How to Sleep in Heavenly Peace This Holiday Season


Dec 2, 2013

child sleeping near a Christmas tree

This commentary originally appeared on The Huffington Post on November 29, 2013.

From the run up to Thanksgiving right on through New Year's Day, the things dancing in my head at bedtime are hardly visions of sugar plums. It's more likely that my sleep will be disturbed by needless worry over my menu selections, or the number of matching cream-colored napkins I have in stock, or fear I've left someone off my gift list.

Yes, when it comes to sleep troubles, 'tis the season.

As a sleep researcher and clinician, I am keenly aware that the holiday season is a time when people try to do too much. And that often leads to stress and worry, which can be the enemies of a good night's sleep. I have spent the last 10 years of my waking life studying sleep, so I've developed a few tricks to help manage the episodic bouts of insomnia that are common during the holidays. Following these rules can help you sleep better, brighten your holiday mood and maybe even keep your weight under control.

1. Have a consistent wake-up time.

This is easier said than done during the holidays, as schedules often become erratic and late night-parties make sleeping in a delicious temptation. Don't surrender to it. When you sleep in, your “sleep drive” is diminished, making it more difficult to fall asleep the coming night. You can think of your sleep drive like a rubber band — to be able to fall asleep deeply and quickly, you want that rubber band to be extra taut. When you sleep in and then try to go to bed at the same time as usual, that rubber band is going to be kind of floppy (i.e., you won't have accumulated enough sleep drive). So having a consistent wake time will ensure that your sleep drive is high throughout the week. Wake time is the single most important factor that sets our internal biological clocks — scientists have demonstrated that keeping our schedules in sync with our biological clocks is critical to maintaining optimal health. In fact, just recently, research has shown that women who have a consistent wake time have lower body fat. So this tip may come with the collateral benefit of helping avoid those added pounds that are often the companion of holiday indulgence.

2. Exercise and do it outside if you can.

Physical activity and exposure to natural light are good for sleep and good ways to reduce stress and improve mood. Recent research has shown that engaging in regular physical activity improves sleep quality in both healthy sleepers and individuals with insomnia. On the other hand, a 2013 study demonstrated that after a poor night of sleep, participants were much less likely to engage in exercise the next day. Lead author of the study, Dr. Kelly Glazer-Baron, notes that “Consistency is the key. Keep up your exercise over the holidays.” And, of course, a brisk walk after dinner can help neutralize the calories, and possibly the guilt, that came with that second slice of pumpkin pie.

3. Schedule 15 minutes of “worry time” at least one hour before bedtime.

If you allow your mind ample time to think through your to-do list, solve problems and confront worry, it's less likely these demons will come calling at 3 a.m. Writing these thoughts down can further reduce the likelihood that they will reappear after you return to bed. Scientists have shown that scheduled writing activities can reduce feelings of stress as well as physiological symptoms of stress (e.g., blood pressure, cortisol). Scheduled worry can actually train your brain that the time to worry is over when the time for a restful night of sleep arrives.

4. Avoid excessive alcohol consumption.

A glass of wine at dinner, a champagne toast at midnight, for many these are cherished holiday traditions. Fine, but don't overdo it. There are a lot of misconceptions about the effects of alcohol on sleep. Science has shown us that while a “nightcap” can induce sleep onset, as the body metabolizes the alcohol, it ultimately ends up disrupting sleep later in the night. Particularly around the holidays, when there are plenty of opportunities to imbibe, the “nightcap” can become three, four or more “nightcaps.” This can lead to even greater sleep disturbances, not to mention a hangover, which may lead you to want to sleep in and skip exercise. And thus, a vicious cycle begins.

5. Don't just lie there stewing in the juices of your own worry.

If you can't fall asleep or wake up and can't fall back to sleep, get out of bed. Researchers call this technique “stimulus control.” This is another brain-training exercise, one that teaches you to associate the bed with sleep (and sex) and not with worry, frustration and stress. But don't use this time on stimulating activities like catching up on work, surfing the net or playing that new video game. Instead do something distracting enough to get your mind off your sleeplessness. Strategies that my patients most frequently use are reading, crossword puzzles, sorting socks (seriously), cross-stitch or listening to relaxing music. The idea is to engage in this activity until you feel sleepy again, at which point you return to bed.

Follow these simple rules to help reduce the stress, worry and overindulgence that can rob you of sleep and dampen your holiday spirit. Sleeping in heavenly peace is also a worthy holiday tradition.

Wendy Troxel is a clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology.

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