being is a skill.  It requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities, such as inner peace, mindfulness and altruistic love’

So whilst some of us have a more naturally sunny disposition than others, happiness can be created, fostered, tended to. It can grow. In his book, ‘Buddha’s Brain’, Rick  Hanson talks about ‘taking in the good’, really noticing and savouring the good times we experience.  If things aren’t great right now, we can recall a time we felt truly happy and bask in the memory. And don’t let the good moments pass by without noticing. Notice what being happy feels like, right in the moment. Pause for a moment, and truly experience the sensations of happiness. Truly, madly, deeply feel that moment. And at the end of the day, recall those sensations, those feelings of wellbeing before going to sleep. Write about them if you keep a journal, express gratitude for all the good in your life. Deliberately, patiently and tenderly foster good feelings.  So that when things aren’t so great, your basic sense of wellbeing, your basic ground of happiness, isn’t rocked so violently as it might otherwise have been. So that you have resilience when things – inevitably – don’t go all your own way.

There will be days when nothing goes right.  There may be weeks, months or even years that are more difficult than others.  That’s life.  As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in Full Catastrophe Living, Revised Edition: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, life is the:

‘…full catastrophe….the poignant enormity of our life experience. It includes crisis and disaster, the unthinkable and the unacceptable, but is also includes all the little things that go wrong and that add up….life is always in flux’.

And we won’t always feel happy.  Not by any stretch of the imagination. Unless we have reached enlightenment! But with mental health such a huge concern, we can work to improve our underlying happiness.  We can build our happiness muscle as if we’re working out at the gym, being grateful for all the good in our lives. We can make time for things we enjoy, we can look after ourselves emotionally as well as physically. We can make sure we get enough rest, sufficient exercise and good nutrition. We can practise being happy.

The kind of resolutions I like…

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It’s the third of  January, and it’s a dreary kind of day outside.  The kind of day that makes you want to curl up by the fire.  It’s also far enough into the new year that you could already see yourself as failing one or more of your resolutions, if you made any, but also early enough in the year that you may not even have started, and so you could be wondering if it was worth even setting any.

Well, I really don’t like the kind of all-or-nothing resolutions which you could fail at this early on!  I mean, what’s the point of them?  It’s incredibly hard to start, or stick to, a new healthy eating plan when the house is still full of delicious Christmas leftovers!  If you haven’t started, why should a week or two into the year make any difference?  Why not start when the time is right for you?! If the blustery day puts you off wanting to go for a walk or a run, does it matter?  It’s not the only day of the year!  There are still 362 days left to do that!

I much prefer to look at the new year as a time to assess where I’m at in my life, and  keep moving forward. So rather than set myself ridiculous goals which I can succeed or fail at, I set myself realistic goals, and  see them as a continuation of what has gone before, a revisiting of my overall move towards better things.  It’s not a ladder I can fall off, more of a spiral staircase in which the overall movement is upwards but which curls around and comes back to the same spot, where I can go down a few steps but then back up.  I try to take small steps towards my overall goal, but I don’t try to do it all at once! As Lao Tzu said, The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Above all, I intend to be kind to myself this year,  so setting myself unreachable goals would really not fit that end. If you have already broken a resolution, or have not yet started, or not set any at all, be kind to yourself and just take one tiny step at a time.