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February 05, 2021 1 Comment
Feeling exhausted but can’t drift off to sleep when you climb into bed? During lockdown round 3, unsurprisingly, there’s a range of things that might be keeping us awake at night: worries about finances and future employment, the challenges of home schooling, our wellbeing and the ongoing restrictions on our lives, each detrimentally fuel our inability to ease naturally into sleep. This period in time aside, there will be very few of you reading this who has never experienced sleep problems. Our emotional wellbeing and the vast range of life challenges that we each experience mean that sleep health varies amongst us all.
Sleep is as essential to our survival as food and water. Its deeply restorative effect allows us to function effectively as human beings; without it, quite simply, we are unable to thrive. Given its integral role on the body and mind’s ability to regenerate and renew its cellular structures, it really is time well spent if we’re able to devote some energy to sleep preparation.
A whole range of factors can affect and interrupt our sleep pattern including heightened stress levels, menopausal hormone fluctuations, alcohol consumption, age and the physical and emotional health of our mind and body. Nestled within those very tangible variants, is the evidence that scientific research is now able to show us, which illustrates that it’s what we do in the hour leading up to sleep that can significantly impact on our ability to drift into and remain asleep for 6-8 hours.
Our cardiovascular and immune systems both rely heavily on a good night’s sleep, as does our metabolism. The protective function of our skin also benefits from the luxury of sleep as skin cell renewal and signs of daily skin fatigue are restored and rejuvenated with the TLC that a good night’s sleep provides.
Understanding the impact of sleep and its relationship to our ability to flourish as human beings is important. Developing healthy pre-sleep practices to aid and assist with the process of sleep can be life enhancing; self-care really is something that we all deserve to experience. Putting it into practice really does matter.
Treating ourselves with kindness, as we would a good friend, is the basis of self-compassion; a wonderful self-kindness starting point is putting some time aside for oneself, even if it’s only ten minutes a day. The cumulative effect of small amounts of time dedicated to self-care, all add up. Starting with what we do at the end of the day might sound like a contradiction in terms but it makes sense really. Expecting to climb into bed and find sleep immediately is an unrealistic expectation especially when we have so many extra troublesome things affecting our minds at the moment.
Being busy is a chronic modern day problem. We spend so much of our day ‘doing’, that the body’s stress response is constantly stimulated. Actively putting time aside to enjoy the experience of simply ‘being’ is something that we can all benefit from.
Following on from a post on Kate McIver’s Instagram page, I was encouraged to share with you my pre bedtime routine that’s helping me to ease into sleep more easily. It’s not complicated; it’s straightforward and that’s its beauty really. We’re learning as we move into our new normal that it’s the simple things in our lives that can bring most joy and comfort. My four-step approach involves what we all have readily available to us: our senses and our breath; it’s the essence of being mindful; something that we’re hearing so much about these days.
My mindfulness sleep preparation routine
We all know the importance of incorporating physical exercise into our daily lives; we can feel its benefits on our mental wellbeing and the improvement in muscle tone and strength as we regularly exercise. What is less well known perhaps is the importance of regularly attending to our mind, developing an awareness of our thoughts and the benefits of focusing on our breathing. This is particularly helpful to us as part of our bedtime routine, prior to climbing into bed at night.
When I incorporate this little nighttime ritual into my pre-sleep routine I’m much more likely to drift into sleep easily.
Step 1: Darkening the environment in the bedroom an hour or so before I’m due to climb into bed means that I’m walking into a dimly lit room at bedtime. This helps to further stimulate the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
Step 2: Limiting the exposure to my brain from technology devices such as my laptop and mobile phone one hour before my planned bedtime, helps to dampen down the output of adrenalin and cortisol stress response hormones that are spiked by too much scrolling time in the lead up to sleep. (We all know this is important. Sticking to it is the hard bit but not if we remind ourselves just how beneficial it is to our wellbeing).
Step 3: Includes a warm bath or shower using essential oil based products. I prefer to have a bath and soak for a minimum of ten minutes in warm but not overly hot water, with 3-4 drops of therapeutic grade lavender added to the water, once the bath has been filled. If you prefer a shower or don’t have a bath, then choose a body wash that contains good quality relaxing effect essential oils. My go to choice as part of my night time routine is always lavender and I make sure that it’s therapeutic grade lavender, i.e. that doesn’t have bulking agents or adulterants added and which is preferably sourced from France, the world renowned home for optimum lavender growing conditions, at high altitude. It matters that it’s good quality lavender with a high ester content to achieve maximum soothing, calming and relaxing effects on the limbic region of the brain.
Focusing my mind on each inhalation and exhalation during gentle breathing helps the aromatic molecules to calm and soothe the nervous system. (I also add two drops of lavender onto my pillow to achieve a layering effect on my sense of smell and to enable me to continue to inhale the organic, naturally occurring chemicals that are contained within its molecules as I’m sleeping).
Step 4: (This is my favourite part!). After drying and getting into pj’s, I lie on my bed and begin a short mindfulness meditation body scan:
And now, if I haven’t drifted into sleep already, a few more gentle breaths in and out, allow me to notice and focus on the aroma from the lavender on the pillow beneath my head. My sleep preparation routine has found its way home and landed me carefully into sleep.
So, who is Laura Ashworth, we can tell you she is one pretty remarkable lady -
Laura Ashurst lives in Stokesley in North Yorkshire with her husband Paul. She has lived with breast cancer in her life for the last 19 years, 13 of those years with secondary breast cancer. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 at the age of 34, when her son Jack was almost 6 months old and her daughter Megan was 3. Laura underwent a lumpectomy, and 25 sessions of radiotherapy but went on to face the challenge of another diagnosis of primary breast cancer three years later, aged 37. She had her right breast removed followed by an immediate reconstruction. Any hopes for breast cancer being eliminated from her life were dashed, when she was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in her lungs and pleural lining three years later. She had just celebrated her 40th birthday. Given a prognosis of ‘up to two years ’, she experienced a severe decline in her mental health.
With the support of her husband, close family and friends and professional help via a clinical psychologist from whom she still receives support, Laura regained her ability to mentally function well. First line chemotherapy in 2008 was unsuccessful, allowing tumour sites to grow, but following ovarian radiation, Laura then responded to the aromatase inhibitor drug Letrozole, which has enabled her to exceed her original life expectancy prognosis by 11 years. Having first hand experience of receiving a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer and the lack of available support for the decline in mental wellbeing that this triggers, she is passionate about raising awareness of the emotional and physical support that people require after a diagnosis of a life limiting disease like secondary breast cancer.
The median life expectancy after a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer is approximately 3-5 years. Laura is acutely aware that the biology of her disease means that whilst she is currently responding well to second line treatment, this can change at any time. Despite the current availability of breast cancer drugs within the NHS that were still in the research and development stage when Laura was first diagnosed with the incurable version of the disease, accessibility to new drugs still remains an issue. She has met many people during the last 13 years who, despite living with incurable secondary cancer themselves, campaign tirelessly for change; these people inspire Laura daily. She is proud to feel part of a very supportive breast cancer community within the UK.
She is an Ambassador for Cancer Research UK for her constituency (Richmond-Yorks) and has worked on a number of campaigns for them since 2011, including A Voice for Radiotherapy. Her advocacy and voluntary work for breast cancer charities over the years has helped Laura to find her voice in trying to support other people who’ve experienced a breast cancer diagnosis.
She is the Patron of the Trinity Holistic Centre at The James Cook University Hospital, which provides a range of complementary therapies for patients undergoing cancer treatment. In April last year, Laura was invited to join the volunteer administration support team at the Building Resilience in Cancer Centre, which was founded by Professor Naz Derakshan. Her voluntary work plays an extremely important role in her mental wellbeing. By trying to help others, Laura feels the impact of this on her mental wellbeing too.
Laura’s career up to the age of 36 was teaching in a Further Education college where she was Head of Health and Care She has a background in beauty therapy and went on to specialize in aromatherapy, co-writing the first Foundation Degree in Aromatherapy (Complementary Therapies) in the North East of England for Teesside University in 2004.
She currently works as a consultant for the Halo charity in Middlesbrough, which was founded by Yasmin Khan. She developed ‘Halo Exhale’, which is an eight-week trauma aftercare programme specifically designed for survivors of honour based violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
Laura writes a blog at www.lauraashurst.com and speaks publicly at events across the country about her experiences. She is also a mindfulness meditation practitioner.
Her motto is ‘living with hope’.
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May 15, 2022