I have a lifelong difficulty with falling asleep at night - and even more problematic - staying asleep. I don't have a medical cause for insomnia or any sleep disorders, just a brain that likes to go into overdrive when my body finally has a chance to lie down and rest.
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I've looked to the Internet for sleep advice, but have found only the obvious sleep tips such as "avoid coffee in the evening" and "make your room dark." It’s taken me a bit of trial and error, but finally I've found a number of things that really do work in helping me get to sleep and stay asleep long enough to get enough deep restorative sleep to wake up feeling rested and refreshed in the morning. For me, the following has worked well.
I call these sleep tips unconventional because I haven’t seen them in the typical sources -- in fact, I often see the just the opposite recommended.
- Nap every single day
Contrary to all the sleep sources that say to avoid napping during the day in order to sleep better at night, I believe it is actually a good idea to nap every day. But in order to make this work it is vital to stick to three rules:
By napping at the same time every day, your body will start to regulate itself to fall asleep more quickly at that time
Keep it short
Only nap for 20 minutes. A 20-minute power nap provides enough sleep to feel refreshed and more alert, yet it won't interfere with falling asleep at night
Make it in the early afternoon
The optimal time is 20 to 30 minutes after lunch, which is when your body is naturally inclined to feel sleepy, and early enough in the day to not interfere with falling asleep at night.
- Get out in the sunlight soon after waking up in the morning
When you wake up, don't lounge around in bed. Don't even stay inside. Get out in the morning sun soon after getting up. The bright sunlight (or any bright light) tells your body's natural biological clock that it's time to wake up, and that same clock will then be set to tell your body it's time to go to sleep about 14 to 16 hours later.
- Force your worries
If worrying kicks in just after you close your eyes, schedule a "worry time" earlier in the day. This is a 15 minute period when you consciously try to think of all your worries and tell them to a trusted confidant and/or write them down. Getting your worries out and raising them to a conscious level can keep them in their place - during the daytime.
- Avoid taking a hot bath
There is a lot of advice that says take a hot bath to relax yourself, but since the body needs to lower its temperature in order to fall asleep a hot bath will actually keep you up. If you find a hot bath relaxing, finish your bath at least two hours before your bedtime so that your body has enough time to cool down. Make sure to give your body at least an hour to cool down after a bath and prior to going to bed. Which leads me to the next point…
- Make your room colder
Your body needs to cool down in order to fall asleep and stay asleep, so do what you can to make your room cool. For me, a cool bedroom has the added benefit of nestling into a heavy comforter, and I find the heavy warmth very soothing.
- Exercise intensely
Don’t just "exercise," but do so intensely, to the point of feeling physical exhaustion. At the end of the day, this is probably the single best thing for helping induce deep, restorative sleep. When I say "intensely," I mean intense relative to your capability. For some this may mean running 5 miles, for others it may mean a brisk 20 minute walk that elevates the heart rate. Physical tiredness is essential to getting a good night's sleep.
- Block out noise
White noise is restful, and even more importantly, it means that I won't be woken up with every little thump that the house makes. A fan is ideal because it does double duty of providing consistent soft background noise as well as keeping my room cool. Similarly, an air cleaner will serve to help keep your room free of dust and provide white noise. You can also buy a white noise machine or download an app for your phone that will provide several white noise options - the sound of rain, a babbling brook, wind, and more.
- Don't watch TV
Avoid watching TV, or looking at an iPad, laptop, or any type of screen, at least 30 minutes before you go to bed. Many sources of sleep advice say to watch TV or to wind down before bed, but I think this is bad advice. Watching TV and going online are both mentally and visually stimulating. It may feel physically restful, but these activities stimulate the brain instead of helping the brain wind down enough to fall into sleep.
- Find a bedtime ritual that works for you
Warm milk? Yech. A cup of herbal tea? No thank you. These are commonly advised to help you rest and fall asleep. I say find the routine that works for you - whatever it is - and just do it every night. For me, it's the simple act of shutting the house down. Turning off all the lights, picking up stray toys, reviewing the schedule for the next day, planning breakfast for the morning rush, and locking each door. Feeling organized about the house helps me feel less anxious. This simple routine tells my body that it’s time to close down for the day. Find what helps you feel less anxious at the end of the day and incorporate into a nightly ritual.
- Do what it takes to manage stress in your life
At some points in our lives we are burdened by a great deal of stress. It may be chronic pain or other health condition, a family or work situation, financial stress, or all of these combined. And the stressful situation may well be unavoidable. The opposite of stress is not relaxation, it is empowerment. So do what you can to take some control over the stress. Simple meditation works best for me. It forces my mind to focus on something, thereby freeing up all the clutter to float to the surface, be recognized, and be gone. For others it is guided imagery, either with the help of a professional or with CDs, regular massage, yoga or tai chi, calming music, or a therapeutic run or bike ride after work. We all have different preferences - try one that sounds appealing, but if you find it difficult to stick with it, then try a different one.
- See 11 Chronic Pain Control Techniques (these techniques are helpful for sleep as well as for managing pain, or both)
- Keep pen and notebook next to your bed
Often when I'm lying in bed, or even while I'm sleeping, I'll think of a new idea for work. Or I'll remember something important that I forgot to do during the day. Rather than try to remember it, which causes anxiety (which is stimulating) I write it down so it exists on paper and doesn't have to stay in my head. And if I keep a notebook for these things right next to my bed I find I’m more likely to write it down.
For those who are curious, I have tried sleep medications, getting a more comfortable pillow and mattress, getting regular massages for stress relief, and many other sleep aids as well, but the above combination has worked the best. I think the bottom line is to re-condition yourself to positively associate the process of going to bed with sleep, which ultimately is an act of letting go - and to get your brain to stop stressing.
The preceding tips worked perfectly for me and I hope will give you at least some ideas of what will work for you, too. What do you think? Do you have a tip that didn't make my list? Let us know in the comments.
- Read about more sleep tips in our Sleep Health Center