Can't sleep? Last night I couldn't either. At 3:00 a.m. my cell phone started ringing and woke me up.
It was one of my children.
If you have kids who are old enough to be out on their own, you know what it feels like to see your child's name appear on the phone at 3:00 in the morning. Before I even answered, a surge of adrenaline shot through my body and my heart was pounding. There wasn't much “drowsy” between sound asleep and wide awake.
Fortunately it was nothing serious. She was at a friend's house sleeping over and felt sick. She was trying to figure out if she should stay or go.
After I got off the phone, I tried to go back to sleep.
And I tried.
I flipped and flopped. I turned my pillow from the warm to the cool side several times. I threw the covers off and on. Then of course I had to get up to use the bathroom. And once back in bed, I went through the entire flip flopping, blanket tossing routine again.
After about an hour of this, I realized sleep wasn't happening. At least no time soon.
Several years ago, I went through a really bad period of insomnia. I just couldn't sleep. At all. The worst part was the dread I felt before trying to sleep. I knew I'd have trouble falling asleep, so I'd anticipate the frustration, weariness, and exhaustion that would follow. This all led to a cycle of anxiety about sleeping that worsened the problem.
During that time I did a ton of reading and research on sleep problems and the causes and possible cures. And one book I discovered was Restful Sleep: The Complete Mind/Body Program for Overcoming Insomnia by Deepak Chopra. One of the suggestions he makes in the book really loosened the grip of anxiety about my sleep issues.
He suggested I just stop “trying” to sleep — to actually give myself permission to stay awake in a state of relaxed awareness. Actively trying to sleep, as you've likely experienced, is an exercise in futility. Unlike many other sleep advice I'd read, Chopra believes you shouldn't get out of bed to read or watch TV when you can't sleep. He says your body still benefits from the rest and recuperation of simply lying in bed with your eyes closed.
So that's what I started doing during that bad time of insomnia. Before I went to bed, I told myself it was OK if I didn't fall asleep. I reminded myself I was still getting needed rest by being in bed relaxing. And I prepared my schedule for the next day so it would be manageable if I didn't sleep well.
All of this reduced the anxiety I had around my lack of sleep which I eventually overcame after making some other life changes that were causing me stress. I think many problems with chronic insomnia do relate to something that's out-of-balance or not working in your waking life.
Since that bad period of insomnia, I have had very few sleep issues. But I do have times when something awakens me, or I've had wine too late in the evening, or there's some other reason I either can't fall asleep or can't fall back asleep. When this happens, as it did last night, I get a twinge of that old fear and frustration. But then I remind myself that working so hard to fall asleep isn't productive. But I have discovered some techniques that have helped me drift off or at least feel relaxed while I'm still awake.
Here are 10 ways on how to sleep better on those nights when you have difficulty sleeping:
1. Accept what is
After some restlessness and repositioning, when it becomes evident that sleep isn't imminent, take a deep breath and tell yourself you don't have to sleep. Accept that you are in a wakeful state, and give up struggling to go to sleep. Simply accept the reality of what is.
2. Immediately take care of creature comforts
It always seems the minute I'm awake and aware at night, my bladder takes that as a cue to make me uncomfortable. Sometimes I avoid getting up in hopes I can fall asleep before it gets too noticeable. But most of the time I'm just delaying the inevitable. When you realize and accept that sleep isn't coming, get up right away and take care of any physical discomforts. Go to the restroom, get the temperature in the room right, add or remove clothing that's making you hot or cold, take medication for any pain, etc. Do these quickly so they don't nag at you and give you another reason for wakefulness.
3. Turn your clock around
Staring at a ticking clock when you're wide awake is one of the loneliest, most frustrating feelings in the world. You watch the minutes and hours tick by, and it feels like the entire world is asleep except you. Turn your clock to the wall and turn your phone over so you can't see the time. Try to mentally detach from time so you aren't actively aware of how much sleep you're losing.
4. Try a guided meditation
I found some great guided sleep meditation apps on my iPhone. And you can find many sleep meditations on YouTube as well. Find one that lasts 20-30 minutes where the facilitator takes you through a full body relaxation visualization. Unless I'm really wired up, I usually fall asleep before the meditation is over. But even when I don't fall asleep, this is a great way to relax deeply and take your mind off of your sleep problem.
5. Use a sound machine
White noise and natural sounds are very soothing and relaxing. I have a sound machine that blocks out the irritating house “settling” noises or the clock ticking — sounds that seem so much louder and help me sleep better. I use this sound machine: Conair SU1W Sound Therapy, Silver, but you might take a look at this one that's more expensive but has gotten nearly 800 five star reviews: Ecotones Sound + Sleep Machine, Model ASM1002
6. Focus on breathing
Focusing on breathing is a mindfulness technique that helps you stay in the present moment. When you're lying in bed awake, your mind sees it as a great opportunity to run rampant with worries and thoughts about the day ahead or the stressful events of the week. When you focus on your breathing, you train your mind to calm down and stay centered on one thing. You might find it easier to mentally repeat a word on the in and out breaths. You can simply say “in” and “out.” Or sometimes I say the word relax, with “re” on the in breath and “lax” on the out breath. Your mind will resist this breathing effort, but keep going back to your breathing without judgment.
7. Listen intently
Sometimes instead of trying to block out sound, I actively listen intently to every sound I hear and mentally identify it. This is another mindfulness technique in which you're focusing your mind on something in the present. So I listen for any sound and mentally repeat what the sound is in my head — creak, bird, clock, car, etc. When you are actively listening for sounds, it's hard to be distracted with worry or anxiety. I've found eventually my mind relaxes it's grip as it grows tired of listening.
I don't know for sure whether or not acupressure works for improving sleep, but I've read enough about it to believe it can't hurt. And it's certainly a restful distraction that may help you sleep better. You can read about the acupressure points for insomnia here, which you can apply to yourself while in bed.
9. Yawning and stretching
Induce several exaggerated yawns and stretch your arms and legs as though you are really sleepy. This often tricks your brain into a state of drowsiness. You're sending signals to your body and mind that it's time to sleep. Yawning has the effect of waking you up after sleep and helping you relax for a better night of sleep. According to sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Dr. Gabe Mirkin, yawning forces you to breath in deeply. “Breathing deeper and faster brings in more oxygen which refreshes you for a few seconds, but it also causes you to blow off way too much carbon dioxide from your bloodstream, which makes you feel dizzy and more tired. So yawning also can help put you to sleep, which is the most effective treatment for tiredness and after you nap, you can wake up feeling refreshed,” says Mirkin.
10. Self-talk and visualization
During the sleepless times of night, I will gently tell myself how sleepy I feel, how tired my body is, and how relaxed I'm becoming. I'll talk to myself as though I'm a hypnotherapist putting myself into a state of hypnosis. I'll follow that self-talk with visualizing myself falling asleep, mentally seeing myself falling into a comfortable, soundless dark hole. Or sometimes I visualize myself on a huge bed swing that is gently rocking me to sleep.
Whether or not any of these techniques make you fall asleep, they will give you a sense of control over your sleepless situation so you can feel less anxiety and more rested and relaxed even without a full eight hours.
Do you have any tips or techniques on how to sleep better? Please share them with everyone here in the comments below.
photo credit: Loca Luna / Anna Gay via photopin