How many times have you hit the pillow at night only to stare at the ceiling in a whirlwind of unproductive thoughts for another two hours? You said you’d go to bed at 10pm, but your mind can’t stop reviewing that one comment you made in a meeting or that presentation you have tomorrow. Those sticky “what if” thoughts can ruminate in your brain and make falling asleep easily seem wholly unattainable. The off switch is nowhere in sight, so frustration and stress set in. Now you’re in panic mode because you know you have to get to sleep soon. You’re worse off than when you got into bed an hour ago.
It can feel like an endless cycle, but researchers have tackled this phenomenon in order to bring us solutions. Barring sleeping pills, which have their own risks, there are several practical methods that can aid in creating an environment and mindset conducive to sleep. You might already do a few of these, however, they work best together. Buying black out curtains and calling it a day won’t solve insomnia, but using these tools together in conjunction with other self-care habits just might.
If you’re a sleep hygiene newbie, checking off a list of “must haves” is an essential way to start to improve your routine. According to the CDC, “adults need 7 or more hours of sleep per night for the best health and wellbeing”. You probably already know this. Nevertheless, it’s likely you often fall short of this, as “a third of US adults report that they usually get less than the recommended amount of sleep” (CDC). Research has suggested that there are a few non-negotiables when it comes to getting a good night’s rest, and these are the first steps to getting that full 7.
What you can do during the day
- Get adequate exercise
- Get direct exposure to sunlight daily, especially in the mornings – Bright light, or ideally exposure to direct sunlight, helps to keep your circadian rhythm in balance. It signals to your body that it’s time to wake up.
- Wake up at the same time every morning – Consistency is key. If you sleep in until 11am one day and wake up at 7am the next, your schedule is inevitably thrown off.
- Eat meals at the same time every day – Again, consistency is key, even with digestion. Keeping your body on a schedule will set you up for sleep.
- Limit caffeine in the afternoon – Resisting that afternoon pick me up may be difficult, but you’ll thank yourself later when you’re actually tired at bedtime.
- Limit alcohol consumption – Having a glass of wine while you watch Bridgerton is probably fine, just don’t go overboard.
- Keep your bed for sleeping – Meaning don’t do work and take meetings from it.
- Take a nap if you need to – There’s no shame in a power nap! It’s recommended not to nap too late in the afternoon though, as this could further mess with your sleep schedule.
- Make your room as peaceful as possible – Pick out décor, sheets, pillows, etc. with this in mind. Maybe invest in a humidifier, sound machine, or an essential oil diffuser. Anything that makes you feel most at peace.
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What you can do right before bed
- Keep your bedtime consistent – It can be extremely tempting to have a late night, especially when you don’t get much free time. But if you know that will mess you up in the morning, at least limit it to the weekends.
- Start winding down 30 mins to an hour before bed – This can consist of anything that helps you to relax. Meditate, listen to a sleep story, read a book (nothing too gripping though), do a 16 step skincare routine, write in a journal, take a bath, listen to a spa playlist, do a puzzle – whatever your heart desires.
- Keep lights in your home or apartment dim – Just like bright sunlight ques your brain to wake up, dim light lets it know that it’s time to sleep.
- Make sure your room is dark when you get into bed – Get blackout curtains if you need to, and cover up any light sources (even covering that tiny blue light emanating from your power strip can help).
- Limit blue light (AKA your cell phone, laptop, or TV) the hour before bedtime – if you have to work late or can’t resist TikTok, put your devices on night mode. This yellows the screen and gives your eyes a break. An alternative is to buy blue light glasses.
- Keep your room cool or at a temperature that is most comfortable to you
- If you live on a busy street or have noisy neighbors, consider ear plugs or a sound machine
If you’ve been trying some of these methods but aren’t seeing results, the CDC recommends starting a sleep journal as a first line of defense. Write down your daily habits for a week – what time you went to bed / woke up, when you ate, what you ate, caffeine consumption, alcohol consumption, etc. This can help to reveal patterns and narrow down what isn’t working.
I’ve got my habits down, but I can’t stop beating myself up when they don’t work
One of the most infuriating side effects of sleep problems is how cognizant you are of the importance of sleep. How could you not be? You’ve set up a full routine of habits to get some much needed REM. On nights when that routine fails, you’re all too aware of it. Luckily, this is a frequent problem among the sleepless and researchers have come up with methods to solve it.
One common tool that even therapists use to combat this kind of thinking is called paradoxical intention. In general, paradoxical intention is “a psychotherapeutic technique […] in which the individual is asked to magnify a distressing, unwanted symptom” and aims to “help such individuals distance themselves from their symptoms, often by appreciating the humorous aspects of their exaggerated responses” (American Psychological Association). In treating insomnia, employing paradoxical intention means to avoid efforts to fall asleep. The “unwanted symptom” is not being able to fall asleep, and by engaging in the opposite – trying to stay awake – the performance anxiety you have has the opportunity to diminish.
Paradoxical Intention doesn’t mean you get into bed and do all the wrong things – like staring at a screen. It is used in combination with your regular techniques and routines. It’s the process of letting go of the fear of not sleeping, and releasing the guilt you may feel around it. Here are a few ways to put this method to work:
- When you get into bed, instead of focusing on trying to fall asleep, try to stay awake. Keep your eyes open as long as you can. You might find that sleep comes easier when you’re trying to do the opposite.
- Learn to be at peace with quiet, or passive, wakefulness. It’s okay to be in bed, resting with your eyes closed. At least you are resting. Try to move your thoughts away from why you can’t sleep, and focus on simply relaxing.
- If you can’t sleep, get up. Move to a different room or somewhere that is not your bed. Start a relaxation technique, like a guided meditation, or read a boring book. This will help occupy your mind until you become sleepy.
I’ve tried it all – now what?
If you’re at the point where basic sleep hygiene isn’t cutting it, don’t worry. If your insomnia is severe enough, it’s time to visit your doctor. Sleep problems can be a sign of underlying conditions, so it’s important to get that checked before anything else. Some medical and therapeutic interventions include:
- Sleep Studies: Your primary care physician can refer you to a doctor that specializes in sleep medicine. Sleep studies can rule out sleep apnea or anything happening neurologically.
- Depression Treatment: Insomnia can be a symptom of depression, especially if you are a woman. According to the Sleep Foundation, “women are diagnosed with depression at higher rates than men, and sleeping too much or too little is a frequent symptom of that disorder. Studies have also found that women are more likely to ruminate about their concerns, which can contribute to anxiety, limiting one’s ability to fall asleep easily”.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): If you’ve gotten the all clear physically, one option is to try CBT, which is one of the most common types of talk therapy. The Mayo Clinic defines CBT for insomnia as “a structured program that helps you identify and replace thoughts and behaviors that cause or worsen sleep problems with habits that promote sound sleep. Unlike sleeping pills, CBT-I helps you overcome the underlying causes of your sleep problems”.
Sleep is essential, not a luxury. It’s easy to fall into the trap of consistently working late to prove something to yourself or to others. But you are the only one that can take care of you. Not to mention, your work quality and overall health can falter when you’re not getting enough sleep. If you’re struggling, it’s worth it to take the time to adjust whatever needs adjusting, especially if you tend to ruminate and can’t mentally cut ties with the day. There’s so much help out there, and it’s just waiting for you to take the first step. You deserve a good night’s rest.