Get Better Sleep: How Five Minutes Of Deep Rest A Day Can Make A Difference

By Amanda Linnell
Biologist and wellbeing teacher Niamh Ryan shares the importance of sleep and rest.

Welcome to Change Your Life In Your Lunchtime, our four-part series on how to minimise anxiety and feelings of overwhelm, from the power of deep breathing to meditation. In our first episode, Vicky Cullinane discussed breathing exercises to relieve stress. For our second, Niamh Ryan shares the importance

At this time of the year, the pace of life can be overwhelming, with lots of late nights and endless to-do lists. For biologist and wellbeing teacher Niamh Ryan, it’s all a matter of choice.

“One of the biggest life lessons I have learned,” says the effervescent Niamh, “is that stress is optional. When I first moved from Ireland to New Zealand 10 years ago, I had a highly stressful corporate job, so I took up yoga to help me find some balance. This and meditation gave me the opportunity to be able to ‘zoom out’ on my life and see if the response I was giving each situation was appropriate — or could I give myself more perspective and ask, ‘Is this going to be so important in five days?’ Usually, the answer was no.”

Another key lesson for Niamh was gaining a greater understanding of the difference between sleep and rest and how during the day, it’s important to take regular five-minute rest breaks.

“We live in a culture of burnout where people allow themselves to get into truly exhausted states,” she says. “A lot of people can go to bed, have eight hours sleep and still wake up tired. When I noticed this happening to me, I put my biology hat on and discovered I can have moments of rest during the day — where I stop and pause for five minutes and give myself a break. By doing this, you start to move your nervous system from a stressed state down to a calmed state. Some of the techniques I learned from my wellness practices were really simple, and I integrate them into my day.

“For example, I love tea, so I connect to my breath while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil. This helps me to gain perspective, mental space and time to settle my thoughts. Or standing and washing the dishes, where I take time to notice the sensation of the water on my hands, the sounds of the water … This helps me to be fully present, not drifting back and thinking about something that’s happened in the past or planning the future. It’s about being present, where I can choose my responses.”

One of Niamh’s favourite practices to achieve a sense of deep relaxation without falling asleep is yoga nidra. This involves lying down and following either a led practice or simply doing a self-body scan, releasing the stress from different parts of your body from head to toe.

This is a process which has become more mainstream thanks to American podcaster and neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, who, Niamh explains, has taken the technique, stripped the spiritual aspect of it away and distilled it down to what he calls “NSDR”, or non-sleep deep rest.

“That practice is a technique where you drop down through the different layers of the body, down into the dream state. You can do this over 30 minutes, and it starts a reset for the nervous system and really starts to find that deep place of rest, which the body needs and that we sometimes don’t get to in sleep because our cortisol levels are too high.

“When our adrenal glands are put under pressure, cortisol is fantastic. It’s a hormone that is essential for when we are in flight-or-fight mode, but only for the short term. The problem is the long-standing impact it has on the body and the correlation between stress levels and auto-immune diseases. When I saw that link, it was alarm bells for me. It was vital to put the practices in place to help me realise I don’t need to be stressed about things. I have control over how I respond.

“I used to be reactive to everything. Now, it’s about being able to pause and choose how I respond. Ultimately, it’s about creating more capacity for me to have greater agency within my own life.”

Niamh’s Top Tips For Rest & Sleep

  • During the day, use the timer on your phone to set five to 10 minutes for each task to help you stay present and connected to what you do.
  • Make the most of daily activities, such as making a cup of tea or washing the dishes, to practice being present. Focus on your breath, feel your feet on the ground, listen to the sound of the jug boiling, feel the warm water on your hands, smell the scent of the dishwashing liquid.
  • Lie on the floor or a yoga mat (not a bed) and do a body scan from your head to your toes. Are you frowning, is your jaw clenched, are your hands and arms relaxed, how deep is your breathing, wriggle your toes.
  • At night, develop a routine before going to bed and make sleep a priority.
  • Switch off all digital devices at least an hour before going to sleep.
  • Dim the lights and create a cool environment via open windows or a fan.
  • Make yourself a calming cup of tea and read a book.
  • A good night’s sleep sets you up for the next day.
  • When you wake in the morning, expose yourself to natural sunlight to let your body know it’s time to wake up.

Below, join Niamh Ryan as she leads a meditation for releasing tension in your upper body.

Next week, we explore techniques to avoid feeling stressed and overwhelmed in the workplace. For more dedicated wellness videos, sign up for Studio Red Wellness.

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Dr Libby: What Happens When You Don’t Have Enough ‘Beauty Sleep’? And how can you encourage a good night’s sleep?

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