Photo by Jan Kahánek via Unsplash

 

Keeping a Sleep Journal: A Few Minutes Out of Your Day Can Add Years to Your Life

 

Research shows that human beings spend one-third of their lives either sleeping or attempting to sleep, and yet we disregard these precious hours as unconscious down time, usually relegated to an absolute minimum at the latest possible moment we can manage. But whether this is the result of a sleep disorder or bad sleep hygiene, the simple act of keeping a journal can not only help you sleep, but improve your health and sharpen your mental skills. Requiring only a few minutes for each daily entry, the practice of journaling gives you time to reflect and organize your thoughts, something your are likely in great need of if sleep is an issue. And while it’s difficult to believe, something as easy as a few sentences a day can have accumulative benefits, ultimately leading you to a happier, healthier life. 

 

The Sleep Journal – An Introduction

There are many ways to log one’s sleep experiences in useful ways, from simple free writes to detailed records of everything from sleep hours and waking times to in depth observations and full-length health assessments. You can use a traditional notebook, a phone app, an online forum, audio or video logs, or visual journals of art, photographs, or mixed media. The most common forms are questionnaires that include quantitative scales to produce data that you can chart over time. This can include any number of assessments about about both evening and daytime activities that can later be used to make connections. What research has found is that sleep journals in particular are beneficial in a number of ways, easing the mind through the process of reflection, and at the same time providing crucial data that can be used to assess your own health and wellbeing.

 

OK, So How Can it Add Years to Your Life?

A journal can add years to your life by helping you sleep better, improving your health, and leading to more accurate diagnoses. To begin, journaling for any reason can reduce stress, calm the mind, and help to assess life concerns. But keeping a sleep journal can be less about writing and more about logging important details that can have a serious impact on your life. By tracking your sleep quality (including length of sleep, how long it took to fall asleep, number of awakenings, dreams or nightmares, and morning feelings), you are creating data that can be used to assess patterns or changes. People are often surprised by the connections they can find with this kind of a valuable record.

Last year,  The New York Times  published an article calling journaling “a panacea for modern life.” Citing a number of studies on the subject, the author emphasizes how, much like the benefits of proper sleep, the act of journaling is both therapeutic and cathartic. In fact, the benefits of keeping a journal often mirror those from healthful sleep. Improved memory, communication skills, and problem solving, increased awareness, better emotional processing, stress relief, and even better healing and a stronger immune system have been linked to routine forms of documentation. And for those with serious sleep concerns, the benefits can be wide ranging, lifelong, and invaluable. The only requirement is consistency.

 

Better Assess Your Sleep Patterns and Habits

Proper sleep, when consistent, can improve your quality of life and reverse the debilitating effects of diseases or other health problems. But the first challenge is achieving proper sleep in the first place. Sleep journals can help to diagnose sleep disorders and differentiate their symptoms from other causes, for example, unhealthy habits. Drinking caffeine too much or too late, drinking alcohol before bedtime, or just having bad sleep hygiene in general can produce the same symptoms as a sleep disorder. Even when a professional sleep study is performed, there is often a lack of information on the habits and activities that may impact the results. Daily routines can very easily lead to  insufficient sleep syndrome, which is behavioral (or environmental), but

 

Gain Important Insights

This is one of the primary reasons for keeping a sleep journal. You don’t always notice the patterns and changes of your own behavior, or how your life’s environments may be affecting your sleep. But the details of a sleep journal allow for a complete assessment of both health and lifestyle factors that can influence nightly sleep cycles. The more detailed the journal, the more useful it will  become, as proper diagnostics depend on information over periods of time. For example, a physician may look at your weight and heart rate along with your diet, exercise or lack thereof, caffeine intake, current medications, and other factors to determine if you should be treated for insomnia, tested for sleep apnea, or given other recommendations to help you sleep.

 

Monitor the Course of Your Treatments

When you are undergoing treatments for a sleep disorder, such as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy for sleep apnea, a sleep journal can be a valuable asset in your (and your physician’s) ability to gauge its progress and effectiveness over time. No one is going to remember how they felt two months ago on a particular morning, or what time you last ate a meal the night before. While your device data will have information about the therapy itself, a journal will list your activities and observations for every night and morning of treatment, as well as your ratings on how rested you felt, what your stress level was, and a host of other details to provide a thorough account of the experience.

 

Reflect on Your Day’s Activities

The writing part of the journal is not only for informational purposes, but also allows you the time to reflect on anything your wish to think about. The process of writing, and in similar ways, the experience of art or visual journaling, has been proven to calm nerves, ease the mind, and yes, improve sleep. This means that you’re already helping yourself sleep when you decide to take up a journal. Studies have found that the best times for journaling are in the early morning or the late evening, just before bedtime. But if you have schedule problems, or prefer another time of day, choose a time when you’re most productive and least likely to be interrupted. Once again, consistency is key.

