- Evidence-based solutions for poor sleep are straightforward and simple.
- Matching your bedtime and wake time to your sleep needs prepares your body and brain for sound sleep.
- Research shows that we can facilitate better sleep by winding down, releasing tension, and letting go of effort.
If you’ve been tossing and turning night after night, you know that sleep can turn into a struggle. I have enough experience with chronic insomnia myself to know it’s rough, and how desperate we become to fix our sleep.
There’s no shortage of gadgets and remedies for improving your sleep, but effective solutions tend to be simple. Sleep, after all, isn’t about doing more, but about resting from activity and effort. Accordingly, the techniques that have been found to work aren’t complicated or mysterious. The best-tested treatments for insomnia (Edinger et al., 2021) include combinations of these 10 practices (adapted from Gillihan, 2021).
1. Get Light Exposure at the Right Time of Day
Your 24-hour internal clock (circadian rhythm) is highly attuned to bright light. By timing your light exposure the right way, you’ll be training your brain and body to expect sleep at bedtime.
Try this: Go outside early in the day to send your brain a strong message that it’s time to be awake. In the evening, avoid bright light (including blue screens) so your pineal gland will pump out melatonin, which signals that it’s time to sleep.
2. Release Tension
Many of us live in a nearly constant state of fight-flight-freeze, but stress and physical tension will wreck our sleep. Rest easier by doing mind-body practices that promote relaxation.
Try this: Take three slow, calming breaths. Then squeeze your hands into tight fists and hold for five seconds. Relax your hands completely as you take three more easy breaths, and feel the relaxation radiate up your arms and through your body. Repeat as often as you like.
3. Build a Strong Sleep-Bed Association
We learn to associate things that go together, and we sleep best when there’s a strong link between bed and sleep. We can train our brain to expect sleep when we get into bed by reserving the bed for sleeping. It’s also best not to stay in bed for long periods of time when you’re unable to sleep, especially if you start feeling frustrated; otherwise, you can build a connection in the brain between Bed and Awake and Frustrated.
Try this: Do non-sleep activities like email or watching movies out of bed, and outside the bedroom if possible. (Sex is an exception, due to practical considerations.)
4. Let Go of Effort
Working harder usually leads to better outcomes, but not when it comes to sleep. Trying to force our way into unconsciousness is sure to backfire. All we can do is offer the right conditions, and allow our body to do the rest (no pun intended).
Try this: Stop trying to sleep, and allow it to be a surrender. Remind yourself as often as you need to that it’s not your “job” to fall asleep. Let go of any sense of doing, and let sleep arrive when it will.
5. Wind Down Before Bed
Our brain waves shift from fast and uneven when we’re awake to slower and more regular as we’re falling asleep. Calm, quiet activities in the hour or so before bedtime help the brain to transition toward rest.
Try this: Devote the last 30 to 60 minutes of your day to winding down. Do peaceful activities like reading, talking with a loved one, gentle stretching, or yoga.
6. Spend the Right Amount of Time in Bed
One of the most common disruptors of sleep is being in bed too long. For example, we might be able to sleep seven hours on average, but spend nine hours in bed chasing more sleep. As a result, we’ll end up most nights being awake in bed for hours, and the sleep we get will be broken up.
Try this: Keep track of how much sleep you get each night, on average. Then plan to be in bed for that amount of time, so that you’re asleep for the vast majority of your time in bed.
7. Keep a Consistent Sleep Schedule
An unpredictable sleep schedule interferes with both of the main drivers of good sleep: a strong circadian rhythm, and having been awake for many hours. A consistent schedule trains your brain to expect sleep at the same time each day.
Try this: Choose your preferred wake-up time in the morning, and count backward to determine your optimal bedtime, based on your average hours of sleep (see #6 above). Stick to this schedule for one to two weeks and see what happens.
8. Practice Acceptance
It's so hard to deal with unpredictable sleep, but worrying a lot about how tonight will go just compounds the struggle as it creates more irritation and stress.
Try this: Treat each night as a new experience, and approach it with open-hearted acceptance. Embrace not knowing how your sleep is going to go (yes, this is challenging).
9. Follow Good Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene is a set of practices that promote solid rest by attending to ourselves and our sleep environment.
Try this: Avoid caffeine later in the day (after 12:00 noon for most people); exercise consistently; keep the bedroom quiet, cool, and dark; and don’t use alcohol to fall asleep.
10. Question Sleep-Related Assumptions
Our minds are great at telling us made-up stories, especially when we’re not able to sleep. Some of the most common thoughts are about sleep itself, like “I’m going to be a wreck tomorrow if I don’t fall asleep soon.” Most of the time these stories don’t match reality—for example, we’ll probably be sleepy at times after a night of insomnia but will get through the day OK.
Try this: Notice when the mind is telling distressing stories about sleep, and start to question them. Maybe the fears will come true, but more than likely they’re overblown.
Using these techniques consistently promotes sound sleep. When your sleep poorly for a night, stick to these practices to avoid a bout of chronic insomnia.
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Edinger, J. D., Arnedt, J. T., Bertisch, S. M., Carney, C. E., Harrington, J. J., Lichstein, K. L., ... & Martin, J. L. (2021). Behavioral and psychological treatments for chronic insomnia disorder in adults: An American Academy of Sleep Medicine clinical practice guideline. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 17, 255-262.
Gillihan, S. J. (2021). The CBT flip chart. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.