Hello Screen Time, Goodbye Sleep?

A Stressful Night

Tick, tock.  I turn over, grab the clock, look at the time and see that it’s 3am. Worse than I thought.  A surge of panic runs through my body.  “What am I going to do?” then,  “How am I going to function?” and “How will I make it through my day?” My thoughts are racing rapid-fire and are hardly thoughts conducive of sleep. Insomnia had hit, with more than a touch of panic.

I find the topic of insomnia a curious thing. It was a rare event until I had children and became introduced to the strange world of regular sleep disruption.  In my 20s I thought little about good sleep habits, or sleep hygiene, as mental health professionals like to say. I took a warped sense of pride in the fact that I could have a big mug of caffeinated tea at 9pm and not feel any effects on my sleep or go out for coffee with friends well after dinner. Somehow this made me accomplished in some way and what were all those people with sleep problems and insomnia talking about anyway??  Why was it so hard for them?

So, back to 3am.  I am lying in my bed, begging for sleep and I think to myself, “can something useful come out of this?” I then think, “I’m not sleeping anyway,” so I run through a postmortem: what happened and can I prevent it?

Fortunately for me, it isn’t rocket science, and I gave the answer away in the title of this article: my computer use.

Reflect and Learn

Sometimes I have smartypants thoughts like when I installed a program on my laptop, F.lux, which “warms up” the lighting on the screen to match what you would see in your environment. In the daytime when there’s lots of natural light, it’s nice and bright and as evening falls, the screen dims and takes on a yellow hue, resembling what you’d get from a lamp in your home. After adjusting the settings to include your typical wake-up time, come evening, F.lux also sends you regular reminders of how long you have until you have to wake up, almost like a nagging parent.

I installed F.lux because of my concerns about blue light and its implication in keeping people awake at night. Blue light, or the wavelength of light that boosts attention, reaction times and mood, is superb in the daytime but can be disastrous at night, with its melatonin-lowering properties which interfere with circadian rhythm, according to the folks at Harvard University. We may sleep less, eat more and experience longer-term health implications.

But clearly, F.lux was not enough. In typical self-reflecting therapist fashion, I looked at may day. Were there any significant stresses? No. Was there something unresolved? No. Was there a change to the daily routine? Gotcha.

Mistake number one: opening my computer at 10pm.

Mistake number two: checking emails.

Mistake number three: responding to emails.

Mistake number four: engaging in complex problem-solving related to the email.

Mistake number five: responding to new and related issues/projects related to being on the computer.

Now finished, I shut the computer and looked at the clock.  Midnight. Where had the time gone? I noticed my mind was racing.

No matter, I said, it’s time to go to bed!  And quickly! I was already one to one and a half hours past the time I typically fall asleep and two hours after I usually start getting ready.  “But I’m not in the least bit tired!” I thought.  “But it’s time,” I countered.  And you know the rest of the story.

As strange as this may sound, I bow in gratitude to this fateful Summer night, because it taught me a lot. It also helped me change my habits, and there are a few that I’m still working on.

Not everyone is ready to change their nighttime relationship with their devices. I get that.  And I don’t judge.  For me, the threat of insomnia involves sacrifice, particularly if I want to reduce the likelihood of a reoccurrence.

Tips for Being a Nighttime Screen-Time Scrooge

  1. Increase Awareness/Crack Through Denial – This can be particularly helpful when tempted to use too close to your bedtime.  I like to connect with the horror of past insomnia attacks: remembering the helplessness of not being able to sleep, the ruminative thoughts, the difficulty getting through the next day, etc.  Then these past experiences don’t go to waste. They inform us rather than just merely oppressing us. This also helps crack through any existing denial.
  2. Establish a cut off time at night for interacting with devices (laptops, desktops, tablets, phones….you get the point). Harvard researchers recommend 2-3 hours before sleep.  Myself, I’m not quite where I’d like to be yet. I’ve chosen 9pm, but my new goal is to reset to 8:30.
  3. Have devices out of sight to reduce the temptation to use.  My laptop is tucked away, charging, in a part of my home that I don’t go to as much. My phone goes there too.  It’s just so tempting to check it if it’s in a high traffic area, particularly phones, because they’re so convenient.
  4. Remove electronics from your bedroom, particularly your night table. This is a sub-point related to number 3 but it’s so important that I want it to stand on its own. Almost nothing is more disruptive to sleep than having alerts going off, whether it’s sounds, light or vibrations. If your device isn’t portable, like a desktop, drape it with a fancy cloth that blends in with your decor.
  5. Invest in an analog or old-school alarm clock – travel versions can usually be had for $10-$15. Using your cell phone as an alarm clock can drastically increase the temptation to check or otherwise engage with it, particularly when it’s in arm’s reach.
  6. Have a ritual around turning your devices off at night. As silly as this may sound, I like to say good night to my devices and thank them for their service. It’s one way of cultivating gratitude as well as boundaries around use.
  7. Have a soothing ‘bridge,’ or winding down activity after turning off your devices and before transitioning to bed. Many of my clients know that I like to knit so I pick a knitting project that’s not too complex and that I can do in lower-light conditions.

If you find yourself unable to sleep after 30 minutes of trying to sleep, please don’t remain in bed. Here are my tips:

  1. Avoid light-emitting electronics – obvious, but I had to say it.
  2. Keep the light in your dwelling very low, under 40 watts is ideal; limit to one light if possible.
  3. Choose a soothing, non-stimulating activity to engage in. Low- or no-tech is great. Any such activities should be outside of your bedroom, as you want to associate your bedroom with sleep, not activity.
  4. Avoid physical exercise or activity, including housework, which can increase alertness.
  5. A cup of warm milk, non-caffeinated tea or a warm bath can help to promote sleep.
  6. Wait until feeling sleepy before trying again to return to bed.

I wish you all a good night’s rest!