You’re laying in bed awake at night, but try as you might, you just can’t switch off. So you start doing the maths: “If I fall asleep now, I’ll still get six hours…” At some point, most of us come up against sleepless nights, and for some this can spiral into high levels of frustration and anxiety. While it is always important to be checked by your GP to ensure that insomnia does not have a medical cause, it may be worth following these tips before reaching for the sleeping tablets.
Do a sleep hygiene check. Many of us know what we’re supposed to do to promote good sleep. Try to follow the rules for a few nights and see if it makes a difference:
- Use your bed for sleeping only (i.e., no work or TV-watching).
- Turn off screens one hour prior to bedtime.
- Don’t consume caffeine within six hours of your intended bedtime.
- Limit alcohol (it helps you get to sleep but will wake you up later).
- Exercise regularly.
- Ensure the room is dark, the right temperature, and that there is no sound (or use white noise, if needed).
Make lists! If you find that you cannot shut your mind off because all of your “to-dos” are running through your head, keep a pen and pad of paper on your nightstand. Turn on a dim light a couple of times and write these things down, if needed. There is something about the act of writing that often allows your brain to let things go, because it knows that it no longer needs to remember.
Use mindfulness meditation. Download an app like Headspace and engage in the practice of allowing thoughts come and go without getting caught up in them. Many people find this challenging at first, but like all skills, it improves with practice and persistence.
Do not persist in laying in bed awake. If you find that you are still struggling to fall asleep after 20 minutes or so, turn on a dim light and do a non-stimulating activity, like reading, that allows you to turn your attention away from your racing thoughts and to something else. Try not to use screens for this (the light from electronic screens has been shown to stimulate the brain in a way that causes wakefulness). A good, old-fashioned book or magazine will do. Otherwise, people tend to become increasingly frustrated or anxious, which further interferes with sleep.
Challenge your thoughts. People who struggle with insomnia often engage in a downward spiral in which the more they have trouble sleeping, the more anxious they get, which in turn causes trouble sleeping. It can be helpful to think about the worst-case scenario and decatastrophise. That is, what is the worst thing that can happen if you don’t get enough sleep? The answer: You’ll be tired.
Always wake up at the same time, no matter when you go to sleep. The temptation is to sleep in if you’ve had a rough time getting to sleep the night before, but this will only make it more difficult the next night. As challenging as it is, set your alarm for the same time each day and stick to it. Eventually, you are likely to be tired enough to adjust.