The Power of Sleep with Risa Gabrielle

Wake up to the power of sleep and rest with Risa Gabrielle

We recently had the pleasure of chatting to Risa Gabrielle, a sleep therapist, to discuss sleep and its impact on our mental, physical and emotional health and wellbeing. Risa is also a yoga teacher and transformational coach. Her passion is empowering people to create sustainable changes – whether through sleep or lifestyle changes, big and small.

In part 2 of our Sleep for Mind, Body and Soul series, Risa shares her perspective along with practical advice you can apply today to help you build rest into your day and get a better night’s sleep, along with much more.

Only got 30 seconds? Here are Risa’s 3 handy pointers to help you sleep:

1. Screen time – stop looking at your phone, TV, kindle at least 30 minutes before bed. Give yourself the mental space to wind down and switch to sleep. With the caveat that it’s not about perfection… we can all fall off the tech wagon… try again the following night.

2. Don’t be too hard on yourself – if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep… just accept it, and say “what can I do today to feel a little better?”. Put your legs up the wall in the morning during your usual “snooze” routine – to help get your energy flowing and kick-start the day. Practice Yoga Nidra. Add some breathing exercises in throughout the day.

3. Make rest a priority – think about how you can sneak in even a minute of rest into the day… notice your body, notice your breath.

Everyone’s talking about it

Sleep is such a topical area of discussion these days… why is it so “of the moment”?

Well, excuse the pun, but I think the medical community is really “waking up” to the issues of sleep and how sleep doesn’t do just one thing, it does so many things. There have also been many books published over the last couple of years – from Arianna Huffington’s ‘Sleep Revolution’ to Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep’. Matthew Walker mentions how sleep has been elusive to the medical community for such a long time and how people are finally starting to pay more attention to it and realise that sleep is intrinsic to every part of our lives and our wellbeing.

On top of this, we’re all becoming a little more curious and interested in sleep, because we are, as a society, facing burn-out on an epic scale. It might be true burn-out or mild [burn-out] in terms of how we’re switched on all the time, always on our phone, on call, answering emails. We tend to sacrifice our sleep, and rest, and we wonder why we feel so horrible. So, I think it’s this kind of general awakening, and realising that we need to know more about our sleep, need to care more and do something about it.

Sleep and our mental health

What insight and tips can you share with us about sleep and its impact on our mental health both from the perspective of managing stress and anxiety, and performance?

For any type of mental health issues – whether it’s stress, anxiety or depression – sleep is either always a symptom or causation, so they’re very much tied together. There are these vicious cycles we can get into in terms of sleep and our issues around this. Number one, when we are stressed our body produces more cortisol, and when we have more cortisol in the body it dulls our melatonin production. Melatonin is one of the things that signals the body that it’s time to go to sleep. So, we then have trouble sleeping, and then when we haven’t slept, well, we have more stress, and more stress leads to more cortisol, and we get into this horrible cycle.

Another thing that’s good to think about when talking about mental health and sleep, is what the different stages of sleep do. The REM stage is really important for processing our memories, and everything that happens in your day. If you’re not getting good REM sleep you will get a back-log the next day when you try to go to sleep, of all the different stuff you didn’t process from the day before. The next night when you go to sleep, you have so much more that you subconsciously need to do and it really takes a toll on our mental health.

The more common [vicious] cycle that I’m sure we’ve all felt at some point in our life is when you have a big presentation the next day, or an early flight and you’re switched on and haven’t been able to drop off to sleep. Well that’s because adrenalin starts coursing through our body and again that impedes our sleep. We tend to think of this stuff as all being mental, but it’s good to know that our mental state has a huge connection with what’s going on in our body, and there are things we can do to get ourselves out of this adrenalin state so we can drift off and go to sleep. It’s not just in our mind, it’s all connected, mind and body.

Sleep for Physical Performance

We’re all here fresh from our HIIT workout, and are all of course interested in sleep and its importance physically speaking. What tips and tricks can you share, and myths can you dispel?

