Comfort and Hygiene

February 4th, 2011 by gelenberg Leave a reply »

I can’t recall when I first heard the term “comfort food,” but I connected with it instantly. When we’re lonely or blue, most of us prefer to eat something familiar, simple, and old-fashioned—like chicken soup. I was well into mid-life when I gave thought to the need for self comfort at selected times—like during or after a stressful event or following a loss or disappointment. Foods can be comforting, and even an occasional calorie splurge will be blessed by the health overseers—so long as it’s modest and occasional. (The four hours of comfort that alcohol affords can be more problematic.)

“Sleep hygiene” is by now old hat. It’s certainly not “high tech.” And it’s obvious on its face. But in young adulthood I was so busy charging ahead on my career that I missed out on the comforts of a gradual wind-down before bed. So did my patients, because I never counseled them about it.

Back then if I had an intense evening—a late meeting, working on a grant application—I’d finish up quickly, change into my PJs, and dive for the pillow. The extra minutes in bed that my haste bought me typically was at the expense of a restful night. But it took me years to figure that out.

Of course, some people are fortunate enough to be able to weather a stressful evening, hit the sack, and sleep like proverbial babies. They are lucky and don’t need this sermon.

But the rest of us need permission, discipline, and structure to dial down the stressors and dial up some comfort at day’s end—especially after a stressful or painful day. The last dose of caffeine should be many, many hours before bed. Baths are good; showers are bad. Stretching, breathing exercises, and yoga are good. Vigorous exercise is bad. Comfort reading and TV are good. News, work, and stimulating reading or viewing are bad. A pre-bed check of email might bring comfort, but since it also may bring stress it is best avoided. When I typed “sleep hygiene” into an internet search engine, it spewed out reams of advice—much more than I can offer. But in today’s complex, stressful, high-tech, multi-tasking, multi-media world, there’s a place for the simple, the obvious, and the comforting.

- Alan J. Gelenberg, M.D.
Biological Therapies in Psychiatry
Professor and Chair, Psychiatry, Penn State University
Journal of Clinical Psychiatry


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