5 Tips to Fall Asleep –
and Stay Asleep
Oh how I hate it. Tossing and turning restlessly. Lying in bed, watching minutes turn into hours. Stressing about the negative impact on body, mind and mood. It’s enough to make a person frantic.
Not being able to sleep, in a word, sucks. I’d rather clean the house. With a toothbrush.
Over the years, I’ve been sleepless thanks to all kinds of things. Socializing, eating or drinking too late. Getting lost in a great book (how did it get to be 1am all of a sudden?). Environments that fostered anything but sleep. Stress. Ruminating. Stop me when you’ve had enough.
Did you know?
I learned from my mistakes with time. As a therapist, I’ve also learned from other people’s. This post reveals the most important lessons I’ve picked up along the way.
We’ll look at how much sleep each of us needs by age group, and how well we’re doing at getting these needs met. We’ll also cover the best tips I’ve found for naturally improving the quality and quantity of our sleep.
Before we get into that, I also want to share with you three important observations from my therapy practice:
- When sleeplessness has an emotional component, it’s often anxiety, depression or grief related. Trouble falling asleep initially usually involves anxiety. Difficulty going back to sleep may be due to anxiety, depression or grief. The last two are especially likely if the waking is the 5am variety (versus the 2am, can’t-stop-my-thoughts type).
- Short term costs of sleeplessness are unpleasant but manageable and absorbed. They usually include feeling tired, irritable, and more easily stressed. As long as we don’t choose to sky dive or operate heavy machinery immediately after, we usually fare alright as long as we catch up in the following days.
- Long term costs of insomnia are serious. We become less attentive, more forgetful. Our performance is impaired, along with our concentration, creativity, decision-making, and mental and physical health. To add insult to injury, we begin to look older and heftier too. Groan.
How much sleep do we need?
Before we start mending our ways, let’s take a look at what to aim for.
Everyone knows someone who seems able to function on next to no sleep. Margaret Thatcher famously claimed to require only four hours a night. Just because we can get away with it doesn’t make it good for us, though.
As adults, we need 7-9 hours of sleep during a 24 hour period. You might be able to get by with a bit less, but 6 hours is about as much wiggle room as you get from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).
Teenagers, children and babies need even more. According to NSF recommendations below, school aged children (6-13 years) should be getting 9-11 hours a night, with teenagers (14-17 years) clocking in 8-10 hours. If you have children younger than 6, you are looking at anywhere between 10 and 15 hours (the younger the child, the greater the need for sleep).
And how are we actually doing?
A sleep study was conducted by the Better Sleep Council in April 2013. Prompted by the Center for Disease Control’s assessment that insufficient sleep is a public epidemic, the survey confirmed that Americans are doing little to address their sleep deprivation.
Here are some of its overall findings:
- 48% of those surveyed reported being sleep deprived
- Of this group, women outnumbered men 53% to 44%
- 35 – 54 year olds were most sleep deprived (52%), followed by adults aged 18-34 (44%), then adults aged 55+ (42%)
- Women were more aware of sleep needs than men (45% of the latter group still erroneously believed we can train ourselves to need less sleep)
- 80% overall understood that sleep deprivation causes problems (e.g. difficulty concentrating, increased stress)
- Over 70% did not strongly agree with studies showing that lack of sleep contributes to memory loss, heart disease, strokes, and diabetes
And here’s how people reported coping:
- Caffeine – 31%
- Naps, breaks, going for walks – under 25%
Of those who reported getting enough sleep, 47% used a comfortable mattress and 25% and a consistent bedtime and wakeup routine.
How to get a good night’s sleep
So given what we know but may not be addressing, let’s take a look at some healthy and specific ways to get a good night’s sleep. Below is an info graph with some of the best strategies out there, followed by easy-to-apply explanations of each. Two relaxing guided sleep meditations are at the very end of the post.
Here’s how to do each:
- Establish good sleep hygiene. This step is fundamental if you’re suffering from sleeplessness. It involves:
(a) Maintaining a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and getting up around the same time every day. Sorry, friends, this includes weekends. (b) Developing a bedtime routine. Begin your wind down an hour before you want to go to sleep. Turn off the TV, computer, phone. Tune into something relaxing like a book or meditation instead. There are some soothing guided sleep meditations included at the end of this post, and others available online.
