Almost all of us have times that we have trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep. Others may experience restless, choppy, wakeful sleep cycles. Many of us probably tell ourselves — and others — that we have “insomnia.”
But according to clinicians, for insomnia to be considered a chronic problem, it must significantly impact our lives, and it must be present at least 3 days a week for 3 months. In fact — and unfortunately — many of us actually fit this criteria, with as much as 30% of adults experiencing intermittent insomnia, and 10% experiencing it chronically.
Many insomnia sufferers don’t seek treatment, and others find the commonly doled out treatment ideas to be unsuccessful. But sleep-deprivation is something that can impact our lives in significant ways, exacerbating our physical and mental health, as well as our ability to perform basic tasks safely and efficiently.
Anyone who has experienced insomnia knows that most “sleep advice” doesn’t really do much good when you are lying in bed desperately tossing and turning. But that may be because the cure to insomnia should involve a more holistic, preventative approach.
It’s not necessarily what tactics you employ in those moments right before sleep. But becoming more proactive about instilling good sleep habits throughout your day — so that your mind and body are prepared for a calm release into sleep at night — might just be the answer.
Here are some methods proven to help you keep stress at bay and reduce the odds of suffering from insomnia — before bedtime even begins.
1. Write down tomorrow’s to-do list before bed.
Research from Baylor University, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that the simple act of writing down your to-do list for the upcoming day can do you a world of good when it comes to falling asleep that night.
“Most people just cycle through their to-do lists in their heads, and so we wanted to explore whether the act of writing them down could counteract nighttime difficulties with falling asleep.” Michael K. Scullin, Ph.D., director of Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, explained.
Just taking five minutes before bed to plan their to-do list for the next day was immensely helpful for the participants in the study. It makes sense if you think about it, since writing is an excellent way to “spill” or “purge” your thoughts, so that you become free of them. As a writer myself, I can attest that writing works to “unstick” distressing thoughts and ideas from the mind.
2. Meditate during the day and/or right before bed.
A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that participants who were taught a meditation program for six weeks had greater reductions in their insomnia symptoms than participants who attended a basic sleep education class for the same duration.
Meditation can be simple, quick, and you don’t need to do it perfectly for it to be effective. Even a few minutes can work wonders, and you can even download an app on your phone to help you try it.
“Concentrate on your breath while lying in bed for an evening mindfulness ritual,” explains Deb Cichon, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Talkspace therapist from New York. “It is fine if your mind wanders, but try to keep bringing it back to your breath. Doing this for 10-15 minutes while combined with some relaxing sounds in the background, can assist with falling asleep.”
You might even consider combining this practice with aromatherapy, offers Christine Carre, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Talkspace therapist from New York. An aromatherapy diffuser in the room as you fall asleep is great, or try essential oils applied to your spine or bottoms of your feet. Tim Leslie, a Talkspace therapist and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist from California, recommends lavender, chamomile, bergamont, and jasmine as good nighttime aromatherapy elixirs.
3. Address “bigger picture” concerns with a therapist.
Sometimes just addressing your anxiety and fears with a therapist in a general sense will help calm your body and mind and aid in falling asleep. But other times, a more pointed approach to insomnia is helpful.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a modality that has been proven to work in treating insomnia. You would need to find a therapist specifically versed in the practice of CBT for insomnia (referred to as CBT-I) suggests an NPR article on the subject.
The treatment involves keeping a “sleep diary,” discussing your nighttime habits with your therapist, and listening to specific suggestions from your therapist to implement. CBT-I can take time and effort on behalf of the therapist and patient, but the payoff can be great.
In addition to CBT-I, if you know you have PTSD, getting treatment for that has been shown to have a direct and lasting impact on your insomnia. Trauma can directly affect our ability to sleep, and even traumas from long ago can continue to impact how we sleep years later.
4. Practice good daily “sleep hygiene.”
If insomnia has become a chronic problem for you, it is helpful to make positive choices throughout your day that will usher in sleep. Experts have begun calling these habits “sleep hygiene” because they are something that must consciously practiced, and integrated into your life.
So what would some of these practices be? Kimberly Brown, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Talkspace therapist from Alaska, has some answers.
“We talk to our clients often about good practice behaviors such as limiting naps during the day, avoiding screen time of any kind, especially the phone about an hour or so before bed, avoiding drinking any stimulants, a bedtime stretch or exercise that increases the heart rate, and have a calming environment,” Brown suggests.
One small, but important thing you can do is to make sure you put your phone on the “do not disturb” setting before bed, explains Sarah White, Talkspace therapist and Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor from Vermont. This way, texts, emails, and social media won’t wake you up during the night.
“Your brain needs to depend on certain quiet hours to sleep regularly, thus avoiding insomnia,” says White.
And as much as many of us seek comfort in our phones if we are up with insomnia, putting your phone “to bed” in another room can be enormously useful as well, since much of what we view and interact with on our phones has the potential to trigger stress and anxiety.
Even if you have been dealing with insomnia for months or years, it is never too late to tackle the issue proactively — and, of course, with as much help and support as you need. We all deserve the benefits of a good night’s sleep, and there are simple and effective ways to make that a reality.