Can’t Sleep? 10 Ways To Sleep Better

Can't Sleep

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.

And tried.

And 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 way to sleep better on those nights when you have problems 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 I use when I can’t sleep that blocks out the irritating house “settling” noises or the clock ticking — sounds that seem so much louder when you can’t sleep. 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.

8. Acupressure

I don’t know for sure whether or not acupressure works in helping me fall asleep, but I’ve read enough about it to believe it can’t hurt. And it’s certainly a restful distraction on those sleepless nights. 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 before 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.

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photo credit: Loca Luna / Anna Gay via photopin

Comments

  1. I needed these 10 tips for sleeping better! You cleared up the yawning mystery too. Thanks

    • I hope they work for you Ron. Getting a poor night’s sleep is the worst — except maybe it gives us an excuse to spend the day on the sofa napping and watching TV! :)

  2. Great advice, Barrie. Some proactive actions you can take are:
    1. Reducing the amount of light exposure into your eyes an hour before you go to bed. Light, whether it be sunlight, lamps or screens inhibits the sleep hormone melatonin from being released in the brain.
    2. Turn your bedroom into a haven for sleep. Make it slightly cool and as dark as you possibly can. If you can’t make the room dark, a sleep mask could be a good alternative.
    3. Avoid caffeine late in the day (ideally no coffee after lunch).
    Russell Foster has a great TED talk on this: http://www.ted.com/talks/russell_foster_why_do_we_sleep.html

    • Love these Patrik. I recently switched from caffeinated coffee to decaf, and it has made such a difference in how I feel and sleep. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for the ten tips. I think we all, at some point in our lives, struggle with sleep because our bodies are fighting off the stress and struggles of our long days.

    However, I find three things that help me to sleep are.

    1. Praying
    2. Hot tea
    3. Singing in my head with my eyes close.

    Peace to all,

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Elissa,
      Yes, it’s hard to shut down after stressful days. I love your tips — especially singing in your head! Thank you for sharing.

  4. As I get older I hear from more and more people I know that they struggle with sleep.

    Your list is really thorough, hitting most of the key points I’ve discovered. Great to have them now in a handy list to share.

    I was really pleased to see the “stay in bed” suggestion. That’s my approach, though I too have read that people should get up, which only leaves me exhausted in the morning.

    My addition is to do some self-hypnosis. After all the creature comforts are taken care of I begin slowly counting backwards from 100. Sometimes I’m counting as I go down a long flight of stairs, sometimes I’m watching the numbers as a go down an elevator. This usually does it, unless I’m worried about something. Worry trumps everything.

    Many years ago we were facing a family health crisis and I would wake brimming with anxiety. I discovered that the tried and true mother’s comfort phrase, the one we tell our children as we rub their back or stroke their hair worked wonders. Rather than worry about something I couldn’t do anything about (in the day or the night) I just said, it’s okay, you’re okay… Sometimes I would have to put my hand on my heart to help me calm down. Even if it took a long time, sleep would finally come.

    Thanks for another thoughtful and useful piece.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Winifred,
      Thank YOU for such a lovely comment. I do the counting thing as well. Thanks for the reminder. And I love the “mother’s comfort” phrase. Everything really is okay. Beautiful.

  5. Thanks Barrie, these are timely reminders. Stay blessed

  6. I usually don’t have a hard time falling asleep. On the rare occasion I do, I do what’s called the Betty Erickson trance induction (I’m a hypnotist so find this useful). Basically, start with picking a point of focus. Something to look at that is slightly above eye level as you’re looking out ahead. Then you start mentally (silently) noticing 4 things you can see in your vision (without moving your head).
    Example:
    1. I see how the ceiling fan wobbles a bit as it turns.
    2. I see the way the light bounces off the ceiling from the fixture.
    3. I see the line where the wall and ceiling meet.
    4. I see the outline of where the door is.
    Then you switch to things you hear (which can even include your own inner dialogue), followed by things you feel.

    For the feeling part, I found it’s easy to notice things like how the blanket feels on your body, legs, etc. or how it feels for the bed to be supporting you. Or feel how your eyes are starting to get heavier from the slight strain.

    After this, then you repeat, doing 3 things each, then 2, then 1.

    • Wow — these are great tips Bill. I love the idea of trance induction. I’m definitely going to try this the next time I have trouble sleeping.

  7. Out of all of the items on your list, the first sure is the hardest! I don’t tend to have issues falling asleep, but when I do it’s all to easy to get frustrated and caught in a purposeless cycle of self-blame. It’s very empowering to have a reminder that we can pull ourselves out of victim mode and into a place of empowerment by simply taking a few breaths and saying, “I’m awake, and that’s where I’m at right now, and that’s OK.”

    In addition, I’m a huge advocate of white noise and meditation – I like to turn a fan on to block out excess noise, and then I’ll focus on my breathing (counting or using a mantra) for however long I need to. I particularly love using meditation in this way, because it turns a seemingly unfortunate situation (sleep deprivation) into an opportunity to improve my meditation practice!

    Thank you for this lovely post :)

    • Hi Maggie,
      I know — it was hugely empowering for me just to accept that not sleeping is “OK.” I struggled against it for so long and just made it harder on myself. So glad that resonated with you too!

  8. Another way to relax your body is to consciously relax. Lying down in your normal way, start thinking about your toes. Tell each toe in turn to relax. Try to stretch the toes, then the foot, then tell them (without speaking) to stretch and relax. After you complete this repeat for the ankle, then the foot, the leg, and the rest of your body. The last item you need is to relax your mind. Imagine you are in a “safe place” such as your bed when you were a young child or some other time/place where you felt very safe and secure and happy. Concentrate on this and add ALL the details to scene and location you can, but DON’T STRESS about it. Just let your mind recall the location and time so you can find why you were happy.

    Usually by this time, you are already asleep and your dream will be about the time you were thinking about or of another happy time.

  9. Hi Barrie,

    I completely agree that getting up doesn’t make any sense but I have never heard anyone support this idea until now.

    I have noticed with myself and others that often when we think we’re awake “all night” that we’ve been gently dozing off and on. We may not be in deep sleep, but we’re not awake either.

    If I stay in bed and relax, I can take advantage of this light sleep. Sleep can come when it’s ready. Plus, sometimes these nights of light sleep can be very sweet. I can enjoy the night noises and soft light that I normally miss.

    I’ll have to check out Deepak’s book. I’m happy that someone has offered this advice.

    Thank you!

    • Hi Julia,
      I’m happy to reinforce it! I have never wanted to get out of bed and go watch tv or read when I can’t sleep. I think you will really enjoy Deepak’s book.

  10. Hi,
    This has been happened with me also. After not getting the sleep for hours, i tried to find out the reason and i realized that if i would not try to sleep then my eyes will close automatically after some time. It was really effective.

  11. That’s so true Deepak. In fact, I’ve tried to force myself to stay awake in bed with my eyes open when I can’t sleep. It really does trick your brain into feeling sleepy.

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