During my career at NASA we allocated a lot of resources to ensure that our astronauts would be able to perform their duties safely and effectively. The quality and amount of their sleep was a crucial factor, and likewise it is for you and me. Today, 40% of Americans say they do not get enough sleep. On average, Americans get 6.9 hours of sleep each night, slightly less than the 7 to 9 hours recommended by experts. If you’re Japanese you likely get much less, but more if you are from France. So, what does it matter if we don’t get enough sleep?
• Without enough, quality sleep we cannot fully enjoy our waking hours.
• Getting enough sleep comes with substantial benefits, crucial to our physical well-being, such as increased energy, fitness and improved immunity.
• Without adequate, quality sleep our mental and emotional health deteriorates often evidenced by fatigue, depression, anxiety, and reduced effectiveness.
• Seventy million Americans have what is considered a “sleep problem”, including insomnia or sleep apnea. In addition to the challenges suffered by the individuals, the diagnosis and treatment of sleep problems is said to translate to a direct cost of more than $15 billion per year. The additional indirect costs, like accidents, lost productivity and hospitalization, amount to more than $50 billion. Sadly, more than 100,000 automobile-related accidents per year are sleep related.
In a 24-hour day roughly one-third (8 hours) is spent sleeping while the remaining 16 hours we are awake. We do a great deal of planning and structuring of our waking hours to work, socialize, be active and so on. Often viewed as “the opposite of being awake”, we perceive sleep as an unconscious or semiconscious passive state that just happens and does not require our attention. Somehow, we believe sleep will take care of itself to provide us with much needed respite from the day’s activities. We carefully plan our day using watches, calendars and lists to organize each day. How many of us pay similar attention in planning and structuring our sleep?
Two significant events of the 20th century led to greater appreciation of the costs and benefits of sleep.
First, the invention of the electric light bulb enabled the practice of work during what had for all time been normal sleeping hours. This led to the discovery that all living organisms on Earth have an internal, circadian 24-hour biological clock that is fine-tuned by daylight and night-darkness. Disturbing or reversing these rhythms comes with consequences.
Secondly, methods were developed of continuously recording the electrical activity of the brain and of imaging (MRI) its changes day and night. This has led to awareness that the brain is extremely active during sleep and that disrupting its normal pattern of activity can have disastrous consequences on emotional and physical health. Even so, much remains to be learned.
This is the first of a series of blogs on sleep where I’ll delve further into the nature of sleep and how your approach to it can help you live healthier, fuller lives. For now, here are five non-medicinal solutions to improving your sleep:
1. Avoid stimulants for several hours before bed time. Consume no caffeine, and this includes caffeine from foods like chocolate, after 3 pm.
2. Plan for sleep by powering down. Ever notice how going from the computer or smart phone to the pillow doesn’t encourage nodding off? Avoid exertive physical activity after dinner.
3. Make your bedroom for two things only: sleeping and making love. TV’s and even reading should happen elsewhere. And your beloved cell phone? Don’t even think about it.
4. Set and keep a consistent bed-time. There’s a reason we did it for our kids.
5. Respect your sleep time. You spend one third of your life doing it.
by George Danellis
Ok, so “meditation”. The word itself makes most people a little bit uncomfortable, sort of like being sat at Thanksgiving dinner right next to your most obnoxious relative. Meditation often provokes images of flaky people, or figures in golden robes. Maybe you’ve tried it yourself and have memories of an uncomfortable experience where your body hurt or thoughts and emotions seemed to come in a relentless, uncontrollable stream. So you gave up, or never started.
And that’s wholly understandable. I know, because I’m human too.
But maybe you’re one of those fortunate folks (like me, some of my friends, business colleagues and the more than 20 million Americans) who have gotten past these initial obstacles and are now enjoying the benefits of a regular meditation practice. If so, please let me know in the comments section below how I do at both explaining why meditation can improve the quality of your life, and how to get a practice started the easy way.
- Improved Health. From being able to maintain a more stable and healthy weight, to reducing blood pressure, to dealing with pain, to addressing unhealthy habits - developing a meditation practice is a winning proposition for your health. Doctors today are rapidly recognizing the benefits of meditation for their patients.
- You’ll Become Less Bothered by the Small Stuff. Over time a meditation practice will help you better see how things really are in any given moment, rather than how we often make them out to be. Day by day you’ll develop a bit more of a ‘No Big Deal’ attitude.
- Improved Effectiveness. Whether handling a work duty, a creative activity or a personal relationship, meditators report improved concentration and a general sense of awareness, with less anxiety.
- Not Why You Thought. You’ll have your own reasons for starting. Over time I guarantee that other benefits will arise. That’s just how it goes.
While there are many types of meditation, the one here is a secular practice that can be done by anyone, and is commonly called Mindful Awareness.
- Take Your Seat. Find a comfortable, quiet place. Sit with upright posture in a chair with your palms resting naturally on your thighs. Close your eyes. Or if you prefer to leave your eyes open look slightly downwards with an unfocused gaze.
- Bring Your Awareness to The Breath. Take one big breath and fully let it go. Thereafter breathe normally, gently noticing the breath go in, and then out. Perhaps allow your jaw to relax and your mouth to rest slightly open -whatever feels natural.
- When Your Attention Wanders, Bring it Back To The Breath. Because it will wander, over and over again - from what’s for dinner tonight, to how you might have handled “that situation” differently yesterday, to how you can’t keep your attention on your breath. It’s been said that just as a dog barks, a mind thinks. So there’s no reason to judge yourself, just let the thought go and bring your attention back to the breath. Over time you’ll get the hang of it.
- Conclude with Gratitude. Give thanks for whatever you want, including your new meditation practice!
To start, I recommend doing this meditation for 5 minutes, three or four times a day, whether in your living room or car, sitting in a park or wherever it works out for you. Over time, increase the length of your meditation sessions until you are up to 15 minutes or longer. A goal to sit for thirty minutes a day is good but not necessary, and I recommend allowing yourself one day a week that you set aside to not meditate.
Enjoy your new meditation practice!
George Danellis is a Corporate Sustainability consultant, surfer and lover of a good meal enjoyed with friends and family. He's had a sitting meditation practice since 2007.