If you have a few days off over the holidays, there’s one thing you can do to take care of yourself that will significantly change your life for the better — try to fix your sleeping schedule.
Of course, sometimes that’s easier said than done. In our busy, wired, non-stop culture, 40% of people sleep less than the recommended seven to nine hours a night.
Indeed, between a third and half of all adults in the US and around the world suffer from insomnia at some point in their lives. In up to 15% of people, this inability to sleep is persistent enough that it causes serious distress.
But there’s hope!
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, insomnia can be treated and without drugs or so-called “natural” remedies like melatonin and valerian root.
Some types of insomnia are caused by external factors, like a hostile sleep environment or a substance-abuse problem. These are cases of “secondary insomnia,” and they can often be remedied simply by finding a solution to the external troubling factor.
In cases of “primary insomnia,” where sleeplessness isn’t being caused by a secondary source, however, being unable to sleep can result in a vicious cycle where being unable to sleep makes someone angry or frustrated, which in turn makes it even tougher to sleep. In those cases, breaking the cycle is key.
There’s no one best strategy, but here are seven sleep-aiding strategies that experts say work.
The following 3 strategies have been shown to work in randomised well-designed studies:
1. Stop freaking out about sleep. The chronic inability to sleep is horribly frustrating, and people who start to face the night with dread and stare at their clocks until it’s time to get up start to develop negative emotions like fear, anxiety, and anger that they associate with trying to sleep.
Stimulus-control therapy seeks to break those associations, so you simply associate bed with sleep and not all that extra baggage. Doctors recommending this approach will suggest things like not keeping a clock in bedroom and not lying in bed when you can’t sleep.
The Ohio Sleep Medicine Institute recommends that “patients should not ‘catastrophize’ when faced with a ‘bad night.'” Instead of worrying about how awful your day is going to be because you are tired, realise that you may be better able to sleep the next night because of it.
2. Practice relaxation. When you’re anxious about being unable to sleep, your body produces stress hormones that make it harder to let go of that anxiety.
Training yourself to relax using a technique like progressive muscle relaxation (individually focusing on relaxing every part of your body in sequence) or meditation can help.
3. Change how you think about sleep. This is a two-part strategy. The cognitive part includes changing people’s beliefs about their insomnia. In many cases, people who are stressed about their inability to sleep tend to exaggerate the problem, thinking they have slept even less than they actually have. Changing these negative thoughts can reduce some of the distress.
For altering behaviour, experts recommend combining both the relaxation training and stimulus control therapy described above. Creating an environment conducive to sleep, like a cool dark quiet room, can help too.
The following strategies have been shown to be effective but not tested as thoroughly as the ones above:
4. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed. This strategy is simple — if you can’t sleep, don’t lie in bed and try to fall asleep.
If you’ve been trying for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and go do something else. Don’t use your computer, phone, or watch TV though — those can all make sleep problems worse.
Experts say that staying out of bed when you can’t sleep helps break the cycle of linking your bed with negative emotions. Plus, the mild sleep deprivation this causes could make it easier to sleep the next day.
5. Change your behaviour. Just doing the stimulus control therapy described in #3 and adding relaxation training and a better sleep environment can be effective too. Give it a try.
6. Stop trying so hard. As funny as this may sound, the trick to falling asleep might be trying to stay awake.
By lying in bed content to be awake and not worrying about falling asleep, insomniacs have been shown to actually fall asleep more quickly and sleep better. Experts say this is because trying to stay awake (without looking at phones or computers and just doing nothing) removes the anxiety people can feel while trying to fall asleep.
7. Learn to recognise stress. Therapists often use biofeedback to help patients manage stress, and it can work for insomnia too. This involves learning how to recognise stress symptoms like an elevated heart rate, muscle tension, and rapid breathing, and then focusing on bringing those stress symptoms back to a normal level.
If you have trouble sleeping, give one or several of these strategies a try. Do something for yourself over these next few days and give some of these strategies a try. If they help, you can stick with them going forward.
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