Can't Sleep? Proven Techniques to Catch Some Z's
Are you one of the 30% of adults who has trouble falling asleep? Try these proven methods and watch your life change. Without sleeping pills or other medications. You can control your sleep patterns simply by using your mind.
We’ve all been there. We’re trying to get to sleep, but we find ourselves wide awake staring at the ceiling. We start thinking about all we have to do the next day and start getting nervous about being sleep deprived. Which keeps us awake even more. We change positions for the 10th time. And we're still staring at the ceiling.
Your inability to fall asleep is no small matter. Numerous studies show that sleep deprivation results in impaired mental functioning, increases in anxiety and depression, lower productivity and more mistakes. Sleep-deprived drivers in the U.S. cause 40,000 injuries and nearly 2,000 deaths annually. A significant portion of the 100,000 deaths in U.S. hospitals are caused by medical error involving sleep deprivation.
Fortunately, there are a few easy techniques you can put in place as soon as tonight that will help you fall asleep quickly. If you have a physical issue, such as sleep apnea or physical discomfort, that is interfering with your ability to fall asleep or your sleep quality, then your first step is to seek medical attention.
However, if you simply have trouble falling asleep, just one or a combination of these techniques will spell the difference between a sleep-deprived tomorrow or waking up refreshed and ready to face the day. These techniques can broadly be classified as either lifestyle changes or mental focusing and relaxation methods.
A Small Lifestyle Change Could Revolutionize Your Sleep
The emphasis here is on small. These are minor changes to your routine that make it much easier for you to fall asleep.
1. Have a regular go-to-bed and wake-up time. If your body and brain get used to you going to bed at (for example) 10 pm every night, they will soon associate that time with falling asleep. Erratic sleep patterns, in contrast, often result in poor sleep quality, lower energy during the day, and greater difficulty both falling asleep and waking up. If you can consistently keep your go-to-bed and wake-up times within a half-hour range (or ideally the same time each day), you will have a much easier time falling asleep.
2. Cut screen time before bedtime. Simply by putting the phone (and other devices) away an hour before bedtime, you will fall asleep much more easily when bedtime arrives. Your phone emits blue light, which has been linked with suppressed melatonin. Because melatonin controls your sleep cycle, a lack of it will often cause insomnia.
Even if you have an app that eliminates blue light (highly recommended), engaging with your screen before bed keeps your brain active, and often emotionally engaged, which is not conducive to falling asleep. Additionally, make sure there are no extraneous light sources in your room – a dark room, at moderate temperature, is always better for sleep.
3. Create a bedtime ritual. Relax with a cup of tea. Practice deep breathing. Make your to-do list for the following day. Or develop any ritual that works for you - something that you always do just before going to bed, and that preferably is relaxing. If you have a "wind-down" period before going to sleep where you do the same things each night, this will over time send a signal to your brain that when you do those things, it's time to fall asleep.
Focus Differently and You Could Be Asleep in Minutes
Unless a physical issue is at play, you typically are not able to fall asleep because of the thoughts racing through your head. Those thoughts are often rooted in anxiety. That’s why the conventional wisdom tells you to count sheep when you can’t sleep. The hope is that by focusing on the sheep, you’ll leave behind the thoughts that are keeping you awake.
If counting sheep works for you, by all means count away – but fortunately, there are more effective ways to tame those thoughts and doze off. If you can slow down your thoughts and get your brain into a different mode, sleep almost always follows.
1. Modified body scan. This is one of my go-to methods that both my clients and I use to fall asleep. You may be familiar with the body scan – where you note each body part – starting with your toes and working very slowly and progressively upward – consciously releasing any tension that exists in each area. Often just doing this basic body scan technique will relax you sufficiently to fall asleep. But there is an even more effective way to do a body scan – both for general relaxation and for falling asleep.
Begin by taking several slow, deep breaths. If possible, breath through your nose rather than your mouth. Your breath will slow down and deepen through the nose, and put you in a more relaxed state. However, if nose breathing is difficult for you, then breathe through your mouth – just make sure you consciously slow down your breath.
Focus on filling up the bottom of your lungs first. Once you have slowed down your breath, also allow your exhale to lengthen. After a minute or so of this (and some people already fall asleep by this point), start by noticing each toe. Take your time (you're in bed - you have nowhere to go). Rather than simply relaxing the toe, “observe” it – like you’re watching a movie as a detached observer. Notice the sensation in your big toe.
Next, see if you can imagine the space that your big toe occupies. When you imagine space, your mind has nothing to grasp onto, which is very conducive to falling asleep. You can imagine a balloon filling up the space that the toe occupies.
Then notice the space between your big toe and second toe, then the space of the second toe, and through each toe and the space between them, and then on over to the other set of toes, then the feet, then the ankles, etc., through the body. If you do this slowly, you likely will fall asleep quickly. (It has been very rare that I get to my ankles and am still awake).
2. Nothing but breath. If the body scan seems like too much, just focus on your breathing as described in the last section (the Modified Body Scan). Slow, deep breathing engages your parasympathetic nervous system, sending a message to your body and brain to slow down and be calm, which is very conducive to sleep.
The state of your breath has a big impact on your mental state generally. For example, you will have a hard time finding someone experiencing a full-fledged panic attack who is breathing slowly and deeply. But for our purposes, if you are focusing on your breath, that will often crowd out the thoughts in your head that are keeping you from falling asleep. Just keep breathing slowly and deeply, and see how much you can lengthen the exhale.
3. Your tongue may be getting in your way. Another variation of the body scan which is less involved and often very effective is simply to become aware of your tongue – relaxing it and noticing the space within it and around it - all the while continuing to breath slowly and deeply.
When we think to ourselves, which is often what is preventing us from falling asleep, we usually sub-vocalize our thoughts. By consciously relaxing the tongue (and sometimes the throat) which is involved in that sub-vocalization, the thoughts that you are sub-vocalizing will dissipate, allowing sleep to take its place.
4. Detaching from anxiety. If there is a particular thing/event/issue that is filling your attention and causing you anxiety, then write it down on a piece of paper by your bed. Consciously tell yourself that that issue is there waiting for you in the morning when you get up, so you don't need to attend to it now. Then proceed with either breathing or the modified body scan.
5. Use reverse psychology. If you have tried all of these methods and still can’t fall asleep (very unlikely, but possible), experiment with reverse psychology. Right now, you’re telling yourself you need to get to sleep. You’re trying to get to sleep. You’re getting anxious about not getting to sleep. And you’re staying awake.
So just reverse the process – consciously try to stay awake. Often, this takes the pressure off, and by trying not to go to sleep – you’ll fall asleep.
Right now, as the world deals with the effects of the Coronavirus, many of my clients have experienced sleep issues, and increased stress generally. They have found that these tried and true methods are almost guaranteed to put them to sleep if they stick with them.
Now it’s your turn.