Insomnia: Coping with Sleep Troubles

It’s late, and you can’t seem to fall asleep. Your mind doesn’t want to quiet, and one of the thoughts that you’re having on repeat is that you’re not going to get enough sleep, even if you were to fall asleep at this moment. Or it’s 4am, and you woke up from a dream or to use the bathroom and now can’t get back to sleep. You’re still tired, but you toss and turn, and nothing seems to work.

These are two common scenarios we hear in the realm of insomnia. With insomnia, people tend to have trouble falling asleep – or staying asleep – or both. Insomnia can be a standalone condition or can be a feature of other disorders, such as anxiety, PTSD, and certain types of depression. Because sleep is so important to our physical and mental health, struggling with insomnia can take a significant toll on our well-being.

But there are certain thing we can do to address this concern. Here are five strategies toward a more productive night’s sleep:

Stick to a schedule/routine. Our bodies and brains do well with routine. Sticking to a consistent sleep-wake schedule is important in regulating our sleep. This is easier said than done, of course, when we factor in work and family and events and such, but it really is important to be as consistent as possible. If we get up at 7am during the weekdays and then sleep in until noon on the weekends, that might feel good, but it disrupts our routine and will likely make it more challenging to fall asleep on the nights that follow. As much as you can manage, consistency is key.

Focus on sleep hygiene. You’ve probably heard this phrase before, but was exactly is, “sleep hygiene”? Sleep hygiene refers to a set of practices that we engage in prior to bedtime to help set us up for success with sleep. While this might vary by individual, there are certain practices that are generally applicable. They include eliminating caffeine later in the day; avoiding screens before bed,; avoiding emotionally charged conversations or content before sleeping; and creating a quiet, comfortable place for sleep that you use just for sleep. While many of us use our beds as hangouts these days, this doesn’t create the best association in our brains for sleep. Ideally, we want our brains to associate our beds with sleep as soon as we lie down.

Move your body. For those who are able, exercising during the day can help with sleep at night. In fact, research shows that those who exercise regularly are able to fall asleep more quickly and have better quality sleep. The good news is that it doesn’t take hardcore workouts to elicit these effects. A moderate workout of about 30 minutes can do the trick, resulting in better sleep that very night. As opposed to some of the other benefits associated with physical activity, moving our bodies tends to result in better sleep immediately. 

Try not to sleep. This one might sound odd, but there’s a concept in psychology called, “paradoxical intention,” where we purposely lean in to our concerns. With sleep, many people struggle with anxiety about their insomnia, which only makes the insomnia worse. Anyone who’s ever laid in bed at night worried that they can’t sleep or that they won’t be able to get enough sleep knows that this kind of anxiety doesn’t help. So the paradoxical intention here is to get into bed and try not to sleep. This takes the pressure off and can reduce the performance anxiety around sleep. In many cases, the reduced pressure actually results in sleep. It is said that people who have sleep issues actually sleep better during laboratory sleep studies, and paradoxical intention might be at work. These folks actually want their insomnia to be evident to others here, and so they are trying not to sleep, which paradoxically assists them to do just that.

We hope these tips are helpful in addressing struggles with insomnia. Of course, if difficulties persist, it might be helpful to consult with a primary care physician and/or a mental health professional to determine next steps. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI), for example, is an evidence-based protocol that targets insomnia, with many demonstrating improvements in just a few sessions.

To a better night’s sleep!


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