Self-Care at Swat: Sleep

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“How are you?”

“Good, how are you?”

“Tired. You know, Swat.”

This type of exchange is all too common around here, and most Swatties take sleep as a kind of joke. Let me guess — you want to take all of the classes and do all of the extracurriculars and there is never enough time. I feel that, I do. But I refuse to accept that a normal part of Swat life is being sleep-deprived.

First, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s ok to deprive yourself of sleep because everyone else is doing it too. Lots of people at Swarthmore make an effort to get ~8 hours of sleep every night, and they are often the ones you see with smiling faces around campus (as opposed to the sleep-deprived-stone-faced-blank-eyed faces that peer at you from behind refilled coffee mugs). Sleep has even more benefits than exercise — it keeps your immune system functioning, it allows your brain to consolidate the things you learn, and it affects your mood and judgment skills (a quick Google search will reveal even more benefits). Define your own path through life — only you can decide whether you want to take care of your body, mind, and spirit, or whether you want to stretch them thin in order to get everything done.

Of course, there is some middle ground. If you’re averaging 5 hours a night and still barely getting everything done, you might think there’s no way you can lose 3 more precious hours in a day. The first step is to decrease the amount you are doing. It’s sad to let things go, and it can be hard when you are in positions where people depend on you, but the truth is that you aren’t going to be able to give anything your best effort if you are spreading yourself thin and getting no sleep. Try cutting one thing out of your life, or decrease the amount of time you are spending on each thing you do. Last night, I was stressed about finishing my math homework and doing it perfectly, so I set a timer for 15 min for each problem. At the end of 15 min, I moved on even if I knew I had gotten the wrong answer. In the end, the point or two that I lost was worth the hour or so of sleep I gained.

I once heard that we should think about how it would feel to instead of, “I don’t have time for that,” say, “I don’t choose to spend my time on that.” Because in reality, we do have control over how we spend our time, and being intentional about how our time is spent can help us get to the things we really want to do. The thought of telling my good friend, “I didn’t call you tonight because I chose to spend my time reading Buzzfeed articles,” helps me set a timer, close my computer, and pick up the phone. Deciding to spend your time on sleep or other self-care is no different, and it always feels good later.

Once you’ve decided that getting more sleep is important, and you’ve accepted that letting go of some of your daily activities might be necessary, you should increase your sleep slowly. It can be unrealistic to suddenly begin sleeping 8 hours a night, and the sudden loss of time in a day can catch up to you and actually result in an all-nighter (which is not a mark of pride, in case anyone was wondering). So if you usually sleep 5 hours, try 5.5 for a few days, then go to 6, and so on. Congratulate yourself on the nights you choose sleep over something else, and forgive yourself for the nights you don’t.

A quick note about insomnia: If you are trying to get more sleep but simply can’t fall asleep, there are a couple of tricks you can try to calm your brain.  If these don’t work, though, you should see a doctor (insomnia is real, yo!). Establishing a bedtime routine is really great for getting your body and mind ready for sleep, but I’ve always been bad at routines so I’ve adopted other strategies.

One thing I like to do is count my breaths. Sometimes I count in another language if my brain is being really active. I set goals like 100 breaths or 150 breaths and usually fall asleep before I get there. Another thing you can do is go over all the events of the day in order (this works best for people who like schedules, and it won’t work if it reminds you of all the things you have to do tomorrow). Lastly, listening to music or a podcast (or Harry Potter audio books!) as you fall asleep can help give your mind something soothing to focus on. I’ve recently started listening to Buddhist mindfulness podcasts by Tara Brach as I go to bed, because then I feel that I’m being “productive” in my self-care work even if I can’t fall asleep.

In the end, it’s all about finding something that works for you. Don’t give up on incorporating more sleep into your life. Keep celebrating small successes, and don’t sweat the times you mess up —  you may be surprised how much better you can focus in class and how much more you enjoy life in general. And remember that none of us are perfect. (I’m writing this with droopy eyelids while debating how early to wake up tomorrow.) Still, we’re in this together, you and I, and I believe we’re going to make it. Goodnight! Sleep well.

Featured image courtesy of www.metoffice.gov.uk

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