How to build a better nighttime routine for your mental health

How to build a better nighttime routine for your mental health

For a long time my night routine was basically to watch Netflix until I nearly fell asleep, then drag myself to the bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth before passing out. Unsurprisingly, I usually woke up feeling groggy and regretful. Once I started getting more serious about practicing regular self-care (around the time I became a mental health writer!), I knew I had to cultivate a nighttime routine that better supported my mental health.

Developing a healthy nighttime routine wasn’t just about adding in self-care, though—because, hey, I often told myself that binge-watching Netflix after a long day was self-care. It was also about looking out for Future Me. “Nighttime You can give Morning You a gift,” clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., tells SELF. “For example, if you go to bed earlier, Morning You is going to be much happier.”

So, when building your nighttime routine, Howes suggests asking yourself: How do I want to feel in the mornings? No matter your answer to that question, there are habits you can establish to support your goals.

Before we get to what some of those habits are, it’s worth noting that any effective nighttime routine has to have a proper foundation. Factors like your bedtime, caffeine intake, exercise routine, and screen time all have an impact on the quality of sleep you get. For more information on developing good sleep hygiene, start with this list of ways you might be ruining your night’s sleep.

Once you’ve got the basics down, you can start personalizing your nighttime routine with activities and habits you find relaxing and helpful. Your ideal nighttime routine will be unique to you, so think of the ideas on this list as starting points, not a how-to guide.

1. Do some light prep for tomorrow morning.

First up on the list for making Tomorrow You happy: Use your nighttime routine to streamline your morning routine. That can include things like setting out tomorrow’s outfit, loading up your coffee maker so all you have to do is press the Start button in the a.m., or writing out what your morning to-do list will entail. Basically, whatever will help you have a relaxed and positive morning so you can start the day off on the right foot, says Howes.

2. Connect with someone.

If you’re busy and stressed, you might find that once nighttime rolls around, all you want to do is burrow into yourself, maybe by watching TV or drinking wine or another activity that allows you to turn your brain off for the night. While that’s so necessary sometimes (after, say, a day from hell), you don’t always want to defer to isolation.

Instead, Howes recommends making an effort to connect with others in low-lift ways every night, like texting or emailing someone you care about or talking with a partner or friend. “It helps to ground you and remind you that you’re not alone,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I’m okay. I’m here with others on this planet.’”

3. Tidy up a bit.

Ugh, chores. Not exactly what comes to mind when you think of nighttime relaxation. But the thing about chores is they need to get done at some point, and the more regularly you do them (say, through a cleaning routine), the less they pile up. There’s nothing to put you in a bad mood like waking up to a sink full of dishes that STARE YOU DOWN as you make your morning coffee. Even worse: Then you spend your entire day knowing that those dishes are waiting for you when you get home too.

The same goes for the other chores you put off for Future You to deal with. I’ve got some good news, though: If you practice something with regularity (like doing a quick tidy of your place every night), it will eventually take less effort, says Howes. You can thank the power of habits for that. Once something becomes a normal part of your day, you’ll find it basically feels like second nature.

Woman with a diary sitting in her bedroom

In my time as a mental health writer, one therapist tip that pops up over and over again is to get in the habit of acknowledging what you’re grateful for. Therapists have repeatedly told me that practicing gratitude is one small way to make a big improvement in mental health. Here’s why: The more you make an effort to notice the things that you feel thankful for, the more you prime yourself to just naturally feel grateful instead of having to work at it. You’ll likely surprise yourself by eventually finding stuff to be grateful for even when your life is feeling kind of rough.

If you’re new to the practice, start by writing down one thing you’re grateful for every night. It can be something small, like freshly washed sheets. You don’t even have to write it down if that’s not your style, just commit to thinking about it before you go to bed. Or, if you worry you’ll forget, you can do what’s called “habit stacking” and pair your gratitude practice with another thing you do every night anyway, says Howes—like, for example, thinking of the things you’re grateful for while you brush your teeth.

5. Read.

If you’re already in the habit of reading before bed, you probably don’t need me to tell you why it’s so excellent. But if you’re skeptical (or know it’s probably nice in theory but never actually make the time for it), I’ll say that reading a book before bed is representative of the whole dang purpose of a good nighttime routine.

Basically, the point of a nighttime routine is to unwind and allow your world to get smaller and smaller until it’s just you, your pillow, and a good night’s sleep ahead. You want to disentangle yourself from the stressors and stimulations of the day. “That’s the beauty of reading a book,” says Howes. “Your focus is going from world events and drama from the day to just focusing on this one story you’re reading. That helps everything get smaller until you can go to bed.”

6. Give yourself a massage.

Not only does this serve to make you feel good, but it encourages you to take a moment to appreciate your body for everything it does throughout the day. How you pull this one off can vary. It could mean grabbing your favorite aromatherapy lotion and really taking your time to apply it, paying attention to the sensation and staying present in the moment with your body. You could also try this spa-worthy face massage or whip out a foam roller if it better suits your needs. Or—my personal favorite—you could kick it up a notch and invest in a back and neck massager. I have this one ($49) and this one ($50), both from Amazon, and I feel like a self-care queen every time I use them.

(Also, yes, a self-massage could very much mean masturbating. But I figured I didn’t need to go out of my way to tell you to do that.)

7. Enjoy a mug of decaf tea.

I don’t know about you, but for me, a good cup of tea is a lot more than a mug of hot leaf water. It’s a small pocket of calm in a chaotic world; it’s a source of warmth and comfort in my hands; and it’s a simple pleasure that’s easy to come by. Whether you’re a loose-leaf- or a bag-tea person, there’s a variety of blends out there made with relaxation and sleep-readiness in mind.

More than just being a nice habit to enjoy, the ritual of brewing a cup can also serve as a signal that it’s time to start winding down. It may be a placebo effect, but by now, every time I nurse a warm mug of tea, I get a liiittle sleepier because my body knows it’s almost bedtime.

8. Follow a guided meditation for better sleep.

A lot of meditation skeptics I know were eventually sold on the concept via bedtime meditation. If you are someone who has a hard time relaxing at the end of the night or find yourself unable to shut off your thoughts in order to sleep, guided meditation could be just what you need to get out of your head. Meditation works to help you regulate your breathing and ground you in the present moment, staving off the distracting thoughts that keep you from sleep.

There are plenty of apps out there to help you get started, including Headspace and Calm. Both are free (with optional in-app purchases) and have accessible beginner modes. Give it a try. You never know what might end up being transformative for you.

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