There are few things as frustrating as not being able to fall asleep. As an activity, sleep is right up there with eating and breathing. Sleep is vital for all living beings. When we sleep we grow, we heal, we consolidate memories, and we rest. If we are sleep-deprived, we can have trouble focusing, remembering, and making good decisions. Studies have shown that driving while sleep-deprived can be even more dangerous than driving drunk. Children who are not rested can look like they have an attention or cognitive disorder. It is also harder for them to control their behavior.
Ironically, despite the importance of sleep, the first strategy for dealing with insomnia involves telling ourselves, “If I don’t fall asleep, it is OK!”. When we become anxious about not falling asleep, this works to keep us awake. When we lie awake watching the minutes, then the hours, tick away on our clocks and allow ourselves to feel frustrated because we are not yet sleeping, we are actually ensuring that we won’t fall asleep. Most sleep specialists will, in fact, recommend that we turn our clocks away from us when getting into bed so that we won’t be tempted to check the time. When we ‘go with the flow’ and tell ourselves “ it’s fine if I fall asleep and fine if I don’t”, we promote relaxation rather than tension. It’s like allowing ourselves to float downstream instead of trying to swim against the current.
Another component of “sleep hygiene” involves using our beds only for sleeping or intimacy. If we find ourselves tossing and turning for a short period of time, it is recommended that we get out of bed and engage in a calming activity for a while before getting back into bed. It is important to associate our beds with sleep, so that our beds can actually serve as a trigger for sleep. If we associate bed with watching television or playing video games, it is less likely that getting into bed will trigger the association to sleep. In other words, we won’t be in the frame of mind for sleep. Children who suffer from insomnia could be allowed to get out of bed, but should stay in their bedroom and engage in a quiet activity before getting back into bed to try again for sleep.
We also want to prepare our bodies for sleep. Bathing and exercising should not be done too closely to bedtime because our bodies fall asleep as we cool down. If we are overheated by a warm shower, or vigorous exercise, our bodies may be too warm to be ready for sleep. Consider bathing and/or exercising at least one hour prior to bedtime to allow for this cool down. Computer screens can also activate our brains which can make falling asleep more difficult, so we should refrain from electronics for at least an hour before bedtime.
It would also be important to have a regular bedtime routine which includes calming activities that our brains can associate with preparing for sleep. Slow deep nostril breathing with exhales being of greater length than inhales is calming to the nervous system. Mindful meditation and restorative yoga are also helpful in preparing the body for sleep. In addition, breathwork, mindful meditation, and restorative yoga poses can be used to help relax us if we’ve been tossing and turning for a while. Many people also find reading before bed prepares them for sleep. If worries tend to keep us up at night we can prepare a worry box or a worry journal. We can write down all of our worries before bedtime, and then place them in our box, or close the journal and tell ourselves that we will put our worries to rest and think about them again tomorrow at this time.
Finally, our diet can also contribute to insomnia. Caffeine, which occurs in coffee, tea, chocolate, and many soft drinks, is a stimulant that can keep us up at night. Some people find that they can tolerate caffeine early in the day, but not in the later afternoon or evening. It would be important to understand our bodies and how food and drink affect our sleep. Warm milk would be a preferable drink prior to bedtime.
Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist