Dr. Shelby Harris Shares Healthy Sleep Habits

In honor of National Sleep Awareness Month, we sat down with Dr. Shelby Harris, a clinical psychologist specializing in Behavioral Sleep Medicine (BSM) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), to talk about all things sleep. She shares essential tips for better sleep and how the principles of BSM and CBT can help with insomnia. Read on for better ZZZs…

The theme for this year’s World Sleep Day is “sleep is essential for health.” Can you speak to the importance of sleep on both our physical and mental health?

Sleep is the bedrock upon which our psychological and physical health is built. Poor sleep is linked to depression, anxiety, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, increased risk of diabetes, poor memory, weight gain and so much more. 

You are a licensed psychologist who specializes in behavioral sleep medicine. For those that may not know, can you explain the principles of BSM? 

Behavioral Sleep Medicine (BSM) is a branch of clinical sleep medicine and health psychology that focuses on identifying the cognitive and behavioral factors that contribute to sleep disorders. BSM is a fairly new area of practice and has been recognized as a sub-specialty since 2003. Although commonly thought of for only insomnia, BSM treatments encompass many different areas of sleep disorders, without relying on medication.

What are some healthy habits you recommend we follow for better sleep hygiene? What are some habits that we should try to avoid?

Consistency is key. Try to keep the same bedtime and wake time – perfection isn’t key, but being as consistent as possible is really useful. It helps your body know when to fall asleep and wake up. Limit screens within 30-60 minutes of bedtime and instead wind-down in quiet, calm and relaxing dim light. Avoid caffeine within 8 hours of bed and liquids, heavy meals, and strenuous exercise within 3 hours of bed. 

Anxiety is a frequent cause of sleep woes. As a CBT, do you have any practices that we can use to help quell this?

Don’t stay in bed if you’re unable to sleep. Give yourself around 30 minutes to fall asleep, but if you don’t, just get up and do something quiet, calm and relaxing in dim light – don’t force sleep if it isn’t there. 

You wrote a book called the “Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia.” What made you decide to focus on this specifically? Any tips that you can share for our fellow insomniacs?

There’s really great treatment for insomnia, and CBT for Insomnia is the gold standard first-line treatment, ahead of medications. We have a lot of great treatments out there – with and without medication – to help insomnia. Don’t suffer in silence or expect that it’ll magically get better. Speak up and get some help, and if you don’t want to start with medication, ask for CBT-I (my book goes over this treatment as well!). 

Many of us experience feeling tired at bedtime, yet have trouble falling asleep. Is there a routine we should follow to help with this?

Tired isn’t sleepy. Tired is the feeling of no energy, but with sleepiness you struggle to keep your eyes open and are yawning. Only get in bed when you’re sleepy, not just tired. Keep a relaxing bedtime routine, quiet, calm, and in dim lights, ideally without a screen. 

There are many myths surrounding sleep on the internet, like the belief that wearing socks aids in falling asleep faster. Is this true? Are there any other myths you would like to support or debunk?

The socks one isn’t totally a myth actually! It isn’t by any means a solution for chronic insomnia, but what it does do is help your body cool off at the beginning of the night (to help induce sleep and release melatonin) and release heat through the feet. Other myths: Alcohol is good for sleep, I can catch up on my sleep every weekend, medication is the only way to improve your sleep.

Does taking long naps in the day impact our sleep at night? If we take a midday nap, how long do you recommend we sleep for?

Yes, long naps aren’t great as they can make it hard to fall and stay asleep. But, for many people, a short nap is refreshing and helps sharpen the mind and body without impacting nighttime sleep. If you don’t struggle with insomnia, a nap of around 20 minutes before 2pm (provided you go to bed around 10/11pm) is a great way to refresh yourself. If you find it makes it harder for you to sleep at night, then ditch the nap. 

Rapid Fire Round

Do you have a bedtime ritual? 

Yes. I keep it short, but I get my face washed, then go and stretch for 5-10 minutes next to my bed in dim light, then I’m in bed for 10-15 minutes reading a magazine, then bedtime!

What do you wear to bed?

Long PJ pants and a t-shirt. Super comfy, and sweat wicking. 

What is on your bedside table?

The same digital alarm clock I’ve had since high school, a few magazines, a book, and my lamp. 

Are you a night owl or an early bird?

Early bird!

Which scent makes you think of bedtime?

Lavender. However, I can’t smell it too much because strong smells can give me a migraine!

Are you reading or watching anything good at the moment?

I’m really enjoying “Shrinking” on Apple+

What are some nighttime items you cannot live without?

A pair of socks since my feet get really cold at night. My La Mer The Concentrate Serum, Mario Badescu Oil Free Moisturizer and my pillow (unless I travel far). 

What is your guilty pleasure?  

I rewatch old episodes of The O.C. and Gossip girl when I need a pick me up. 

Are there any health & wellness trends you’re interested in trying?

I really want to try out rowing. I haven’t done it that much and it is becoming hot again. 

How do you engage in self-care?

I make time for myself to exercise for 45-60 minutes every day, often waking up before my kids so that I can get some exercise in. I also make time for sleep. That’s massive self-care to me. 

What is your favorite way to de-stress?

Baking! I love to make cookies, cakes and breads. Kneading dough is very relaxing to me. I also make sure to exercise. 

What is your favorite workout at the moment?

So hard to choose! I’m a marathon runner (just completed my 20th marathon), and I’m usually running. I love to run long distance with friends. However, I’ve been doing a bit more strength training and peloton bike sessions, and I’m really enjoying the Power Zone classes on the peloton bike. 

What do you consider the single most important thing for a good night’s sleep?

Not overthinking it! The more emphasis you place on whether or not you’ll sleep, the worse your sleep will be. 

What was your favourite childhood bedtime story?

“Where the Sidewalk Ends” poems by Shel Silverstein.

How would you choose to spend one hour of free time?

With my kids and husband, walking around NYC, popping in and out of stores.

If you could choose a song to wake up to every morning, what would it be?

Don’t Sleep til Brooklyn by the Beastie Boys.



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