“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
— Anne Lamott

Rest makes us more persistent, more productive, and more likely to live a long, healthy life. Rest is key to becoming the best personal and professional versions of ourselves. Period.

Unfortunately, the ingrained cultural belief, especially in the practice of law, that our value is intertwined with our ability to produce encourages us to accept the sacrifice of our health and time with those most important to us. We are taught to bypass vacations, to get ahead by putting in endless hours of work, to take on more cases and projects to help others, all to potentially obtain promotion, to feel worthy, or to experience success. While this pursuit does assist others and changes people’s lives, we also risk developing a physical or behavioral health emergency, one that demands rest, as a result of this belief.

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t become our best selves by pushing through life without taking time off, by navigating endless hours of work and family responsibilities, by finishing endless projects in our homes, or by filling our schedules to the max to meet the needs of everyone else. It is not grit. Nor is it the façade that we can handle anything thrown our way. The secret to a good life is prioritizing rest – before rest is prioritized for us.

Sleep, the ultimate form of rest, is crucial for the optimal functioning of all our biological systems, our psychological well-being, and our ability to effectively interact with others. It is only during sleep that our brains change through the process of neuroplasticity and when the waste products of daily stress are cleared away. Sleep is scientifically proven to be one of the best defenses against cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s Disease, for improving mood, and decreasing heart disease. Sleep also helps to regulate our blood sugar levels, to optimize our immune system, and to balance the hormones which impact our hunger cues and weight. If you’re an athlete, sleep is also what provides the best repair and allows for optimal performance and response times.

If you’re finding it hard to get quality sleep, you are not alone. Research shows the legal community experiences sleep difficulties at some of the highest rates among all professionals. It is also well established that sleep difficulties increase with age and that physical and mental health issues can interfere with our ability to sleep. As we age, our circadian rhythms and hormone levels change, impacting our sleep cycle on a biological level. We can also anticipate sleep disturbance and psychological distress in response to stressful life events – such as the past 20 months. It is quite a vicious cycle: stress leads to inadequate sleep, which leads to the development of a physical or mental health issue, which leads to inadequate sleep, which leads to a stressful event, which leads to inadequate sleep, which leads to the development of a new physical or mental health issue.

Pre-pandemic, in the United States alone it was estimated that $411 billion are lost each year due to insufficient sleep (Hafner et al., 2017). In 2016 the Centers for Disease Control declared insufficient sleep (less than seven hours a night) a public health problem. At that time, the CDC reported that 35% of U.S. adults do not get adequate sleep.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, increased everyone’s stress and exacerbated physical and mental health issues for many of us. The rates of sleep disturbance skyrocketed, especially for those who became ill with COVID-19. A quick search of Google Scholar, limited to publications from 2020 to 2021 and using the search terms “COVID and sleep,” revealed over 66,000 articles on the topic. One review (Jahrami et al., 2021) noted that approximately 40% of people reported sleep problems since the start of the pandemic, and this number increased to 75% in the group of people who have had COVID-19.

Fortunately, there are some simple strategies for prioritizing sleep, both to improve quantity and quality. Seek consistency in using these strategies, not perfection, and be patient with yourself. It is consistency that is most important from a health perspective.

  • Create a sleep-conducive environment. Our body is cued for sleep in darkness and cool temperatures. Make your bedroom as dark as possible, lower the temperature a bit, and/or turn on a fan. Sound pollution can also be very disruptive. Blackout curtains can help minimize both light and noise. Also consider using a noise machine, a fan with white noise, or playing calming/relaxing music.
  • Wake up and go to bed at the same time whenever possible. Inevitably life will get in the way of this one, especially if you are a caregiver or dealing with a crisis. However, prioritizing your bed and wake-up times help train the body for optimal sleep. And yes, this includes weekends and vacations too.
  • Practice a bedtime routine. Turn off all electronics (like phones, computers, TVs, smart watches) 30-60 minutes before bed. Put your phone in its resting place for the evening, out of reach and ideally outside of the bedroom. Engage in activities that signal to your brain that you are winding down. The options here are endless and need to be personalized. Consider activities that get your body ready for bed (shower/wash face, brush teeth, change into pjs, journal, dim the lights, meditate, diffuse calming essential oils) and preparation that will make your morning easier (pick out clothes, prepare lunch, final pick up of house, get coffee/tea ready, write out to-do list). Consider a family bedtime routine to benefit everyone.
  • Set yourself up for sleep success earlier in the day. Our daily habits significantly impact our sleep. Exercising regularly, drinking enough water, minimizing caffeine in the afternoon and evenings, not using tobacco, and not using alcohol or cannabis before bed can significantly improve our ability to get a good night sleep. Although it is commonly believed that alcohol and cannabis help us get to sleep, they actually impact REM sleep and blood sugar levels, decreasing sleep quality. The next time you’re feeling groggy in the afternoon, take a walk or a quick nap (20-90 minutes) instead of reaching for another cup of coffee. Even if you can’t fall asleep, turning off the lights, laying down and closing your eyes for just five to ten minutes, without distraction, is better than continuing to push through.
  • Complete your stress cycle. Stress that remains in our body impacts our ability to get restful sleep. The most efficient way to complete the stress cycle is through physical activity (like walking, breathing exercises, biking, a big ugly cry, or a dance break), but creativity, laughter, and human connection are other options. Do something daily to work toward ridding your body of stress.
  • Get professional help. For many of us, these strategies will not be enough for a good night’s sleep. Reach out to your primary care physician or a mental health provider to get medical support specific to your circumstances. Medications to treat anxiety and depression or to directly address sleep issues can be beneficial. A sleep study may also be warranted. Working with a professional also offers accountability toward the ultimate goal of improved sleep.

For tailored ideas for improving your sleep or for referrals to sleep experts, reach out to your free and confidential Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program, (COLAP) at (303) 986-3345 or email us at info@coloradolap.org for a consultation.

Dr. Robyn Hacker is a Colorado licensed psychologist, licensed addiction counselor, and certified EMDR therapist with over ten years of clinical experience treating addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health concerns. 

Sarah Myers, executive director of the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program, is the coordinating editor of this wellness series. Contact COLAP for free and confidential assistance at 303-986-3345 and info@coloradolap.org.