May 18, 2024
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The Habits That Harm Your Sleep

My last article discussed the first step to overcoming insomnia, which entails learning to accept that it’s OK to have a bad night of sleep (see “The First Step to Improving Insomnia” (Jewish Link, June 1, 2023). This idea is the first level of your healthy sleep pyramid. The next level you need to build involves turning your attention to harmful sleep habits.

Overcoming insomnia has a lot to do with breaking bad habits and forming good ones. This is an area of science and brain research all on its own. How do you break a bad habit? Is it all about willpower and resolve? How long until a bad habit is broken? It appears that sheer willpower has a poor track record for breaking bad habits. The individuals who quit smoking “cold turkey” are outliers, not the norm. It’s important to accept that breaking bad habits takes time and it’s not always a straight line to reaching your goal. Sometimes you make progress and then you falter a bit (or a lot). Learning to accept that this is normal is important for success.

Someone who quit smoking has, on average, tried seven times before finally succeeding. You might have heard it takes 21 days to break a bad habit. The truth is there is no one magic number for this. It varies based on the person and the habit and how ingrained it is within you. As you start to build that second level of your sleep pyramid, I always make sure my patients understand these general concepts about breaking and forming habits, because starting the process with unrealistic expectations works against you. There is nothing complicated or earth-shattering about the habits that are harmful to sleep. You’ve probably heard about many of them before.

Sometimes my patients would say my counseling is not telling them anything new. I always stress there is a difference between understanding a concept and really internalizing it as a part of your routine and behaviors. We all understand that exercise is important, but that doesn’t negate how hard it is to establish and maintain a habit of exercising regularly. When evaluating your harmful sleep habits, the challenge becomes figuring out how to break the habit and having a plan in place if you falter. That plan must include forgiving yourself if you have slip-ups.

The first habit to address is screens. Bright light on your eyeballs at night confuses your body clock and the content stimulates the mind. Keep that phone out of arm’s reach. If you’re a real screen junkie, you might want to just keep that phone out of your bedroom altogether when it’s bedtime. If you’re worried about constant notifications, remember that all phones now have a sleep mode with a lot of customizable functionality, so take advantage of that. Don’t be afraid to be strict with how much your notifications are blocked. You have a right to not be reachable. Make sure only friends or family that would need to reach out to you for true emergencies can get past blocked notifications while the phone is in sleep mode.

There’s another screen you may not realize is impacting your sleep: the clock. Staring at the clock and calculating how long you’ve been awake and how much more sleep you may get only creates a performance anxiety about sleep. Many of us just want to know the time, but this is a situation where the information is not worth it. Clocks have been around for less than 200 years and we slept fine without them for millenia. Turn the clock around, cover it with a shirt or tape over it. You don’t need to know the time, the alarm will notify you when it’s time to start the day.

Stimulating substances and activities can also harm our sleep. If you’re working or dealing with stressful matters right up until bedtime, your mind is going to have a hard time being ready for sleep right away. Caffeine after lunch time or even earlier in the day, depending on your metabolism of this drug, can have a negative impact.

A busy mind can also plague people when trying to fall asleep. These can be worries about life stress or just random benign thoughts about the next day’s schedule. The approach to this issue comes back to the mindfulness concept I alluded to in my prior article. The solution to a busy mind is not to try and clear your mind. If anyone tells you to clear your mind, I suggest finding another source of guidance. People with busy minds must accept that their mind is busy. Accepting that makes the frustration and anxiety about the busy mind decrease, even if the mind stays busy. I personally feel a daily meditation practice can help with learning to accept this as well (but remember, meditation is not about clearing your mind).

There are other harmful habits to address, but they go hand in hand with introducing the third and final level of your sleep pyramid. This third level focuses on developing good sleep-promoting habits. Many of these good habits can replace the harmful ones. Part of having a successful strategy for overcoming bad habits is replacing them with more benign habits (think chewing gum instead of smoking, etc.). I will discuss this third level of the sleep pyramid further in a subsequent article.

Bonus question: is a Shabbat nap a mechaya or a mistake? Let me know your thoughts or send any other topic suggestions to [email protected].


David Rosen, M.D. is a board-certified sleep medicine physician who is the co-founder and CEO of a digital health platform for simplified sleep apnea care called Renuma (www.renumasleep.com).

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