A calm mind and body for better sleep
There are certain things that I consciously avoid near my bedtime because they almost always make for a worse night of sleep. When I work too late, I’m normally left with lingering work problems on my mind. I might find myself obsessing over my to-do list, calendar, and work schedule instead of calming myself and preparing to sleep. If I get into an argument, or even a heated debate, I ruminate on the event and repeatedly analyze the details of the conversation. If I go for a run too close before my bedtime, I sometimes feel wired before bed. Anything that is mentally or physically stimulating before preparing to sleep may induce pre-sleep arousal, which could delay being able to fall asleep and possibly disrupt sleep during the night. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize pre-sleep arousal by avoiding stressful activities and finding ways to relax before bedtime.
The research of pre-sleep arousal
Pre-sleep arousal can involve cognitive or somatic (i.e., bodily) manifestations. These are things that might make us feel anxious or excited, tense, or jittery.
Cognitive pre-sleep arousal involves stimulating mental activity before sleep. It can include excessive worry, such as fears of not being able to sleep well, mentally replaying the waking day, and excessive thinking. For example, cognitive arousal on the Pre-Sleep Arousal scale is measured based on the level of pre-sleep mental activity (e.g., none to extreme). Some items of the scale include “Review or ponder events of the day” and “Can’t shut off your thoughts.” When people report experiencing higher levels of mental stimulation before bed, they tend to take longer to fall asleep and sleep more poorly.
Working too closely before bed may be a common culprit for cognitive pre-sleep arousal. One study found people who are told that they have to give a speech during an experimental session took longer to fall asleep than those who were not told that they had to give a speech. Thus, work-related demands may induce cognitive stress before bed and relate to poor sleep.
Research has also shown that social media consumption (e.g., TikTok) can induce pre-sleep arousal and make falling asleep more difficult. A recent study found that adults who engaged with TikTok more often experienced higher levels of pre-sleep arousal and felt more tired during the day. TikTok has a tendency to play catchy songs that get stuck in people’s heads, and these cognitive loops may partially explain why TikTok consumption interferes with sleep. The researchers suggested that making the social media app less accessible on people’s phones may help with limiting TikTok consumption. For example, TokTok users may place the app in a different folder or disable notifications from TikTok or other social media platforms to avoid automatically scrolling through the app when it’s time to prepare for sleep.
Like cognitive pre-sleep arousal, somatic or bodily pre-sleep arousal contributes to poor sleep. Bodily pre-sleep arousal can be thought of as excitement within the body before bed. This could include feeling sweaty, jittery, or tense. Bodily pre-sleep arousal has been assessed by questioning if there is “a tight, tense feeling in your muscles”, “a jittery, nervous feeling in your body”, or “perspiration in palms of your hands or other parts of your body.” Similar to cognitive pre-sleep arousal, these bodily manifestations of arousal also interfere with falling asleep and getting enough sleep.
Physical activity before bed may contribute to bodily pre-sleep arousal. Some studies show that intense exercise before bed may interfere with initiating sleep and staying asleep throughout the night (read more on sleep and physical activity here).
How to avoid pre-sleep arousal and stay calm before bed
One clear finding in sleep research is that stress contributes to greater pre-sleep arousal and poor sleep. Below, I list several activities that help with reducing mentally and physically stressful activities before bed and thus minimize pre-sleep arousal.
consider avoiding these activities before bed
Here is a list of some activities that you might find stimulating or stressful. I would recommend avoiding these things at least an hour or two before bed.
- consuming news and social media (e.g., TikTok, Twitter, Reddit)
- arguing with others
- discussing exciting topics
- working on stressful tasks
- reading/watching exciting content (avoid binge watching TV)
- paying bills/managing finances
- exercising at intense levels (sprinting, heavy weight lifting, competitive sports)
try these activities to find calm before bed
There are several calming activities that may help with relaxation and lower pre-sleep arousal. It may be helpful to include some of these activities in a sleep routine to prepare yourself for sleep. To maintain a strong link between the bed and sleep, I do not recommend doing any of these activities while in bed.
- Practicing meditation
- Doing gentle exercise (e.g., gentle yoga, easy walking)
- Reading a relaxing book/article (I recommend using a physical copy or device with no backlight, as reading on backlit devices before bed may interfere with sleep)
- Conversing with loved ones
Avoiding pre-sleep arousal could involve following a routine
Actively avoiding stimulating activities hours before going to bed requires that we make time for ourselves. We cannot work until bedtime if we want to go to bed in a relaxed mental state. We have to set some time aside, if at all possible, to calm our bodies and our minds before sleep. I acknowledge and understand that following a routine is difficult. There are so many things that we can be doing, and consciously giving ourselves space and _time_ to calm down may seem unattractive. But I assure you that making time to sleep well is a worthwhile investment for your health and ultimately for the quality of your life.
For further reading:
- Sleep, pre-sleep arousal, and self-care: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8239843/pdf/APHW-9999-0.pdf
- Pre-sleep arousal and social media: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/20501579211056116
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