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The Drug Free Way to Sleep Soundly

Here's a simple, nonmedical antidote for insomnia.

Almost everyone has episodes of insomnia when it seems that falling asleep is just about impossible. These times of futilely tossing and turning in bed can feel like torture, cause some people to dread bedtime, and even become a self-fulfilling prophecy of not sleeping.

While most episodes of insomnia are brief and self-limiting, in some cases insomnia is a sign of of some underlying emotional, social, or medical problem. So, if you suffer from persistent insomnia, a consultation with a professional (e.g., a medical doctor or sleep specialist) is recommended.

Fortunately, the vast majority of insomnia sufferers can be helped simply by following the guidelines of good sleep hygiene and, if necessary, the methods of CBT-I (i.e., cognitive-behavior therapy for insomnia).

Thus, the drug free antidote for the common but vexing problem of episodic insomnia has three parts:

The first is to accept that occasional ragged nights are the norm and most people can function quite well despite missing some sleep. Indeed, it is an erroneous notion that without a good night's sleep a person will be washed out, sluggish, and unable to perform the next day. This cognitive error only serves to increase anticipatory anxiety and can lead to a vicious circle of worry and more nights of lousy sleep. Therefore, accepting that occasional insomnia is normal, and people are able to function on very little sleep for a period of time, can neutralize the anxiety producing worry of occasionally not sleeping.

The second ingredient of the insomnia antidote is what's called "sleep hygiene." Sleep hygiene is simply a set of dos and don'ts that have been shown to facilitate and enhance sleep. Sleep hygiene involves:

  • Limiting or avoiding caffeine and alcohol.
  • Exercising regularly but not within several hours of bedtime.
  • Avoiding napping.
  • Not eating a meal or large snack within an hour or two of bedtime but also not going to bed feeling hungry.
  • Maintaining a cool, dark, and quiet sleeping environment.
  • Having a consistent wind down routine such as washing up, putting on PJs, then reading or watching TV for a while.
  • Don't use pads or phones within an hour of bedtime but most backlit, e-readers are okay.
  • Use your bed ONLY for sleep and sex, but ideally only for sleep.
  • Stick to a consistent bed time and get-out-of-bed time; don't sleep in until you've had several months of improved sleep.
  • Practice relaxation or visualization techniques.

Following these good sleep hygiene guidelines usually does the trick. But if you're still struggling to get a good night's rest more nights than not, consider trying a relatively new and very powerful method called cognitive-behavior therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) which is the third part of the cure for insomnia.

While CBT-I really should have a post unto itself, here are its critical components.

First (step 1), as mentioned above, realize that occasional insomnia is very common and that most people are capable of functioning in their lives even when sleep deprived. But perhaps most importantly CBT-I emphasizes what is called "sleep restriction." This means that one can be in bed only during a designated time. For example, if someone's designated time to be in bed is from 11:00 PM until 7:00 AM, then that is is only time the person can be in bed.

Next (step 2), CBT-I tells people that if they haven't fallen asleep within about 20 minutes, they're to get out bed, and do something low key in a comfortable, soothing and calm place out of bed. For instance, relaxing on an easy chair or sofa in gentle light while reading something bland (not a thriller or other stimulating material), or watching a nature, science, or history show on TV with nice, low volume.

Then (step 3), when you start to feel a little sleepy, or even just a bit mellow, return to bed. If you haven't fallen asleep within about 20 minutes, again, repeat the above step. In fact, CBT-I instructs people to repeat steps 2 and 3 over and over until they either fall asleep, or it's 7:00 AM and time to get out of bed no matter how much they have or haven't slept.

In most cases, after several nights of practicing sleep restriction and good sleep hygiene, the majority of people find the problem stops and they resume enjoying consistently good sleep.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

Perlis. M.L., et al. (2005). Cognitive behavioral treatment of insomnia: A session-by-session guide. New York: Springer.

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This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician.