However, there are well-researched sleep strategies that don’t involve taking pills and can have lasting benefits. That’s because these strategies are about targeting beliefs and adopting healthy habits.
Below, Amy K. Mistler, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in treating insomnia, shared her suggestions.
Pay attention to your thoughts.
“A lot of the problems that people experience with sleep can come from their beliefs about sleep or the way that they think about sleep,” said Mistler, who practices at Orenstein Solutions in Cary, N.C. That’s why it’s important to focus on what you’re telling yourself about your sleep concerns.
For instance, are you running through worst-case scenarios when you can’t sleep?
According to Mistler, “Some people may look at the clock and think, ‘Oh, no! I can’t believe it’s already 1 a.m. and I’m still not asleep yet! I’m going to have a terrible day tomorrow!’”
These types of thoughts heighten anxiety and stress, and make you more awake — the complete opposite of your goal, she said.
When you notice a negative thought, try to follow it up with a helpful statement. For the above thought, you might remind yourself that you’ve been able to function when you’re tired, and you’ll do the best you can.
Find out how many hours of sleep you actually need.
Many people think that they need to get eight hours of sleep. But for some people the optimal number is seven hours. Sleeping more than you need disrupts your sleep schedule, Mistler said.
“If you sleep ‘too much’ one night, then the next night you will likely have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep.” So pay attention to the number of hours per night that help you to feel refreshed (or exhausted).
Incorporate the right activities into your bedtime routine.
You probably know that creating a bedtime routine is one of the best things you can do to sleep well. A bedtime routine is simply a ritual of calming activities you do about an hour before going to bed. These activities help you to wind down.
But many people pick activities that actually keep them awake.
For instance, some people work on stressful activities, such as paying bills or planning activities for their kids, Mistler said. Everyone is different, so what’s stressful for one person may not be stressful for another.
Other people read books that are too exciting, interesting or upsetting, she said. If you’re going to read a book, the key is to find something relaxing and pleasant, Mistler said.
Get up when you can’t sleep.
“Staying in bed while not sleeping simply teaches the body that sleeping is optional when we get into bed,” Mistler said. This is why experts recommend getting out of bed and doing something relaxing until you feel sleepy. This might be reading a book that calms you, or practicing progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery, she said.
But many people stay in bed. According to Mistler, common thoughts are: “If I get up out of bed, I’ll never feel sleepy and I’ll be exhausted all day” or “I just need to keep trying to make myself fall asleep” or “If I can just get some rest, even if I’m not sleeping, that will be better than no rest.”
Forcing yourself to fall asleep doesn’t work. And these kinds of thoughts — like the above — also boost anxiety and stress. And any time we’re anxious or stressed out, our blood pressure and heart rate shoots up and inhibits sleep.
Avoid electronics — even if they seem to help.
You’ve probably heard this tip before many times. But it’s absolutely important to avoid electronics, including TV, computer, video games and phone, before going to bed. Light regulates our sleep cycle. That is, we’re trained to be awake when there’s light. “Shining a bright light into our faces from [an electronic device] is counterproductive,” and keeps our brains awake.
If you think TV really does help you go to sleep, consider why. For instance, some individuals have a hard time shutting down their minds before bed. A lot of people tell Mistler that listening to music or calming sounds (such as ocean or rainforest sounds) helps to quiet their minds. (Some of these and these strategies also might help.)
In other words, find the underlying reason for a habit that’s actually unhelpful, and try methods that have been shown to work to address it healthfully and effectively.
Some people are afraid to try new techniques, because they worry that these tips won’t work and they’ll end up feeling worse, Mistler said. If you have this worry, she suggested trying a night when you don’t have anything important to do the next day.
If people do try a technique, and it doesn’t help, they quit on the strategy after their first attempt. This is a common mistake, because strategies need time to work. Try them for at least a week. For instance, “relaxation techniques work better the more they are practiced,” Mistler said.
Not being able to sleep or not getting enough sleep can be really frustrating. After all, sleep is one of our basic needs. But remember that you aren’t limited to sleeping pills or doomed to days of poor sleep. You have many healthy options to improve your slumber. Trying these well-established strategies can help.
Woman sleeping photo available from Shutterstock