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Learning to Rest

We are in a state of worldwide rest. Nearly four billion people, or half of the world’s population, are on some sort of stay-at-home order. In this unprecedented time – as we bear witness to what most of us thought impossible – we have a chance to really learn what rest can offer us. Even as the anxiety of world markets accelerates and the weight of our collective capacity to weather the economic ravages of this pause weighs heavily, we all remain suspended in a springtime slowdown.

You only have to put your head out the window to hear the Earth sighing in relief. Carbon emissions are declining so much that satellite images over the globe are being transformed. The air is clear, the skies are visible – even the usually murky canals in Venice are clear. Pollution levels are down by 50% globally.

We have never known this kind of enforced quiet in our lifetime. Although we haven’t reached the carbon reduction numbers required to turn back the climate change calamity, it suddenly seems possible.

And yet, this great easing that our environment is experiencing is not being integrated by many of us human inhabitants on the Earth. Instead of enjoying increased sleep and rest, many studies are showing the opposite – increases in interrupted sleep, and more unusual and memorable bad dreams. This is troubling because we humans need to rest as much as the Earth does right now in order to maintain a robust immune system to fight the COVID-19 virus.  

In addition to the important work of strengthening our immune system, sleep also resets the brain. Although our brain is never fully asleep, sleeping allows the brain to recharge, repair neurons, archive memories, and reorganize. This is likewise true for the heart, which never stops, but relies on sleeping periods to gain strength, maintain flexibility, and ease the workload by slowing down dramatically.

During sleep, the entire body is flooded with hormones that promote relaxation and slow down all the organ systems, allowing them to repair muscle tissue, replace dead cells. Sleep is when both growth and healing occurs, which explains why we need the most rest and sleep when we are ill.

With all of this in mind, now is the perfect time to learn to rest and improve our sleep hygiene. Establishing and maintaining regular sleep cycles provides the brain an opportunity to process information at different vibratory levels. Dreaming is the primary mechanism for dealing with daily stress. And with the pandemic flooding our news feeds and keeping us from regular activities, stress compounds – preventing us from ever waking refreshed which then feeds into the cycle of not sleeping again.

Committing to restructuring your life as a way to improve your sleep will shower you with benefits long after this pandemic is over. Rest is not the opposite of effort; it is the source, the nourishment, and the energetic food for all that we aspire to accomplish. There truly could not be a better time to work on this aspect of life.

Learning how to rest and sleep is one of the primary tools of self-compassion because it allows us to digest what is coming towards us. Below is a list of the best tips I know of to establish reliable sleep habits. While you might not be able to commit to all of them, even a few will make a difference.

Maintain a Sleep Schedule

Establish a regular time that you go to sleep and wake up. This is one of the first rules of getting a good night's rest. Maintaining your circadian rhythm – especially when all of life feels out of sync – will help you know where you are in time and space. Sleeping in late one morning or going to bed really late one night will make sleep as confusing as the rest of life.

Work towards consistency and watch how this discipline will impact all the other days of your life.

Seek Light at the Right Time

Another critical guide built into our body for sleep is being exposed to sunlight in the morning and early afternoon.

Even in this lock down time, try to plan your trip to the grocery store, your time in the garden, or your walk around the block so that you get real outdoor light earlier in the day. Bright sunlight helps to align the schedule you are going to set up. This is a good time to look up at the blue in the sky. And even if you aren’t able to go outside, you can sit by the window to get healthy light every day.

Walk Away from the News Early in the Day

A powerful way to ease your worries is to be more selective about the news you follow and when you look at it. Trying to be “connected” every moment of the day, even if there is breaking news, doesn’t help your anxiety levels. This in turn can create fuel for bad dreams and keep you from sleeping.

I promise that if something really life-changing happens, you will hear about it; if not from your feeds, then from someone you know. Commit to thinking about your intake of news the same way you think about eating good chocolate – a little goes a long way.

Move Your Body

Where there is movement, there is life. Even when you are locked inside, it’s no good to become a couch potato. There are dozens of apps, YouTube videos, and live Zoom offerings (many of them free!) that will walk you through a workout – and you won’t need any special equipment.

Taking time to stay strong will also help your immune response and make you physically more tired for sleep. Plus – when we move our bodies in any kind of intentional way, we gain a sense of place which this virus has taken from us. We live here, in this body, and exercise is one of the best ways to ground that knowing.

Turn Off the TV, Especially Close to Bedtime

While I am all for following a compelling drama as a little escape from these days that seem to extend forever, too much of a good thing is too much. Much of the programming on Netflix or Hulu has a lot of drama, anxiety, and violence baked into it. This is good for a little rush, but isn’t going to help you to sleep.

This one will be hard for many people, so try a reverse rationing. Cut back on watching TV for 30 minutes before bed, then one hour, and then make it to two hours of no screen time before you try to sleep. Reading is more relaxing and is not counterproductive to sleep.

Try a Meditation App

There are a lot of free meditation apps available and even if you are not a serious meditator, listening to someone walk you through a 10-minute meditation or a yoga nidra session will help you feel your body and calm your mind. I use these every night to sleep. Try Calm or Insight Timer. They both have a crazy number of meditators who are there to help you for free. I am addicted to Jennifer Piercy on the Insight Timer app. See what you think.

Like I said, these might not all be possible all the time. Maybe try one a day. Most importantly, commit yourself to becoming a good sleeper. It may well save your life.