Tell me if this sounds familiar: You’re wide awake in the middle of the night—again. Thoughts are playing in your head nonstop. You’re restless. You’re frustrated. You’re dreading your alarm in the morning because you know you’re going to feel tired all day.
You don’t know why you can’t sleep. You prioritize self-care. You spend time walking in nature, reading books, or exercising. Maybe you even treat yourself to a massage now and then. But nothing seems to help you sleep better. (Except medication, and you don’t really want to go there!)
Did you know the same self-care practices that help our bodies to relax actually make our minds more alert?
Think about it. Walking in nature, reading a book, listening to an inspiring podcast or a guided visualization—these practices still activate the brain and stimulate the sympathetic nervous system.
In her excellent book Daring to Rest, Karen Brody, a yoga nidra instructor, explains why it’s unhealthy to stay in high-alert mode all the time. She talks about deep rest as an ideal remedy for today’s worn-out woman and presents a 40-day program for complete physical restoration of the body.
We must learn to integrate nonactivities into our busy schedules—to allow ourselves to, in Karen’s words, “rest in a gap of nothingness, where your thoughts slow down, you can get out of your mind and, often, touch the mysterious familiarity of your soul.”
I recognize in Karen’s perspective what I also teach women when I help them design self-care plans to support their well-being: incorporating “nonactive” time is necessary for our health.
I know what it’s like to lie awake at night, mind racing. I have experienced many periods of sleeplessness. When I finally began tracking my self-care rituals, I realized that, except for my self-Reiki and morning meditation, the rest of my routine made my adrenaline flow. I started to research and evaluate different types of self-care activities and created a radical self-care model that has worked successfully for me and many of the women I work with.
The 4 Elements of Radical Self-Care
1. Stimulating Practices: Most of our self-care activities fall into this category. These activities keep our brains stimulated and our adrenal glands active. Going to the movies, talking to a friend, reading a book, and taking a walk are all stimulating practices.
2. Nonactive Practices: These activities slow down our thoughts, our heartbeats, and the pace of our breathing to allow us to fully relax. Meditating, practicing Reiki or yoga nidra (a deeply restful yoga technique), and even watching a sunset or simply doing nothing at all are nonactive practices. They allow us to find a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping.
3. Reflective Practices: Journaling or writing poems, stories, or therapeutic letters are reflective practices that help us to process our experiences. These practices are important because many of us try to escape or numb our emotions so we don’t have to reconnect with pain. But those suppressed emotions can easily lead to anxiety and depression. (When my mind is too active in the middle of the night, I often get out of bed and journal. I can usually go back to sleep after processing my thoughts.)
4. Creative Practices: You know that creativity is fun, but you don’t think it helps you sleep better, do you? Well, my experience shows that engaging in creative activities relaxes our brains and feeds our souls. When our brains and souls are happy, we are more at peace and in harmony with ourselves. Drawing, coloring, making pottery, and creating mandalas are good examples of creative practices, but art-making is not the only approach.
In her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “A creative life is an amplified life. A bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself.”
Don’t be afraid to evaluate and redesign your self-care practice.
I recommend the following ritual that I try to do once every few months:
- Make a list of your current self-care practices.
- Divide them into the four categories.
- Check that your plan includes activities in all four categories. If you need to, add, subtract, swap, or try new practices.
Even if you commit to only one activity in each category, you are creating a well-balanced self-care plan.
Ideally, you will start and end each day with a nonactive practice. Be intentional about transitioning into your day in the morning, and, at night, encourage better sleep by winding down to full relaxation.
I have worked with many women who, in bringing awareness to their self-care plans, shifted from mostly stimulating daily activities to including activities from all four categories so that, by the end of the day, their nervous systems could relax, and they could feel fully rested.
Developing a self-care routine that integrates stimulating, nonactive, reflective, and creative practices will not only help you to sleep better but will help you to invite more overall harmony into your life.