The bedroom once did what it promised on the tin: there would be a bed, some furniture such as a wardrobe, drawers and maybe a dressing table or a desk. Technology changed things, first with televisions in the bedroom, and today with the multitude of devices that allow us to watch movies, listen to music, interact on social media and play video games from the comfort of our sleep kits. The bedroom has effectively become an extra living space, instead of a room for sleep.
Like the marginal-gains approach, we need to look towards stripping as much of the potential obstacles away as possible as we head towards a sleep state. And if we can’t strip them away then we need to at least learn to control their impact. Our bedrooms must become a sleep sanctuary – a mental and physical recovery room.
The Empty Shell
The first step in creating your recovery room is to start with a blank canvas, this means taking everything out of your current bedroom. You could literally do this if you felt so committed, but doing it in your head works just as well. This empty room is no longer a bedroom, nor is it an extension of your living space. Starting here, it is your mental and physical recovery room.
My first bit of advice would be to paint it white and put nothing back on the walls. We don’t want any potential stimulus in the room that a loud color scheme or pictures on the wall might provide, just a very simple, clean and neutral décor.
Then we look at controlling one of the key bedroom prompts for our circadian rhythms – light – with our curtains or blinds. We produce melatonin in darkness, so we need our recovery rooms to be free of ambient light such as street lights. Total blackout is the most effective method, and an eye mask, which can cause discomfort and interfere with your sleep, is not ideal. If your curtains or blinds leak light around the edges, or they are flimsy and transparent, replacing them would be a sensible option. Blackout roller blinds can be bought relatively inexpensively, and there are even cheaper alternatives: you could tape the curtains closed or use Velcro fasters to attach easily removable blackout material to the window at night, such as bin bags.
We need daylight in the morning, of course, so once you wake up at your constant wake time, it’s essential to get the blinds or curtains open immediately and flick that internal switch to get you producing serotonin. If light is being leaked in during the summer months, you are likely to find that you’re waking up with it at 5 a.m. instead of your constant wake time of 7 a.m. Blackout curtains allow you to control this.
Temperature is, after the move from light to dark, the next most important factor to get right so that we can best work with our circadian rhythms and fall into a sleep state. Our bodies want to move into a cooler, not cold, environment so keeping the room at an optimal 16 to 18 degrees centigrade will allow this natural process to occur. Of course, we all have different sensitivities to temperature – 18 degrees might sound a little too close to sleeping outside with nature for some – so find a temperature that works for you (and your partner) that is cooler than the environment in the rest of your house.
Importing the Essentials
An alarm clock of some description, is the only genuinely essential piece that you need back in this room. Anything else is unnecessary from the point of view of recovery.
If you’re able to, put your clothes, your wardrobe and drawers – anything that isn’t essential for sleep – elsewhere. However, this isn’t real life for most of us, and these items will have to come back into the room. If you are a homeworker who has their desk in their bedroom, try to work at the kitchen table or out of the room if possible, so your mind doesn’t make the associations between the recovery room and work. If you have bookshelves in your room stacked with thrillers and horror books, think about the stimulus this gives your mind when you look at them before sleep. They are not calm and relaxing associations for your mind to make.
A bottle of water may seem like a fairly standard and innocuous item to bring into the room at night, but why do you need it? If you wake with a dry mouth during the night it’s likely to be caused by you breathing through your mouth rather than your nose, and if you get up during the night to go to the bathroom, it’s possible that you have been overhydrating in the lead-up to sleep. Putting a bottle of water by your bedside plants the idea of drinking it in your mind.
Your recovery room needs an alarm clock – ideally a dawn-wake simulator – which isn’t your phone. No other technology is necessary. A dawn-wake simulator will wake you up gradually with artificial daylight, starting thirty minutes before your alarm time. The light here is key. There’s no point blacking out all the artificial light from outside if you’re going to fill your room up with it. As soon as you start bringing televisions and electronic devices back into the bedroom, you’re bringing in light sources.
Your pre-sleep routine should involve paring back on technology as you approach the time to go into a sleep state, but if you really can’t avoid watching television, using your laptop or playing on your games console in bed, please just do one thing for your recovery when you’ve finished: turn the devices off properly, instead of hitting ‘standby’. The standby light is like a laser penetrating all the way through to your pineal gland, and interfering with your melatonin production.
The most damaging piece of technology at night, however, is the smartphone. If you can’t stop yourself using your phone as part of your pre-sleep routine, try to build towards it with regular tech breaks during the day and then keep it in a different room during the night.
Keep it Clean
Keeping your recovery room clean is a worthwhile pursuit. There is the subconscious reassurance, much like fresh linen provides, that you are moving into a clean environment to sleep. Dust mites live in carpets as well as bedding, so if you’re an allergy sufferer, a HEPA filter that emits no sound or light would be a good investment to help you get down through the stages to deep sleep every night.
A clutter-free environment is also preferable. ‘If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, then what is an empty desk?’ goes the saying, but an empty mind, having downloaded your thoughts in your pre-sleep routine, is a welcome sign before we enter sleep. Clothes all over the floor and items piling up on the surfaces can provide a stimulus to the mind.
Noise is a big factor in waking us from light sleep. If your name is called or a door slammed loud enough as you are in this stage, you will wake up. Adequate soundproofing such as double-glazing in the windows is great to keep out external noise, but sadly for those of us living in rented accommodation, we’re usually stuck with what we’ve got. Earplugs can provide the answer for many people. They can be effective up to a point, but the discomfort they can cause might disturb sleep.
There can be helpful noise too, some people find the hum of an air-conditioner unit or the dull rumble of traffic necessary to enter a sleep state. This sound functions as a kind of ‘white noise’, which masks the peaks and troughs of background noise that might otherwise disturb you from light sleep.
Perhaps the most important role our recovery room should play – even more than its engineering for our light-dark and temperate cycles – is in providing us with a feeling of security. We need to feel safe and relaxed in our recovery room so that we can fall asleep easily and rest properly. We are going into our most vulnerable state, and reducing any fear or anxiety surrounding this is paramount.
This idea of security can come in many forms. It could mean locking all the doors and windows in your home as part of your pre-sleep routine; it could be something more personal, such as having a picture of loved ones by your side or a favorite comfort blanket. Whatever it is that you need to give you that feeling of security, so that your mind is able to switch off from a state of ‘alert’ and relax into your designated cycles of sleep, is a welcome addition to the room.
7 Steps to Creating Your Recovery Room
- Your bedroom should not be an extension of your living space if possible – rename it your mental and physical recovery room.
- Empty your room (if only in your head) and bring back only the items necessary for rest, recovery and relaxation.
- Black out your room so that external light does not interfere with your sleep.
- Make your room a cooler, but not cold, environment compared to the rest of the home.
- Feel safe and secure in your room – a favorite teddy, a picture of loved ones or double-checking the doors and windows are locked can all help.
- Have a neutral décor, keep it clean and avoid anything that is likely to stimulate the mind (bright pictures or books with which you make strong personal connections).
- Control tech use in your room – standby lights off at night and your phone either out of the room or at least out sight (and silenced).