You know that unbelievably frustrating feeling … you’re in bed, lying there awake, just waiting for sleep to come, and yet it feels like it never will. So, you toss and turn, you think to yourself that it’s better if you shut your eyes and get some rest, even if you can’t fall asleep, and you count how much time you still can squeeze in if you fall asleep right now. Of course you know that, because, according to consumer reports, 27 percent of Americans struggle with this most nights, and 68 percent struggle with it at least once a week. And while most people don’t qualify as having insomnia (which is loosely defined as difficulty falling asleep or maintaining sleep for over 30 minutes, at least 3 nights per week, for at least 3 months), struggling with sleep is more the norm than it is to sleep well most nights.
Now, we can blog forever about why Americans struggle so much with sleep, but we will likely not find anything that “solves” the problem. And yet, sleep is a problem, and struggling with sleep can have a major impact on both daytime functioning and mental health. And many celebrities have taken up the cause of trying to get Americans to sleep more.
While we can’t quickly or easily tell you how to solve your sleep problems, there are some things that you can do help yourself sleep now, and get better sleep in the future. To begin this process, write your answers to the following questions.
- Describe your sleep. Are you consistent about your bedtime and your get-out-of-bed time? Do you have a lot of chaos that interrupts your sleep (kids in the bed, pets in the room, rituals or obstacles that interfere with your sleep)? Are there solvable issues, like your mattress stinks, or are the issues more difficult, like trauma-related symptoms that impact your ability to sleep?The goal in answering this question is to start to really understand what is going on around sleep, and what is impacting your ability to sleep. This won’t “solve” anything, but it may help you to identify what the problem areas are, which can lead to solutions (or start the process).
- What was your sleep like as a child/teen/young adult? This may give you a better sense of what you can expect from yourself sleep-wise even after you’ve made some changes. Some people have struggled with sleep since they were young. For others, it is a response to something that happened that has since gone away, like a stressful presentation at work or severe jet lag (yes, both of those can cause insomnia!). Again, this question can give you guidance as to what you can expect, but also where your potential problem areas are.
- How do you sleep when you’re not at home? For many people with insomnia or chronic sleep issues, the problems are worse in your home than anywhere else. Why is that? Because, when you’re away from home, you can’t engage in all the same behaviors that keep the insomnia going, or because some of your anxiety about sleep is alleviated (if I’m on vacation, I’m not too anxious, so I don’t have to worry about sleep!). This isn’t the case for everyone, but it can be a clear indicator that the issue is with the behaviors that you’ve put in place to “help” with sleep, and that is what we need to target.
Once you’ve answered these questions, it’s time to get to work. Cognitive Behavioral Treatment for Insomnia (CBT-I), which is far and away the leading treatment for insomnia (even more effective in the long term than sleep medications!), has a few recommendations that you can do even if you’re not doing a full CBT-I treatment with a trained professional. (NOTE: This is not meant to replace going to see a sleep professional! If you’re struggling with sleep and it is impacting your daytime functioning or your mood/behavior, please consult with a professional).
Here are a few things that you can do now that can have a positive impact on your sleep.
- Start with waking up. What is the earliest time you need or want to wake up? Once you have that time, that is your new wake up time (which means, get out of bed no matter what time). Every day, including weekends, for the next few months.
- Calculate your Bedtime. To do this, figure out approximately how much time you actually sleep. Use that number to count backwards from your wake up time. That is the time you can first get into bed.For example, let’s say you have to wake up at 6 during the weekdays to get the kids to school. That means your wake time is 6 AM every morning (including weekends). And let’s say you think that you actually sleep for about 6 ½ hours per night. That means that you can’t get into bed before 11:30 PM (6 AM minus 6.5 hours).
- Set your Bedroom Rules! The bed is now for SLEEP ONLY! All other activities must be done somewhere else. So, watch TV, read, or simply lounge on the couch. Don’t fall asleep anywhere but your bed. And, if you’re awake, get out of bed. Don’t just lay there waiting for sleep to come. All of these rules retrain your body to associate your bed with sleep.
- Bedroom Environment: Make the room COOL to COLD and have several blankets on the bed, not just one comforter. This will help release your body’s natural melatonin and help you sleep. And the several blankets will help you regulate your temperature at night quickly and easily, so you don’t wake up due to being too cold or too hot.
- Finally, No Naps! If you absolutely have to nap, you owe that time back (meaning, you have to go to sleep that much later).
Sleep is very important for our well-being. And, it is easy for your sleep to get out of whack. Knowing how sleep works, and what you can do to help it get back on track, is one way you can help yourself and your mental health.