I’ve always been one of those people who sleeps hard. Once I’m there, I’m off to some other place quite far from reality. But sleeping deeply doesn’t mean I always know how to get the best quality sleep. There are a lot of other factors at play. I’ve struggled with maintaining a sleep schedule, settling my mind so that I fall asleep, and going back to sleep once I’m jolted out of an REM cycle (it hailed in Austin around 4 am the other night and that did not bode well).
Multiple health professionals across a myriad of fields have told me that sleep hygiene is one of (if not the most) crucial elements of being well.
But sometimes it’s hard to know what works in this imperfect, modern world. I spoke with Natalia Amari, the founder of Rebel In Bloom and a renowned psychotherapist based in Austin. What I loved about our conversation is that when it comes to quality sleep, she is more interested in addressing what lies beneath the surface.
How to get the best sleep begins with acknowledging the stimuli that are affecting the body’s irregularities.
To learn more about Natalia’s approach, browse through her wisdom below. And, please, for your own benefit, give yourself some zzz’s!
Natalia Amari photographed by Riley Reed.
On why sleep is important…
Sleep is so important to our health because it helps us synthesize what we experience in our days.
It rests our minds, grapples with our memories, and helps our bodies restore themselves so they can recover. Not getting adequate sleep over a long period can negatively impact many systems in the body and eventually, we may suffer health problems because of it.
On habits that may affect sleep…
Our sleep can be affected by so many things including:
- how much water we drink
- sleeping with our mouths open
- stress and anxiety
- our sleep/wake cycles being out of sync with our bodies natural rhythms
- medical issues
When talking to a professional about sleep, it’s important to first rule out any medical conditions if relevant. As a relationship-oriented trauma therapist, I like to approach mental health concerns from a let’s work on some of these things and see if you notice any changes in your sleep along the way.
In my line of work, stress and trauma have a big impact on sleep. Interestingly enough, the sleep issues one experiences (like difficulty going to sleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early) seem to be specific to each unique person.
Image by Riley Reed.
On how trauma is relevant to sleep…
PTSD related to a traumatic event might look like: intrusive flashbacks when trying to wind down, nightmares, or struggle to feel safe enough when going to bed. It’s important to acknowledge that this is the body reacting to trauma and trying to work through it. In therapy, we work on the trauma piece, and we can work on tuning into safety that is available to us.
Social disconnection during the pandemic has caused family of origin challenges, breakups, and isolation from friends. Therefore many have felt such anguish, grief, loneliness, anxiety, and even depression as a result of social disconnection—this totally can keep us up all night in despair.
On getting to the root of things…
To speak to anxiety and restlessness specifically as a somatically trained therapist, I can’t help but want to clarify that anxiety and restlessness are physical responses to some kind of stimuli (like internal emotional stimuli or experiences).
These are signals that your body is wanting to mobilize (rather than wind down) so it can be important to first understand and work on whatever may be giving us anxiety or restlessness (i.e. what’s going on in our lives that we want to be “in action” on?).
We can also use our bodies to channel that mobilization energy and discharge it physically by proactively addressing these concerns (work or relationship struggles come to mind). If it helps, moving the body with walks or exercise (preferably not near bedtime since you do not want to interfere with your sleep by getting active) can be incredibly soothing.
The key for this to work is to use mindfulness to hone in on the thing that is breeding this restlessness or anxiety and notice what it’s like to physically move your body.
You might even imagine that the more you move the more that anxiety moves out of you. You might release the intensity even by moving more intensely too. In this way, our bodies give so much to us—information when somethings up (if we are willing to listen) as well as avenues for release.
On sleep hygiene practices to try…
Different things work for different people, but some common sleep hygiene practices that can help include:
- clearing your head by keeping paper and pen on your bedside to jot down whatever is on your brain and put it aside
- taking time to unwind at a certain point in the night (like 9 pm) by putting away all screens, turning the lights down low in your place, setting a soothing scene with essential oils, doing nighttime routines to signal to your body that it’s time to wind down
- keeping a consistent sleep schedule. What I have seen and heard in my experience is that we would ideally fall asleep before midnight and sleep between seven to nine hours, but again each person has to find what works best for them
- using an eye mask to reduce ambient light while falling asleep and morning light that may wake you up (as well as added accountability with bedtime phone use)
- reading before bed, listening to boring podcasts or audiobooks so that the mind has something to focus on that allows it to wind down
On her favorite resources to get better sleep…
Try as we might, it’s very hard for us humans to “do nothing.” This podcast is essentially bedtime stories for adults: Nothing Much Happens. Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is also a great book on working less. It advocates for this whole idea of active rest since we can’t just do “nothing”. Last, for those who struggle with breathing through their mouths while sleeping, consider reading James Nestor’s Breath where he talks about the benefits of sleep tape.
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