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5 Ways to Trick Your Mind and Get Better Sleep

Insomnia affects 30 percent of adults. Developing a few new habits can help.

Key points

  • Heightened emotions can interfere with the ability to fall and stay asleep.
  • Relaxing the body sends a signal to the brain that it is time to rest.
  • Many daily actions are habitual. It's essential to develop healthy habits that promote sleep.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

It was one of those nights. The tranquility of the cool autumn night was interrupted by piercing thoughts running through my head. They reminded me of everything that I had to do the following day—work, pick up my daughter from gymnastics, meet a writing deadline. Despite my best efforts, I was conceding defeat to a formidable foe—insomnia.

I know I am not alone. Insomnia is a common sleep complaint that affects about 30 percent of the adult population. If you doubt this, take a stroll at your local grocery store, where you will find an aisle filled with over-the-counter sleep aids.

Thankfully, sleepless nights are far and few in my life. Poor sleep can interfere with your performance at work, school, or in athletics. Of more significant concern, evidence shows that persistent insomnia is associated with health problems and even reduced life expectancy. This highlights the importance of taking measures to promote sleep.

Following are five mind tricks to improve your sleep.

1. Don’t get mad.

One of the worst ways to respond to insomnia is by getting frustrated or angry, and this will have a paradoxical effect and make it even harder for you to sleep. Such responses activate your sympathetic nervous system, responsible for your “flight or fight” response, and this sends a signal to your brain to stay awake and alert.

Be mindful of how you talk to yourself when you are having a difficult night. On such nights, I tell myself the following:

  • “I am resting. Even though I am not asleep, I am still resting, which is good for my health.”
  • “It is peaceful and quiet. There is nothing for me to do right now that cannot wait until the morning.”

These mantras can promote sleep by reducing your frustration levels and helping you find some peace in the present moment.

2. Don’t try too hard.

People often tell me that they experience an increase in anxiety around bedtime. They anticipate not making it through a busy day packed with work and family responsibilities if they don’t get adequate sleep. As a result, they put pressure on themselves to have a good night’s rest.

The problem with this approach is that it leads to a spike in anxiety, which only makes sleep more elusive because anxiety activates your sympathetic nervous system.

To reduce your anxiety levels, remember that you are resilient and have overcome challenges in your past. You have likely experienced sleepless nights before and found a way to function the next day. It may have been an unpleasant and challenging experience. Yet, you found a way to overcome.

3. Write down your to-dos.

The function of your brain is not to make you happy, and its job is to protect you by thinking about what can go wrong in the future. The calm of the night is the perfect time for your brain to remind you of everything that you need to do the following day. After all, there are no distractions to preoccupy your active brain.

Before you start your bedtime routine, take a few minutes to reflect on your to-do list for the following day. Writing everything down can help purge your brain of worrying thoughts.

When your brain starts to generate worry thoughts in the middle of the night, tell it the following:

  • “Thank you for calling this to my attention, but we have addressed your concerns. I have already written everything down and am prepared for tomorrow.”

4. Observe your body.

Sleep will be elusive if your body is in an active state. Signs of activation include an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and muscle tension such as a clenched jaw, tight fists, and shrugged shoulders.

Take a moment to assess whether your body is in an active state. Notice whether any of your muscles are tense and take a few moments to relax them. If your breathing is rapid and shallow, take deep breaths through your nose and out of your mouth.

By relaxing your body, you are signaling your brain that it is time to rest.

5. Keep a routine.

We are creatures of habit. Over 40 percent of our daily actions are habitual, as we perform them automatically without thinking about them.

Be mindful of how your habits can interfere with your ability to fall and stay asleep. For example, if you have the habit of watching TV or scrolling on your phone in bed, you send a confusing message to your brain. Light emitted from these devices is telling your brain to stay awake despite your intention to sleep.

Likewise, many people tell me that they complete work assignments or even eat in their beds. This only confuses your brain because the bed becomes associated with a host of activities. Don’t use your bed for anything else but sleep or intimacy with your partner to avoid such confusion.

It is also essential to go to bed and wake up around the same time. You may have the habit of staying up late and sleeping in on your days off work, and this pattern can come at a cost if it is difficult to recalibrate your sleep schedule for the workweek.

Finally, please note that these mind tricks are not substitutes for medical advice or a complete list of recommendations to improve your sleep. Please make sure to consult with your treating physician, as insomnia can negatively impact your overall health and functioning.

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