Talking again about the different stages of sleep – it’s like looking at a stairway going down… you walk down, past the various stages of sleep – first REM and then you get to the deep anabolic sleep stage. And down here is really important for muscle growth and repair. For our hormone reproduction and immunity. I can always tell if I’m not sleeping well, as I’m so much more susceptible to getting a cold. It’s really important for our physical body that we are getting good sleep.

At the same time, exercising is a really good way to get yourself sleeping better. But one thing that’s important to consider is the time of day that you’re exercising. I want to introduce the idea of activation. If you can imagine that you are like a tightly wound ball of string, and you want to do things during the day that’s going to unwind this ball of string, so you can lay it down on the bed at night and chill out. What we don’t want to then do is go to a really intense class at 8pm at night, because we’re going to “reactivate” ourselves, and wind ourselves back up. I know that’s hard in our modern lives – depending on what time you get out of work, and if you’re not a morning person – like me. If you have read Matthew Walker’s book – he talks about this. 40% of us are morning people, 30% are night owls and 30% are somewhere in between, and this is down to our chrono type which is built into your genetic code.

So if you are like me and you’re a night owl, stop feeling pressured that you need to become a morning person, that’s not going to happen. It’s good to know our chronotype,  so you can work with it… there are things that we can do to work with our body type. That said, for everybody exercising late at night, or eating a big meal before bed – which you’ll go to bed trying to digest – is never a good idea. Also consider other things that we do with our body which interferes with our sleep – like how late in the day you’re having caffeine. Caffeine has a half life – which means it stays in the body much longer than you think. If you are sensitive to caffeine, try stopping having it earlier in the day and see how that works.

Sleep for soothing the soul

We all know that we need to sleep, whether we struggle with it or indeed prioritise it enough is another matter… but what other wisdom or tips can you share to help us get the best sleep for mind, body AND SOUL?

Our idea and thoughts around sleep and rest need to have a reevaluation and shift. I think in our society we tend to think of rest as not being productive – the antithesis of being productive. When rest is the most productive thing you can do for yourself. And sleep and rest is tied into our nervous system. The reason I’m so passionate about sleep is that I’ve had problems with sleep my whole life. I’m not here talking to you because I’m naturally really good at sleep. I’ve always had issues with my sleep since when I was a little kid. It got worse in my twenties. I started having problems with sleep paralysis… I went to sleep labs, tried all these medicines and nothing made me feel better. It wasn’t until years later when I started teaching yoga and later trained as a sleep therapist that I learned about the importance and connection between sleep and the body’s nervous systems.

There are two nervous systems that are important to sleep – the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The easiest way to think about them is that the sympathetic system is “fight of flight” – the state you go into when you’re being chased through the jungle by the tiger and you have to get to safety or you’re walking down the street in London and nearly get hit by a bus – that’s when the body switches on the sympathetic nervous system. It should only be used in the case of emergencies. The problem is in our modern lives we tend to be living in this sympathetic nervous system state all the time – we’re always on our phones, with notifications going off… which spikes our cortisol. We very rarely let ourselves settle down. We are in this heightened state and we don’t even realise it – it’s the new normal. There are good uses for this system but we shouldn’t be in it 24/7.

Rest and Digest

We need to find ways to get ourselves out of that and into the parasympathetic nervous system state… which is called “Rest and Digest” and as the name suggests in this state we have better digestion. We have better function of all our internal organs. It’s better for our heart beat, our sex drive. It’s a good nervous system to hang out a little bit more in… so there are a lot of things we can do in the day to help us get back into this state… because what we want to avoid is going going going non-stop all day and then the first time you stop is when you hit the bed at night… and then you wonder why you can’t go to sleep. Think about how to rethink rest as not being a lazy thing, not being the antithesis of productivity but actually something that can give us more energy during the day and can help us wind down to night.

Let’s go back to that idea of activation. We want to be signalling to the body in the day that there are things we can do to the body to unwind. A really good time of day to do this… is right after lunch when you have the 2pm slump, when you might feel you need a bit more caffeine or sugar. That is a good time to build in some rest… and it doesn’t have to be anything huge. It might be breathing for a few minutes, it might be closing your eyes and not looking at your screen for a few minutes… or if you have a bit more time, doing a 10 minute guided meditation. There are so many good apps from Waking up to Headspace to Calm to Insight Timer.

If you have a little more time… I highly recommend Yoga Nidra. 30 minutes is equivalent to one or two hours of sleep. It’s a guided meditation but you literally don’t have to do anything… if you fall asleep that’s totally fine. And when you wake up you’re not going to feel groggy. You can do this in the morning, if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep (because we’re not perfect, we are going to have bad nights) or you could do it after work if you need an extra burst of energy ahead of going out to a work function or meeting friends. The only time I wouldn’t recommend it, is right before bed as it’s so restorative it will mess with your sleep.

Another tip if you’re a chronic snooze presser – which I am – is instead of pressing snooze, do a restorative yoga pose. The one I like to do is with my legs up against the wall… walk your feet and legs against the wall so it feels like the wall is holding you and you’re not having to do too much work. Rest your hands on your belly or by your side and press snooze if you want to… This is a really powerful pose… as it’s an inversion. You are getting the circulation running differently so it can have the same benefits as doing a headstand in terms of energising you (without having to stand on your head!). It’s also a good thing to do during the course of the day… if you can sneak in a break at work, and so what if your colleagues think you’re weird?! You can say “I’m going to feel better after this and you’re not!” The reason we don’t want to drop back into snooze is our sleep cycles are on average 90 minutes. So in a 9 minute snooze, you’re never going to get back into a sleep cycle, it’s like torturing yourself… try this [putting your legs up the wall] next time you’re going to hit snooze. I guarantee that once you get practiced, it’s going to be so much easier to get up.

And my final tool to getting into the parasympathetic nervous system is around focusing on the breath… taking a few minutes of deep breaths in and extending the exhale, as you go. This is such a useful exercise and you can use it in so many different ways – just a few minutes at different points throughout the day. Before a big meeting or presentation, to give you clarity, and when you’re in bed trying to fall asleep.

So to conclude, think about how you can bring in a little rest into your day. This can be an internal revolution that you can start doing… say to yourself “if I do these things, I will feel better afterwards”.

And to finish, we always ask the following three questions of our interviewees…

How do you keep mentally fit?

I stay on top of my inner critic, noticing when she’s getting loud, and I immediately replace that voice of judgement with my voice of wisdom. Which leads into the next point, I lean on my intuition hugely. It’s something I had to learn, as I didn’t always know how to recognise my intuition. I now teach intuition work as a coach – it’s so vital to staying grounded and sane. I also practice fierce boundary setting, which can range from protecting my energy from people and situations who drain me, or simply remembering to say “no” more and not oversubscribe myself. And I write Morning Pages every morning!

How do you keep physically fit?

Yoga, HIIT and rock climbing/bouldering are my go-to physical activities in London. Also hiking and swimming when I can.  But to me physical fitness is just as much about knowing when to pause and give the body some time to reset, so I balance this with restorative yoga and yin yoga, and I also get massages regularly and take magnesium baths to unwind. Discover whatever helps you hit your “reset button” – don’t think of it as pampering but a necessary element to staying fit and feeling good. And make sleep a priority! This will help every part of your physical wellbeing.

And finally any tips & tricks on wellbeing?

Aim to rest daily, even if this means just getting off screens and purposely breathing and checking in with the body for one minute. Close your eyes or stare out the window on public transport. Wake up and write stream of consciousness style Morning Pages every morning, a practice which comes from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It’s like a shower for your brain! This isn’t about writing properly, just freeform letting things out on paper, which will give you clarity, focus and make you less negative in the day as you’ve likely just let your venting out in your notebook instead. Anyone can do it and everyone who does benefits.

Thank you to Risa for sharing your thinking and wisdom on sleep for mind, body and soul with us. You can get in touch with Risa directly here.