Category: Wellbeing

Four Strategies to Get Some Zzzzzzz’s

By Ariel Campbell

Most adults have experienced symptoms of insomnia at some point in their lives. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation between 30-50% of adults have occasional difficulties falling or staying asleep, waking up early, or waking up not feeling rested. Lack of adequate sleep can negatively influence our daily functioning by leading to impairments in attention and concentration, increased irritability, and overall poorer mental health. However, for those of us who suffer from occasional insomnia there are a number of healthy habits we can incorporate into our daily routines to improve our quality of sleep.

In order to understand how and why these habits can be useful in promoting restful sleep, knowing some basics about sleep is helpful. Our sleep is regulated by our body’s natural circadian rhythm. This circadian rhythm is responsible for our feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day and is controlled by light and dark signals that occur naturally in our environments. For adults, sleep proceeds in a predictable pattern that involves 4-5 repetitions of a 90-minute sleep cycle, with each sleep cycle including 5 sleep stages. During sleep, a number of changes happen in our bodies – our heart rate and breathing slow down, our blood pressure and body temperature drop, our bodies produce and regulate a number of important hormones including those that impact growth and hunger, and our brains cycle through varying levels of activity.

Now onto some of the daily habits that can promote and improve sleep…

First, developing a bedtime routine can be an effective strategy for helping our minds and bodies transition into a state of relaxation after a busy day. Having a structured pre-sleep routine that includes a relaxing activity, like reading or listening to music, can promote sleep by helping us to form habits that actually function to cue sleep. Stimulating activities and screens, on the other hand, should be avoided during the 30-60 minutes before bedtime and as a general rule of thumb the only activities that should be carried out in bed are those related to sleep and intimacy. Additionally, an essential part of any good sleep routine involves keeping regular sleep and wake times, even over the weekend, insofar as this helps to maintain a consistent circadian rhythm.

Second, attending to certain factors within our sleeping environment can help to ensure high-quality sleep. Since light is a powerful cue for our body’s internal clock, keeping the bedroom as dark as possible while sleeping and dimming the lights one hour before bedtime are helpful sleep habits. If fully avoiding screens before bedtime isn’t possible, switching your cell phone or computer screen into nighttime mode is advisable because the blue light of daytime mode (as opposed to the red light of nighttime mode) will actually delay the release of melatonin making it harder to fall asleep. Keeping the bedroom temperature between 60-70 degrees while sleeping is another useful strategy that works by helping our bodies to maintain the drop in body temperature that accompanies sleep. And lastly, since our brains are still active and responsive during sleep a final consideration when it comes to structuring our sleeping environment is to limit noise as much as possible. Noise tends to be most disruptive during the first and second stages of sleep and during the second half of the night. Additionally “peak” sounds, for example busy street noises, are more damaging to sleep than ambient background sounds. If it’s difficult to eliminate noise while sleeping, white noise can help to reduce disruptions in sleep due to sound. Today, there are many apps for white noise but a fan or air conditioner that produces a consistent sound will also do the trick.

Third, certain exercise and dietary habits have also been shown to impact sleep. Aerobic exercise, like walking, swimming, or biking, can aid in sleep by increasing the amount of time our body spends in the deeper and most restorative stages of sleep. 20 minutes or more of daily aerobic exercise engaged in 4-5 hours before bed is recommended. While your morning coffee can help energize you for the day ahead, drinking a second cup of coffee during the afternoon or evening hours can disrupt sleep. Additionally, alcohol has been shown to cause impairments in sleep – although it may initially cause drowsiness and induce sleep, consuming alcohol before bed is associated with significantly more sleep disruptions during the second half of the night.

And finally, the timing, size, and content of meals can play a role in getting a good night’s sleep. For improved sleep, it is generally recommended that your largest meals be eaten earlier in the day and that snacks consumed before bedtime include complex carbohydrates and avoid sugar. Complex carbohydrates like whole-wheat breads, vegetables, fruit, and nuts break down slowly and help to prevent sudden spikes and crashes in blood sugar that can interfere with sleep.

While occasional symptoms of insomnia are common and not a significant cause for concern, they can nonetheless be disruptive to our daily routines. By using the above strategies for managing bedtime routines and environments as well as diet and exercise, you can develop healthy sleep habits that will promote a full night’s sleep and help you to wake up feeling rested and refreshed.

Making New Years Resolutions Work

Written by Ariel Campbell

For many of us, entering into the New Year can bring about thoughts of change. It can be a time of retrospection when we reflect on our life choices and consider improvements we would like to make. It’s probably the case that most of us, at one time or another, have set a New Year’s resolution aimed at bettering ourselves in some way. However, it’s probably also the case that most of us have experienced that initial sense of eager excitement and commitment gradually fizzle out into something more like a faint suggestion.

Despite our best intentions, making lasting changes in behavior can be hard. Luckily there are a number of strategies that can help us increase the likelihood of staying on track and achieving our goals. Whether it’s losing weight, improving an important relationship, or finally getting around to writing that novel these tips can help you make positive changes that last through 2017 and beyond.

The first step towards change is choosing appropriate goals. While we likely all have various areas of self-improvement that we could target, attempting to work on multiple areas simultaneously can be an overly ambitious undertaking. Focusing all of your energy for change towards one goal at a time will boost the odds in your favor. Additionally, aim to choose positive rather than negative goals. Positive goals are new patterns that you would like to see whereas negative goals involve current habits that you want to stop. It’s much easier to learn new habits than to unlearn old ones.

