You doze off while watching Netflix, so snuggle up to bed to take advantage of that sleepy feeling. Suddenly you find yourself wide awake - your mind swimming with worries and plans. You feel so frustrated when you were sleepy a minute ago! If this sounds familiar, you may be among the estimated 30% of the adult population who suffer from insomnia.
The experience of insomnia varies widely, but experts define it as having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, waking up too early, or feeling unrefreshed despite getting enough sleep.
In an attempt to sleep better, some resort to desperate measures: drug cocktails, denial of bed rest, hypnosis, sleep teas, daily naps. However, these prove to be ineffective and can even make the problem worse. That's why we looked for a healthy solution to get you back to enjoying your time between the sheets. The good news: we can help...
For those who suffer from insomnia, there is a rational, biologically based, evidence-backed technique that works well and has lasting effects if you keep using it: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, or CBT-I. CBT-I uses both behavioral techniques and cognitive strategies to combat the symptoms of insomnia. The program usually begins with you logging your sleep for two weeks to capture your specific difficulties.
A therapist can then help you identify problematic behaviors or thoughts and make recommendations on how to change them. Here are some of the key techniques:
Realize that your sleep needs are unique
It's a common misconception that adults need 8 hours of sleep to function optimally. While this may be true for some people, it is absolutely not true for many. Our unique sleep needs vary from person to person in both duration (how many hours your body produces) and timing (when your biological clock dictates sleep and wakefulness throughout the 24-hour day - this is known as your circadian rhythm). If your biological clock has determined that you're a six-hour sleeper (a perfectly acceptable total sleep time) and you're trying to sleep more than eight hours, the consequences will be long waking hours and an overall reduced sleep quality - a recipe for insomnia!
Use a sleep journal to mathematically determine how much sleep your body needs and when your natural circadian rhythm kicks in (what time your body starts producing sleep and wake signals). Plan your bedtime to be within half an hour of this timing. Our sleep system is just like our heart or lungs - it's designed to support a healthy body.
Only use the bed for sleeping (and for sex)
Do you remember learning about Pavlovian dogs in psychology class? Humans aren't that different from dogs; we can be conditioned to a repeated stimulus in exactly the same way. Imagine lying awake in bed night after night, either playing on your phone, tossing and turning, or planning and worrying about the next day. The bed and the bedroom environment unconsciously become the place where you engage in these waking activities. The solution: Whenever you find yourself wide awake or uncomfortable in bed, get up, go to another room (or place in the room), and do something pleasant (but avoid the computer and blue light devices). You can't sleep anyway, so why force it? Think of this alertness as an investment in your quality of sleep the next night. Your sleep drive will have an extra incentive to produce good quality sleep tomorrow.
Keep your worries out of your bed
Our minds were made to think, but we often get distracted by daily worries. Then you go to bed and those thoughts start racing when all other distractions are removed. Luckily, the solution is simple, albeit uncomfortable at first. Get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy again. You can read, write, stretch, listen to soothing music, sketch or paint, complete a jigsaw puzzle, or even watch TV (but don't use a laptop or tablet to watch your favorite series). Then return to bed. The first night, as your mind becomes active in bed, this process of getting up can happen multiple times—that's okay, because you're increasing your sleep drive for the next night. Over time, your need for sleep will trump your anxiety, tricking your body into producing sleep more easily at the times you need it.
Wake up at the same time every day
If you've ever had jet lag, you know the symptoms - tiredness, irritability, feeling hungry at odd times, mental fog. Jet lag is not caused by the flight, but by the difference between the clock in your body and the clock on the wall. So if you wake up at different times during the week, you could fly across the country without ever leaving your home. The more regular you are with your wake up time, the more regular your natural circadian rhythm will be - unfortunately your body doesn't know the difference between a weekday and a weekend. If you sleep poorly one night, consider that sleep loss an investment in the next night's sleep - your body will compensate and take care of itself. It's a wonderful system if you allow it to work as it should.
Check your sleep expectations
There are a lot of misconceptions that push us to strive for "perfect" sleep. Most of these are blatantly wrong and actually make our sleep worse. Did you know that on average we wake up 12 times an hour? So a few short wake-ups during the night are completely normal.
Another misconception: many people think that REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is our most restful sleep phase. In fact, however, it is slow-wave sleep (which is only abundant in the first half of the night) that has the most restorative sleep function. Falling asleep leads to an overproduction of REM sleep, making us feel more tired and even depressed. These are just two examples - learning about "normal" sleep (from a reliable source) will help set reasonable expectations for a good night's sleep for yourself.
Refrain from napping
Naps can be so delicious - who doesn't love a Sunday afternoon nap? Unfortunately, unless you're severely sleep-deprived (like new moms) or concerned about your safety (you're driving and you're feeling super sleepy), naps serve a number of counterintuitive purposes. For one thing, after a nap, your drive to produce sleep at night is probably not strong enough to produce restful sleep for the desired duration. Napping also throws off your body's natural circadian rhythm. Remember that it is quite normal to feel more tired in the afternoon after lunch when our body temperature drops slightly. Combat that fatigue by going for a walk, getting some light, and breathing some fresh air - you'll feel a lot better than if you gave in and napped.