You’re having a hard time falling asleep. Maybe you’re worried about something. Maybe you’re thinking about everything you need to do. Maybe falling asleep has never been easy for you in the first place—unless the TV is blaring, and your favorite sitcom seemingly lulls you to slumber.
Many of us also are attached to our phones, as though they’re crazy-glued to our hands. We scroll social media before bed. We reply to email, hoping to get ahead. And, not surprisingly, sleep doesn’t happen.
We don’t give “our brains a chance to go through the natural transition of entering into a state of calm before expecting ourselves to fall asleep,” said Julia Kristina, MA, RCC, a Vancouver-based therapist, researcher and online course creator. Instead, our brains remain highly stimulated. When our minds, inevitably, don’t shut off, we get frustrated and anxious, Kristina said.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing work or playing “Words with Friends,” according to Shelby Harris, Ph.D, director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at Montefiore Health Systems in New York City, “the brain ‘reads’ the blue light from electronics as if the sun is still out, making it harder to fall asleep.”
“Sleep isn’t an on/off switch; it needs to be more of a dimmer switch for our bodies and brains,” Harris said.
As such, here are a range of tips for dimming the lights.
Structure your sleep. Psychotherapist Cheryl Sexton, LMFT, suggested working with your own schedule to structure sleep as much as possible. She shared this example: If you work nights, set aside 8 to 9 hours during the day for sleep. Try to find solutions for any challenges to your new schedule. If you help your kids with homework during that time, can you do that before going to sleep or after waking up? Can you ask a family member or friend to help on the days the times overlap?
Watch for sleep stealers. Avoid drinking caffeine 8 to 12 hours before bed, and watching TV. Instead of calming you, the light from the television hinders deep sleep and dampens the quality of your sleep, Harris said. Also, “Once insomnia develops, you’re becoming conditioned to need a TV to go to sleep which is not ideal.”
Poor sleep quality also happens when you drink alcohol. It makes you wake up more often throughout the night. Over time, you’ll need more alcohol to get the same effects, she said.
Engage in calm, quiet activities. To help your brain transition to bedtime, Harris suggested reading a book or magazine; listening to a podcast or to music; doing a jigsaw puzzle; or using an adult coloring book.
These also are good activities to do if you can’t fall asleep. As Harris added, “If you’re frustrated in bed or tossing and turning (usually after 20 minutes but don’t look at the clock), get up and go do something quiet, calm and relaxing in dim light in another room until you’re sleepy.” When you’re restless in bed for prolonged periods of time, you teach your body that your bed is a place to lay awake, not to sleep, she said.
Kristina pointed out that for some people staying in bed isn’t an issue, because you’re still resting your body. Another option is to stay in bed and do breathing exercises or guided visualizations, she said (more on that below).
Turn to relaxation tools and techniques. Relaxation techniques are important for quieting the mind and calming the body. You can make them part of your bedtime routine. Sexton takes her clients through a breathing practice that involves tensing and relaxing their muscles. For instance, she asks them to inhale for 3 seconds and tense their forehead. Then as they exhale for 3 seconds, she asks them to relax their foreheads. They might move down to the shoulders, back, stomach, legs and feet.
Kristina suggested practicing square breathing: Inhale for four counts; hold for four counts; exhale for four counts and hold for four counts. She takes viewers through it in this video. She also suggested practicing guided meditation. She shares a 5-minute practice in this video.
Take advantage of technology. One of Sexton’s favorite meditation apps is Smiling Mind, which provides options based on age (with some categories for kids); how much time you have; and what you’d like to focus on (e.g., relaxation or meditation for commuting to work). When you’re using it, put your phone on your nightstand, and close your eyes. The app is designed to shut itself off when the meditation is over.
Sexton also mentioned the app Calm, which “takes the user through a 20-second breathing exercise while the person is focused on a serene image.”
Manage nighttime thoughts. To reduce ruminating about everything you have to do, Sexton suggested working on your task list during your lunch break and processing your day on your commute from work. She and Kristina also help clients incorporate light activity, such as stretching or yoga, into their bedtime routines to reduce the intensity of racing thoughts.
When thoughts and worries still pop up before bed, keep a notebook and pen on your nightstand, so you can jot them down, getting them out of your head, Kristina said.
Use essential oils. Try lavender, which is known for its calming effects, said Sexton, who personally uses it. Some essential oils can be rubbed into your feet, temples and wrists, she said. Others are room sprays or sleep mists that use essential oils. You also can spray or put essential oils on your pillow and sheets.
Seek help. When sleep problems worsen, many people turn to medication. However, consider cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), the first line of treatment for insomnia, before medication. “It works just as well as medication, and works better in the long run,” Harris said.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, CBT-I consists of sleep restriction therapy, which includes restricting your time in bed and not taking naps; stimulus control instructions, which examines your current sleep habits and how they’re prohibiting sleep; sleep hygiene education, which is tailored to your specific behavior; and relapse prevention, which teaches you to maintain your new habits and prepare for potential setbacks.
Experiment with the above activities and practices and remember that different things work for different people. Some of Sexton’s clients find it helpful to use a white noise machine while they sleep. Others prefer compete silence. “I always encourage clients to keep an open mind in trying out something and to pay close attention to how it works for them as individuals,” Sexton said.