(c) Making your environment conducive to sleep. Invest in a good mattress and pillows, keep the temperature low (60-67 degrees is considered ideal) and the room dark, and shut out noise.
(d) Practicing a healthy lifestyle during your waking hours. Avoid unnecessary stressors; maintain a healthy diet; and exercise.
- Go easy on things that diminish sleep quality and quantity. Drink caffeine or alcohol moderately and not close to bedtime. Ditto for lots of water, unless you want to be running to the bathroom like a pregnant woman throughout the night. Avoid heavy, late meals. Exercise is a good thing, but not too close to bedtime (finish at least 1 1/2 hours before going to bed). If you need to nap during the day, limit it to a short cat nap. Finally, proceed with caution around sleeping pills. They can be helpful short-term; the kicker is the disrupted sleep that results when you don’t use them or discontinue them.
Don’t stress yourself out. Take it from all of us who’ve learned this the hard way. Whatever you do, don’t discuss or focus on anything potentially stressful (like employment, financial matters, interpersonal conflicts, or the state of the world) right before going to sleep. Remember, your thoughts generate your feelings, which in turn affect your behavior. If you don’t want to feel anxious, stressed or depressed, do yourself a favor and don’t ruminate about stressful things before or in bed.
- Think relaxing thoughts instead. Hear-me-oh-Israel. In the unlikely event (having now taken my tips to heart) that you do find yourself beginning to mull over something negative, here’s what to do. As soon as you become aware that you’re focusing on something stressful, practice mind control. Instruct yourself to Stop It. If it’s absolutely essential to remember it, go write it down. Then release it and refocus. Replace your negative thought with something positive. A vacation. Some pleasurable experience. The Dalai Lama. Whatever works for you. As a Christian, I find it helpful to focus on Jesus and surrender my sleeplessness to Him. This act of trust and faith gives me a sense of peace, comfort and security. If you can, find someone or something that does that for you. It can work wonders.
Implement additional strategies to help you drift off or go back to sleep. This is an enjoyable one. Think spa, retreat, or having your mother take care of you (if this is a good experience). Soothe yourself with sensory pleasures, like soft sheets, relaxing smells, and calming sounds. Try aromatherapy, with it’s proven ability to relax our minds, emotions, and bodies. Use a sleep app like Sleep Pillow to lull you to sleep with peaceful sounds. Try breathing exercises. Meditating. Progressive neuromuscular relaxation. Massage (especially if you’re fortunate enough to actually have your mother or someone else available to do this for you). Anything you do regularly can be turned into a ritual, forming sleep associations between the activity and sleeping (for better and for worse, so remember that when you’re tempted to take your laptop to bed).
What if, after trying all these great tips, you still find yourself struggling with chronic sleep challenges?
It may be time to get some professional help.
There’s no shame in this. More and more people are struggling with sleep issues these days. Some are medical, like sleep apnea, and require medical treatment. Others are mental or emotional in nature. To figure out which might be implicated, consult with your doctor and/or a qualified mental health professional.
Grab the sheep by the horns
This probably comes as no surprise to anyone over the age of 22, but I’m going to say it anyway. Regular, sufficient sleep is critical for good mental, emotional and physical health.
Fortunately, we have a range of options to help us. We don’t have to drag ourselves out of bed, knocking back caffeine to wake us and sedatives to put us back to sleep.
These 5 tips help promote regular, healthy sleep. They’re useful individually, and great collectively. Give them a try, see which work for you, and let me know how it goes!
Here are two relaxing guided sleep meditations.
Go to Sleep helps you fall asleep by guiding you through a progressive neuromuscular relaxation. Click here to listen:
Back to Sleep uses breathing, sensory soothing, and hypnotic suggestion to encourage you to return to sleep after waking. Click here to listen:
Here too are some excellent books on the subject:
- Say Good Night to Insomnia: The Six-Week, Drug-Free Program Developed At Harvard Medical School (Gregg Jacobs)
- The Effortless Sleep Method: The Incredible New Cure for Insomnia and Chronic Sleep Problems (Sasha Stephens)
- Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child (Marc Weissbluth)
- The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy: Over 600 Natural, Non-Toxic and Fragrant Recipes to Create Health — Beauty — a Safe Home Environment (Valerie Ann Worwood)
And am illuminating TED Talk by Russell Foster on why we sleep.