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One of the worst things to do when you can’t sleep at night is trying to force yourself to sleep. All that stuff about counting sheep or counting backwards from 100 usually doesn't work with insomnia. If anything, the more you try to force sleep, the harder it gets to sleep.
Whatever you do, do not turn on your phone. You will end up staying awake for hours. In fact, if you often struggle with insomnia don’t go to bed with your phone to eliminate any temptation to browse when you can’t sleep.
Here’s what to do instead when you find yourself tossing and turning.
1. Get Out of Bed
Normal sleep latency (how long it takes to sleep) is 10-20 minutes. If you are still awake after 20-30 minutes, get out of bed. Staying in bed will only make you more anxious about not sleeping and you might find yourself reaching for your phone, which will make it almost impossible to fall asleep.
So get out of bed and occupy yourself with something else. Avoid electronics like the TV, your laptop or even that Kindle. The light from them will make it harder to feel sleepy.
Take a book, get in the kitchen and whip up a meal, write a short story, call a friend (if they are awake), do some light stretches, paint etc. Do anything that takes your mind away from sleep. Usually, you will find yourself getting sleepy after a while.
2. Get Cooler
Feeling too hot in bed can cause or worsen insomnia. Some people are more sensitive to heat than others. If I am feeling even a little bit too warm, I can’t sleep. I have to kick off the blankets to get sleepy.
You can also try turning down the thermostat, switching to a lighter duvet or blanket, opening a window or turning on the fan. The body falls asleep much easier when it is cooler. Taking a warm shower or bath also helps. It relaxes you and as the body cools from the warm water, it triggers sleepiness.
If you find yourself getting hot every night, you could be a naturally hot sleeper, maybe your mattress traps a lot of heat or you live in a hot climate. In that case, it’s a good idea to find a long term solution like changing your mattress or getting a bed cooling system. Here’s a blog post with sleep tips for hot sleepers.
3. Relaxation Techniques Like Meditation
If counting sheep works for you, fine. But there are plenty of other relaxation techniques that can help you fall asleep.
Meditation is one of the most effective ones. A few minutes of meditation can increase the sleep hormone melatonin, lower your heart rate, reduce blood pressure and make you sleepy. You can meditate lying down in bed or get out of bed and find a quiet spot.
You can also try breathing exercises or controlled breathing. A simple exercise involves slowly breathing in an hour as you count each breath. Try different kinds of exercises to see which one relaxes you the most.
There are plenty of apps that offer guided breathing and meditation.
Another relaxation method is progressive muscle relaxation or PMR. This is a form of meditation called a body scan. You go through your body, progressively tensing and relaxing individual muscles.
Start with your neck and shoulder muscles towards your feet or the other way round. PMR is typically combined with breathing exercises. You tense specific muscles as you inhale then relax them when you exhale.
4. Try Sleep Sounds
Rain sounds are my kryptonite. No matter how alert I’m feeling, rain sounds whether real or through a pair of sleep headphones will put me right to sleep.
Try several sleep sounds to see which ones work best on you. Some people love plain white noise, others love thunder and there are those who sleep to wind sounds.
There are plenty of sleep sounds apps you can use. You can also find albums and playlists of sleep sounds on Music apps like Apple Music and Spotify. All you need is a pair of comfortable sleep headphones. I recommend bluetooth headphones so that you don't have to keep your phone so close to you.
Your body naturally produces melatonin to help you relax and go to sleep. If you have insomnia, you may be producing less melatonin. Taking melatonin supplements can help meet the shortfall.
A dose between 0.5 mg and 5 mg is enough to make you sleepy. Start at 0.5 mg and increase dosage by 1 mg each week until you find the one that is most effective.
It takes one hour to 30 minutes for melatonin to kick in. As you wait for it to work, find something relaxing to do like reading or meditation. Don’t use electronics as they can neutralize the effect of melatonin.
Even better, take melatonin about an hour before bedtime so that you feel sleepy as soon as you get into bed.
Even as you find ways to deal with insomnia, it’s good to figure out what’s causing it in the first place and fix that. It could be high stress levels, your coffee habits, your uncomfortable mattress or a snoring partner (in which case you may have to consider a sleep divorce).