How to Sleep Better

06/07/12: Difficulty sleeping and being tired during the day are two of the most common concerns that my clients have. The following will cover some general sleep tips, and give concrete ideas to help make you an expert sleeper.

Sleep Theory
The consensus understanding among cognitive scientists and psychologists is that sleep is a vital process for our bodies to be restored. Think of it as a time where small repairs are done on all of your physical and cognitive systems; where your cells do a housecleaning that allows you to be strong, healthy, and functioning at your best.

When we don’t sleep the amount we need, our physical and mental systems start to have minor malfunctions, and the effect is that we generally feel sluggish and edgy, are more prone to making mistakes during the day, and are more likely to get sick.

It is also now widely understood that everyone needs a slightly different amount of sleep to be at their best. A good rule of thumb is 7-8 hours, although a small minority of people may need more or less than that. Furthermore, the more I do my job, the more I have become convinced that sleeping enough is the most important thing you can do for your mental and physical health.

Everyone experiences occasional nights of being restless, or not being able to fall or stay asleep. Generally, we use the term “insomnia” to describe these patterns. The causes of insomnia are wide ranging, and include caffeine, stress and anxiety, sleep disorders, lights being too bright, a recent loss, a snoring bed partner, depression, worry about a health problem or work, an uncomfortable mattress, and many others. That makes finding a solution to insomnia, and the other issues that come from it, more complicated than it may first appear.

The Basics of Sleeping Well
The first level of improving your sleep hygiene is to make sure you are giving yourself the best chance for a good night of sleep. These things include:

1. Enough time: Even if you are in bed for 8 hours, that does not mean you are actually sleeping that long. Make sure to set aside more than 8 hours to ensure you are getting enough actual sleep.

2. No drugs: Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and other substances before sleep. Some of these will simply prevent you from falling asleep, and others may help you fall asleep initially but will interfere with your regular sleep cycles and either cause you to wake up or get less restorative sleep.

3. No heavy meals: Having a light snack an hour before bed is not a problem for most people, but eating a large meal or heavier foods will be work against you.

4. No recent exercise: Working out at night within a couple hours of your sleep time will make it more difficult for you to fall asleep.

5. Comfortable sleeping environment: Make sure your room is a favorable temperature for sleep, that your bed is comfortable, and that the room is appropriately dark and free from random noises.

6. Establish a routine. The best sleepers among us have a standard bedtime ritual that actually serves to prepare their bodies for sleep. Developing a routine of turning off lights, drinking a glass of water, brushing your teeth, and laying down tells your body that it is time to prepare for sleep.

7. Don’t snooze. Sleep after hitting the snooze button on your alarm is profoundly less restorative than the type of sleep that was happening before you woke up. Instead of hitting snooze, just set your alarm for the time you actually need to get up, and do it with one alarm.

8. Manage stress: Dealing with larger issues of stress through the day will also help you sleep better. Sometimes the reason that so many stressful thoughts come after we lay down is because that is the first time during the day that your mind isn’t occupied with other things. A good place to start is this article: Build a Coping System, and building in some relaxation will help too. Check out How to Relax for more on that.

9. Improve your physical health: Getting other parts of your health in balance will also have a positive impact on sleeping. So work on developing a good exercise routine and eating a healthy diet.

10. Bed for Sleep Only: Studies show that people who report sleeping problems will describe spending a larger amount of time in bed than people who don’t have sleeping problems. An explanation for this is that people who are spending time in bed doing other things except sleeping are training their bodies not to associate their bed with sleep, and thus have greater sleep problems. Try only spending time in bed for sleeping (or having sex), and get up for everything else.

Advanced Sleeping
If you have mastered all of the things above but you’re still having problems, there are more things you can try. However, some of these processes can be more difficult to maintain, so they take an extra commitment. For the best results, use the whole set.