When setting goals, remember the acronym SMART to increase your chances of meeting your objectives. Setting Specific goals means being very clear and precise about what you want to achieve. If you’re working towards a long-term goal, breaking it down into smaller, clearly defined steps will help you to get started and stay on track more easily. Choose Measurable goals in order to track your progress. For example, if you want to find a new job choose to send out five applications per week. Make sure to set goals that are Achievable, or in other words goals that are in line with your abilities. Additionally, it is important to be sure that your goals are Realistic. Select a goal that is not only in line with your resources, but also with your larger life priorities and obligations. And finally, set Timely goals, meaning goals with a clear time frame and end date.

Now that you’ve set attainable goals, you’re ready to start working towards them. Making real changes in behavior is hard but following a few principles can help tip the scales in your direction. As you set out on each new step, consider any obstacles that may get in the way of reaching your goal. It’s impossible to anticipate all possible challenges, but predicting the most likely obstacles you might face and making a plan for how to manage them ahead of time will help to keep you on track. Repeating new behaviors is also key to achieving lasting change. With repetition, new patterns will begin to feel habitual. Once they do, you can tack on the next step in your plan and promote continued progress.

Another important tip to keep you moving in the right direction is to approach setbacks with the right mindset. It’s inevitable that old habits will creep in from time throughout the change process. Therefore, expecting setbacks and being kind to yourself when they do occur will help you to reflect on the things you could have done differently so that you’re better equipped to deal with future challenges. While being armed with the tools discussed so far will maximize your chances of making meaningful and sustainable changes, incorporating a few additional strategies that target your environment should make you unstoppable on the path towards achieving your goals.

One of the main reasons that it’s so hard to change our behavior is the fact that our surroundings are filled with cues that signal old habits. Embedding environmental cues that prompt new behaviors, like visible reminders or attention-drawing changes, can be extremely helpful in promoting change. Including significant others in efforts to change is also a valuable tool. Involving others can mean sharing your goals and progress with friends and family, paring up with someone who’s pursuing similar goals and can help to keep you motivated and on track, or joining a support group where you can share your struggles and successes and find encouragement. Whatever your goals may be, these strategies can help you to achieve them. Equipping yourself with these powerful tools will help you to effect and maintain the positive changes you want to see.

It’s the Most Loneliest Time of the Year

Written by Yoni Sobin

This time yearly, society blasts us with holiday music, jingles, lights, and festivities as individuals of all backgrounds celebrate holidays both secular and religious. We’re told this is a time for family, coming together, and celebration. We’re supposed to feel happy, joyful, and full of light. For many, this is their reaction to the holiday season. People talk about gathering for family dinners, “going home for the holidays,” and Aunt Mildred’s comments that elicit humorous glances among siblings.

For others, however, the holidays embody a more uncomfortable and emotion – loneliness. Not everyone has strong family ties, family that lives nearby. Not everyone can afford buying gifts without financial strain and not everyone is reminded of pleasant holiday memories. For some, family causes much distress, especially when we are around them for extended periods of time.

To make matters worse, moods often shift as the weather gets colder and many individuals experience a variation of Major Depressive Disorder with a seasonal fluctuation pattern. Cold makes people less likely to leave their homes, and also makes people less likely to exercise, which would improve depression. Individuals may also socialize less with friends and family, adding to one’s loneliness.

Loneliness is not inconsequential. It can lead to depression, reduced quality of life, (ironically) social isolation, and even increased mortality risk! By nature, humans are social beings, and we yearn for connection. Socially isolated individuals are therefore at a higher risk for suicide, especially individuals of geriatric age.

Thus, as we hunker down for the cold months ahead, it’s important to keep regular social connections. We need to push ourselves extra to get through the rough patch of the year called winter. Rather than choosing to isolate, to disengage in the comfort of our warm, toasty homes, let’s make an extra effort to remain connected. Pick a night in the future and invite people over for a game night. Create a “social checklist” for yourself, and each day tick something off that list. Even the smallest of gestures can improve one’s quality of life, such as smiling at someone on the subway during your ride each day to work, wishing the person behind the check-out counter a “Happy Holidays”, or saying “Shabbat Shalom” someone at your local synagogue. You can also check out www.meetup.com, a website to facilitate social interaction based on shared interests. Enjoy reading? There a group for that. Knitting? There’s a group for that too. Comic books? Yup. They’ve got that. Scrabble, Cards Against Humanity, Republican, Democrat, Christian, Jewish, Muslim. You name it, there’s a group of like-minded people out there. Other opportunities might present themselves in the form of adult education classes to learn about painting or writing or something else. All of these basic social activities not only promote interaction and reduce loneliness, but they help us to hone skills and we feel accomplished and more confident. Parent/toddler groups can also provide social opportunities for single or stay-at-home parents. Getting a massage or a visit to the doctor’s office can relieve some loneliness by providing interactions which, though in some ways superficial, allow for opportunities to meet others. Even the internet can help reduce loneliness and boredom. How else would you have found this blog post?

On a community level, we can also reach out to those individuals to increase the chances to socializing with peers. If you know someone who you suspect might be struggling with loneliness, invite them over to your apartment or house for a warm cup of tea, coffee, or cocoa. Be active rather than passive, and don’t expect those who may be struggling with season depression to ask for help. Ask your friends and neighbors how they are doing, building your own social connections further.

For some individuals though, loneliness and sadness have become so much the norm that it’s a struggle to do these things on their own. In such cases, asking for help from a professional is the best way to help yourself. Particularly if you struggle with thoughts related to harming yourself or worse – while these thoughts are normal, especially if you feel alone, it’s a sign that it’s time to ask for help.