 

Set and Achieve New Goals

Another thing journaling is good for is organizing your thoughts. An article published by the Huffington Post  reported that you are 42% more likely to achieve your goals if you continuously write about them. And this includes sleep. A journal will help you take charge of your sleep and recognize its importance in your life. The more you journal, the more you feel as if you are taking control of a once undisciplined element of your life and health. This level of diligence is exactly what is needed to accomplish truly restful nights that will ultimately change your life for the better.

 

Use the Best Format for Your Needs

 

1.  Sleep Tracker Apps

These days there are too many sleep and journaling apps to list in a short article, but some of note include the popular Sleep Cycle, Sleep Better, Sleep Time, and the iPhone Pillow app, each of which has its own set of functions and data collection capabilities. Most sleep apps and smart alarms now include a journaling option, but other functions vary. Normally they will collect data on sleep time, bedtime, waking time, and a range of fitness metrics such as your current weight, blood pressure, heart rate, etc. Others will also present notifications about news stories on your subject of interest (i.e. sleep or sleep disorders), or offer advice on treatments or the latest health technology. Apps can also use sound and/or light technologies to track sleep cycles and how much time you spend in light or deep sleep. For those with apnea, the added feature of snore detection and apnea event monitoring can be important as well. But for journaling purposes, many prefer the traditional notepad for the sake of simplicity.

2.  Online Journals

Another option is the use of an online forum such as the Better Sleep Project, which allows you to access the forum using any device with an internet connection. Being a cloud source, an online forum gives you the advantage of accessing the same journal from different devices, therefore making it accessible at any time during the day or night, whether you’re on your phone, computer, an iPad, or an e-reader.

3.  Video/Audio Journals

While there is not as much research on the potential benefits of video journaling, many of the same elements found in writing or visual journals can be included, for example, you can simply record your information verbally, rather than as written words. The benefit to video journaling is that this material will be backed by a real-time representation of you and your environment at the time of each recording. When we write, we are retaining many of our thoughts and focusing on our own internal view of the activity. Video can open this process up from a primarily audio-digital experience to something more objective and external. Vocally expressing oneself can be much easier than writing for some people, and both video and audio journaling can help in this regard.

4.  The Classic Pen and Paper

While having an app allows you the convenience of writing your journal entries almost anywhere, the downside to this is that it can very easily become a task. In a life already immersed in far too much multitasking, we find that convenient tasks are often conveniently delayed or set aside. This can be counterproductive to the purpose of the apps, which is to improve sleep experiences over time. Apps can also become a distraction, as they include notifications and alarms that can add more to your device time than your sleep hours.

Also, handwriting can give you a well-deserved break from the screen, especially when your work requires the use of a computer or device. And since device use at late hours can contribute to sleeplessness, evening journaling should definitely be limited to the pad and paper, at least in the hours approaching bedtime.

 

What to Include

Published in the journal Sleep in 2012, a standardized, research-supported journal format titled The Core Consensus Sleep Diary (CSD) format contains nine questions considered by the researchers and participants to be the most critical parameters. The questions ask about: (1) the time of getting into bed; (2) the time at which the individual attempted to fall asleep; (3) sleep onset latency; (4) number of awakenings; (5) the duration of each awakening; (6) the time of your final awakening; (7) your final rise time (i.e. when you choose to get up from bed); (8) your perceived quality of sleep (using the Likert scale for quantifiable data); and (9) an added space for open-ended comments about any other observations that may be deemed relevant. Some other examples include the Alaska Sleep Clinic Journal, the WebMD version, and the simple but effective Unison Sleep diary.

While the use of charts is a good starting point, you can adjust your own journaling style to whatever personal goals you may want to explore. Stream-of-consciousness writing, or free writing, is popular way to get your creative thoughts going. Others prefer art journals or mixed media. Dream journals are extremely popular and there are many online forums dedicated to the use and interpretation of dream content, And any number of scale formats can be used for quantification purposes. As long as your preferences can be later translated into essential data for sleep improvement, your goals are being met. The most important thing is that you make time for it, every day, and without exception.

 

Sources

Alaska Sleep Clinic – https://www.alaskasleep.com/blog/what-is-a-sleep-diary

American Psychological Association – https://www.apa.org/monitor/jun02/writing

———. – https://www.apa.org/monitor/sep01/keepdiary

Handbook of Clinical Neurology – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21056174

Huffpost – https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-power-of-writing-down_b_12002348

International Journal of Adolescence and Youth – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02673843.2012.751039

Journal of Epidemiology – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18854708/

Journal of Experimental Psychology – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29058942

National Sleep Foundation – https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/sleep-hygiene

New York Times – https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/style/journaling-benefits.html

Psychology Today – https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-waves/201801/the-connection-between-writing-and-sleep

Quicksprout.com – https://www.quicksprout.com/the-scientifically-proven-best-time-to-think-and-write-creatively/

Sleep Journal – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3250369/

consensus

The Better Sleep Project – https://thebettersleepproject.com/sleep-diary/

WebMD – https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-diary