1. Wake up the same time everyday no matter what. This is usually the most painful part of the process of people, but decide the earliest you need to be up during the week, and start waking up at that time everyday no matter what, even if you went to bed really late. After two weeks of doing this, your body should be ready to get going at that time. The key here is not sleeping in for a few weeks, and the result is recalibrating your internal clock. Inconsistent schedules are an enemy of good sleep.

2. Don’t lay down until you are tired. If it’s really late and you need to get up at that early time as usual, but you aren’t tired yet, then just keep doing things. But once you do get tired, go to bed.

3. If you don’t fall asleep in a little while, get up and do something else. Most people that struggle with insomnia or sleep issues, toss and turn and get frustrated that they aren’t sleeping. Instead of that, get up and do something relaxing like reading a book in lower light, meditating, or doing a relaxation technique, but stay away from computer screens, bright lights, and any of the things in the previous section.

4. Don’t take naps. To keep things regulated, avoid naps during the day. If you simply cannot avoid taking a nap, don’t make it longer than about 15 minutes. Anything else will start to mess up the process you are working on.

Dealing with Insomnia
So if you have a) done all of the above and are still having trouble with sleep, or b) you’re generally a pretty good sleeper but are having a period of insomnia, there is another approach. Basically, all of previous ideas are about trying to change what your body and mind are doing so that you can sleep better. But if those methods of change aren’t working, or you just don’t want to do them, rather than fighting sleeplessness, I suggest making peace with it. Essentially, if you aren’t falling asleep, simply accept that your body wants something else, and instead of getting frustrated, find out what that is and make it happen.

For example, if you are ruminating on life stresses that are keeping you awake, use that time to get up and work on solving the problems you are stressing about, or doing more work and preparation. If instead you find that your body just has more energy left, then find something to use it for like going for a slow walk around your neighborhood, playing with a pet, doing something creative, having a sexual experience, writing, or reading a book.

If you are regularly kept awake by worries right before bed, there is a simple fix to try. Basically, most people who have worries interfere with sleep have over-planned their days and try to “stay busy.” Unfortunately your brain will take whatever time it can to worry about things, and if you aren’t taking time during the day to worry, then it will happen when something isn’t occupying your attention (like when you are trying to sleep). Instead of this, find a time during the day where you can let your worries surface and be dealt with when you have more energy, so they are less likely to be in full force right before bed.

Another common issue is having an experience where a to-do list floods consciousness when we are trying to fall asleep. Much of this is due to “working memory,” which keeps things bouncing around our minds so we can plan effectively for things and don’t forget something. If this is happening for you, get some paper and make a list, map out time to accomplish things, or make some plans so that you can put that part of your brain at ease. This is another simple fix to try, and I’d suggest even doing it before going to bed if you know this is likely to happen.

Other Stuff
Chronic insomnia, fatigue, or other sleep issues can be a symptom of a more involved problem like depression and anxiety disorders, abuse or trauma history, sleep disorders, physical health issues, and unsafe environments. If any these things are involved, the above sleep ideas may not be effective, and consulting with a psychologist or doctor would be a good idea.

Additionally, there are many home remedies and alternative treatments for sleep problems that are worth mentioning. First, there is some research support for light therapy. To read more about it, this free ebook is a great resource (Brighten Your Life). Second, supplements like melatonin seem to benefit some people. Finally, although there is a growing backlash in the medical and psychological communities about sleeping pills like Ambien, they may be helpful short term solutions for people with very severe concerns where the stakes are high.

Finally, I have become a huge fan of an app called SleepTime (free). It uses the motion censor on your smart phone to track your movement while you sleep, and then correlates it to different sleep phases to give you some objective data on your sleep. For me it is quite accurate and has taught me that just because I schedule 8 hours to be in bed doesn’t mean I’m actually sleeping that long. Check it out, and make sure to plug your phone in while you use it, and also skip the sleep-cycle alarm function, there is no data to support that feature.

In summary, everyone that has ever lived has had some sleepless nights. I hope the above ideas can help generate new approaches to deal with sleep problems, and know that counseling can be helpful for finding more specific answers for your situation.