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5 Ways to Reset Your Sleep Habits

... and one of them is pretty radical.

You've heard it a million times: Our society is sleep-deprived. You are sleep-deprived. You need to avoid bad sleep habits or else your mental and physical health will deteriorate.

Yes, it's now common knowledge that if you're constantly feeling fatigued, you're less likely to be happy, successful, or effective. If you don't sleep enough, you won't think properly, your relationships will suffer, and you'll put yourself at risk for serious chronic diseases, accidental injuries, and depression.

But most of us still don't do much to correct the problem, even though it's one of the easiest steps to self-improvement you can take.

It simply makes sense to correct your sleep habits. Solid, well-controlled evidence shows that, at the very least, better sleep will improve your ability to learn and remember. Harvard Medical School professor Robert Stickgold showed convincingly that people who practice a task before they go to sleep perform the task more efficiently after a night of sleep than others. Sleep helps many of the body's systems work more efficiently, lowering the risk of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.

People fail to get enough sleep for many reasons. Of all the obligations we face, sleep seems the easiest to dismiss, compared to the demands of work, family, or school. We're also exposed to misinformation about sleep problems and how to treat them. If we complain about insomnia, physicians will likely prescribe a sleep aid that may actually ruin our sleep, could become habit-forming, and bring on strange, uncontrolled behavior.

It's easier, and safer, to change your behavior than resort to prescription remedies for sleep problems. All of us can benefit from learning why and how to sleep better. Dr. Tracey Marks, who published the informative book Master Your Sleep: Proven Methods Simplified, marshals a sleeping bag full of evidence about the benefits of sleep. She uses case studies to show how people's lives deteriorate when they fail to program sufficient sleep into their daily routines. That's the "why." To help with the "how," she presents clear, evidence-based, easy-to-follow suggestions. There's even a handy cheat sheet you can keep at your bedside.

I particularly appreciated the way she explained paradoxical interventions to overcome insomnia. If you tell yourself definitely not to fall asleep, that you must stay awake at all costs, lo and behold, your eyelids may droop with the Z's not far behind.

Like other sleep experts, Marks comes down pretty hard on those who go to bed with electronic gadgets on. Watching late-night TV or movies can be almost as bad. It's just not conducive to the restful state of mind you need to get to sleep.

So there are plenty of "don'ts," but also lots of "do's" to improve your sleep hygiene. Here's a quick rundown of how to make the most of your downtime:

  1. Complete a sleep diary. Recording your sleep patterns, along with the behaviors you engaged in before you tried to go to sleep, will help you determine your triggers for a good or poor night's sleep. You'll also see the connection between your level of alertness during the day and the amount of sleep you got each night.
  2. Follow the rules of sleep hygiene. Avoid using your bedroom as a place to do anything other than sleep-related activities (which includes sex). The biggest mistake people make is using their bed areas for doing work. Marks even recommends wearing the right sleep attire—your pajamas can actually help you get a better night's sleep.
  3. Employ sleep restrictions, as necessary. This is a bit radical, but to get a better night's sleep, it might help to give yourself a worse night's sleep. Eventually, you can retrain yourself to get a consistent, solid, sleep each night if you force yourself to become tired through adjustments in your sleep patterns.
  4. Examine your assumptions about sleep. People often sleep poorly because they have intrusive thoughts about how badly they will suffer if they don't sleep. They also tend to magnify the extent of their problems, especially as they watch the minutes or hours go by while they toss and turn. As in so many areas of psychological functioning, if you tinker with your thoughts, you can solve some of your behavioral difficulties.
  5. Consult a physician if necessary. Your sleep problems may have a physiological basis which a physician can diagnose and treat. (But be aware that some sleep medications can have counterproductive side effects.)

You can also get terrific sleep advice, and find a helpful Sleep Debt Quiz from the National Sleep Foundation. Also, be sure to check out the Centers for Disease Control sleep site.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011

LinkedIn Image Credit: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock