If you've ever had bad sleep night after night, you know how maddening it can be. You lie awake in bed for hours feeling exhausted, bewildered, and frustrated, longing for sleep that eludes you.
When we're struggling with insomnia, we want something that will make us fall asleep—some trick to knock us out. Given the demand (as many as 23% of adults in the US report poor sleep in the past month), it's no surprise that proposed remedies for sleep problems abound.
Many people turn to sleep medications, either over-the-counter ones like ZzzQuil and Unisom (which rely on the sedating properties of diphenhydramine, an allergy medication), melatonin supplements, or prescription drugs like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata.
Others may try teas like valerian root, chamomile, or "Sleepytime," a mug of warm milk, or lavender on the pillowcase. There are also plenty of behavioral techniques we might look to, like counting our breaths, progressive muscle relaxation, a meditative body scan, or listening to a meditation recording.
Any of these techniques can be helpful for some people, and if you've found something that works for you, great—keep doing it. But if you've struggled with sleep and are looking for something to help, keep in mind these potential drawbacks of relying on tricks to fall asleep:
Effort chases sleep away. When we rely on tricks to fall asleep, we emphasize effort—that I have to do something to sleep. For most things in life, more effort leads to better outcomes; sleep is one of the few exceptions—it's a state of non-doing, and we invite it by stepping into that frame of mind. If we try to fall asleep, we're likely to start evaluating our efforts: Is it working? Am I getting sleepy? The anxiety that results moves us further from sleep, which may cause us to double our efforts—I'm not trying hard enough. As our distress and effort build, we move further and further from sleep.
Fortunately, there are very straightforward things we can do to improve our sleep; I've described some of these principles in this earlier post. They include:
Avoid non-sleep activities in bed. We want a strong association between Bed and Sleep, so our bodies and brains know that the bed is for sleeping. We build this association by getting out of bed if unable to fall asleep, only sleeping in our bed (not on the couch, recliner, guest bed, etc.), and avoiding non-sleep activities in bed (like using a laptop computer, doing work, watching TV, etc.). Sex is the one exception.
These principles are part of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), a short treatment for long-lasting good sleep (see this earlier post for more information). CBT-I ultimately is about doing less, and simply providing the conditions that lead to healthy sleep. With a few sessions of focused work, the vast majority of people with chronic insomnia can sleep better and feel more restored.
Questions or comments? Please leave them in the comments section below.
Black, D. S., O’Reilly, G. A., Olmstead, R., Breen, E. C., & Irwin, M. R. (2015). Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Internal Medicine, 175, 494-501.
Finan, P. H., Quartana, P. J., & Smith, M. T. (2015). The effects of sleep continuity disruption on positive mood and sleep architecture in healthy adults. Sleep, 38, 1735-1742.