Although there can be many reasons for insomnia, ranging from anxiety to medical disorders, many of us experience difficulty sleeping at some point. An all-too-common solution is to turn to prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids. Of course, the problem with this strategy is potential dependency — your insomnia can actually worsen when you stop taking the drug. Moreover, many of the more powerful prescription sleep aids come with side effects, such as a morning “hangover.”
Following are some simple behavioral and cognitive techniques that you can try instead when you can’t sleep:
1. Get Into a Routine. Sleep experts agree that when it comes to sleep, try to stick to a routine — going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. If you lay in bed awake for an hour before going to sleep, consider going to bed an hour later. Also, if you had a bad night’s sleep, don’t try to play “catch up” by sleeping 10 hours the next evening. Just stick to the routine.
2. Cut the Caffeine. This should be obvious, but don’t drink caffeine or alcohol before bedtime. Years ago, I realized that imbibing caffeinated drinks after 3 p.m. kept me awake, so I cut them out. Also, it’s not a good idea to eat before going to bed.
3. Get Up. If you can’t sleep, rather than lying in bed ruminating, get up and read or listen to soothing music. Turning to the TV or the Internet is probably not a good idea, though, as the screens tend to stimulate more than relax.
4. Engage in Healthy Eating and Exercise. Regular exercise and a healthy diet will make it easier for you to fall asleep. Too much sugary food or salty snacks can throw off your metabolism and make sleep more difficult.
5. Stop the Voices. All too often, difficulty sleeping is due to overactive cognitive processes — worrying about work or about one’s health, or simply being obsessed with the fact that you are having trouble sleeping. It’s ironic that thinking about insomnia can cause insomnia. Realize that your active mind is a big part of the problem, and that you need to calm down your cognitive processes in order to sleep. Then try to “turn off," distract, or ignore those worrying voices in your head.
6. Consider Segmented Sleep. Recent research has called into question our belief that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is the norm. Historians and sleep experts noticed that in centuries past it was more common to sleep in segments — sleeping for three or four hours, rising and engaging in some tasks for about two hours, and then returning to sleep for another three hours or so. Our ancestors used to wake in the middle of the night, pray, talk, have sex, or even visit the neighbors before returning to bed for their “second sleep." Just realizing that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is not necessarily the norm for humans may put your mind at ease if you tend to wake in the middle of the night. Get out of bed and try reading for an hour or two and then return to bed. (Read more about segmented sleep here.)
7. Try Meditation and Relaxation. Sleep experts suggest that deep breathing, meditation, or other relaxation techniques can help to calm your metabolism and make it easier to sleep. Focus on your breathing. Take a meditation class.
8. Talk It Over. Finally, sharing your insomnia with your partner, family, and friends can help you. Talk over your worries and concerns. A supportive person may help put your mind at ease. You might also realize that you aren’t the only one with sleep problems, and that you are in good company. Maybe you can work on a sleep strategy with a partner.
The key is to realize that much of our trouble sleeping is of our own making and inside our heads. Make an effort to use these cognitive and behavioral strategies to overcome your insomnia.
Ekirch, A. Roger (2005). At Day's Close: Night In Times Past. W.W. Norton
Wehr, T.A. (1992). "In short photoperiods, human sleep is biphasic". Journal of Sleep Research 1 (2): 103–107
Winter, C. (2017). The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It. New York: Penguin