I am not a good sleeper. I will never be one of those people who can boast the ability to sleep anywhere, at any time. But unlike many other sufferers of occasional insomnia, I refuse to resort to over-the-counter sleep-aids and prescription meds.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve tried my fair share of both. However, not only did the over-the-counter stuff fail to put me to sleep, it left me feeling drugged, dehydrated, and foggy. The prescription stuff, on the other hand, worked too well. I tried to reserve them for absolute emergencies, but who has the willpower to say no to a guaranteed full night of sleep? My best intentions were not enough to contend with the promise of feeling rested, and that was definitely not the path I wanted to be heading down.
So what else can we do to improve our sleep? What steps can we take towards building better, healthful nighttime routines? For people with real difficulties falling asleep, a cup of chamomile tea, while indeed relaxing, simply doesn’t cut it. Over the years I have, however, accumulated a fairly thorough toolkit of natural sleep solutions that really do help and which I’d like to share with you. Because I know just how difficult it is to function after a sleepless night, and how it contributes to a whole host of health problems. But that is a topic for another article.
1. Turn Off Technology, Especially Social Media, At Least 1 Hour Before Bed
This one can be tricky for many people. It’s tempting to check your email one last time before going to bed, or scroll through your Facebook feed, but these activities are incredibly stimulating to our brains. I know for a fact that once I’ve reached out for my phone and peeked at my email in the morning, that’s it – I’m awake.
They can also be sources of stress. How on earth are you supposed to let your mind quiet down if you’ve just received an email about a big deadline at work, or if you’ve just gotten a bunch of “likes” on your Instagram account? Negative and positive stress will both prevent you from sleeping with equal efficacy.
Studies have also shown that the blue light emitted from computer, cell phone, and tablet screens trick the brain into thinking it’s morning, thereby effectively disrupting your internal clock and keeping you from falling asleep. You can read more about that here.
2. Schedule Worry Time
This has probably been the most helpful piece of sleep-related advice I ever received. Since my issues stem from an over-active mind, often related to stress, taking the time to allow my thoughts to run their course has proven incredibly effective. For many people, the moment your head hits the pillow is the moment your brain chooses to start processing the events of the day and planning those of tomorrow. Rather than lying awake in bed fighting this natural urge and agonizing over the fact of being awake, give your mind the time it needs by scheduling some time before you’re ready for sleep. I call this my quiet time or my worry time. I find a quiet, dark corner, cuddle up with a blanket and some herbal tea, and just let my brain do its thing. WHY did I say that stupid thing earlier today? What will I wear tomorrow? Have I forgotten to email or call anyone? Do I have any important meetings or discussions tomorrow, and do I feel prepared? The dialogue will be different for everyone, but these are the common things that run through my head before bed. By the time I have sat there quietly for 20 minutes, my tea is finished and my head is starting to droop.
This is the natural progression from Step 2. Many people are uncomfortable with the notion of meditation, either because they think they “don’t know how” or think it simply doesn’t work. But the truth of the matter is, if you’re sitting quietly, regulating your breathing, and focusing on clearing your mind – you’re meditating. Allowing myself worry time eventually leads to meditation, because I no longer have various thoughts and worries fighting for my attention. If a new thought pops up, I simply acknowledge the fact that it’s there, without attaching an emotion to it, and move on.
Breathing deeply and slowly will work wonders for carrying you to a restful state. The physiological changes alone will bring about a state of calm – you literally can’t help but feel relaxed after some time of breathing in this way.
4. If You’re Not Sleeping, Get Out of Bed
This one is the hardest for me, but I hear it time and time again – bed is only for sleep (and for sex). If you start to associate it with other things – like lying awake and feeling stressed, or being on the computer, or watching TV – you are only making things exponentially harder on yourself. You need to associate your bed with sleeping, so if you find you’ve been lying there for more than 20-30 minutes and are still wide awake, get up and do something until you feel tired.
I know this seems counterintuitive. You want to sleep, not be awake doing things, but lying there will only make things worse. Get up and do something in another room – make some herbal tea, read a book, listen to some calming music, cuddle with your partner – until you start to feel sleepy. Only then should you return to bed. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you fall asleep! The amount of time you spend out of bed will be significantly less than the time you would have spent tossing and turning.
Just remember, don’t get up and flip on the TV or use the computer – the stimulating effects of these activities, combined with the blue light emitted from the screens, will only keep you up longer.
What are some of your nighttime routines? Do you know of other techniques that work? Share in the comments below!