Are you in bed at the moment, awake and looking for help to fall asleep?
Or have sleep problems become a regular and frustrating part of your life?
I’ve suffered from bouts of insomnia for two decades, and have tried everything under the sun (and moon) to improve my sleep.
And in this article, I’ll be sharing both the standard advice of sleep experts and the techniques which have helped me most.
Choose which applies to you:
I’m in bed now and can’t sleep
Since you’re already in bed, now isn’t the time to recommend changing your sleep schedule or doing exercise!
Instead, here are some simple ideas to help you relax and fall asleep:
- First, take a deep breath and tell yourself you’re not going to stress about being awake.
- Are you on your phone or tablet? In the settings, turn on the blue light filter or night mode.
- Do you feel too hot or too cold? Take a minute to change your bedding, open a window, or turn the heating down.
- Have you been in bed for a long time trying to sleep? If so, get up for 10 minutes. Sit in another room with dim lighting, read a book or do something relaxing. No screens though!
- Are you feeling sweaty, hot or uncomfortable? Have a quick warm shower or wash in low lighting.
- Go back to bed (or stay in bed) and do the relaxation exercise below until you fall asleep.
A relaxation exercise to do in bed
- Lie on your back with your arms by your side.
- Take a minute to focus on your breathing.
- Don’t try to change it for a minute – just notice how it is.
- Now breathe slowly through your nose for a count of 4.
- Hold for a count of 4 seconds. 2 is fine if 4 seems too long.
- Breathe out slowly through your mouth for a count of 4.
- Repeat until you hopefully fall asleep or can’t focus on it any longer.
I need help to sleep tonight
If you’re worried about sleeping well tonight, there are some positive steps you can take today to improve your chances of sleeping better.
Here are some ideas for you:
1. Be active during the day
- Do some exercise. Even going for a walk or doing some stretching can help. But avoid very intense exercise close to bedtime.
- Spend some time outside in the sunlight. This will help regulate your internal body clock.
2. Food and drink
- Avoid caffeine or energy drinks in the afternoon.
- Don’t eat a heavy, fatty, spicy or sugary meal late in the evening. Keep the evening meal light and healthy.
- Don’t drink alcohol late in the evening. If you do, keep it in moderation and drink water too.
- If you’re hungry before bed, only have a light snack.
- Dedicate 30 to 60 minutes before going to bed to unwind.
- Stop working or checking emails.
- Write a to-do list for tomorrow if your head is full of plans and worries.
- Don’t do anything stressful or have upsetting conversations.
- Turn the lights down, and do something relaxing. For example: read a book, write, draw, do yoga, meditate, talk or play with family, friends or pets.
- Avoid using screens before bed. Turn off the TV, mobile phone, tablet or computer at least 30 minutes before going to bed.
- If you can’t put your phone or tablet aside, use a blue light filter.
- Have a relaxing bath or shower.
4. Prepare your bedroom and bed
- Only use your bedroom for sleep and intimacy. Relax in another room before bed.
- The ideal bedroom temperature for adults is 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit (15 to 19 degrees Celsius). Young children and older adults may need warmer though. Try to create that temperature with the heating, windows, fan, and appropriate bedding for the season.
- Make sure the bedroom isn’t stuffy. Unless it’s freezing outside, opening a window to let fresh air in can help.
- Use clean sheets and covers.
- Is it noisy? Ask others to be quieter. Block sound with earplugs, headphones, white noise or music. Take a look at some other ways to reduce noise in bed.
- Is it dark enough? Turn off all lights and try to completely cover the windows. Consider getting blackout blinds.
- Remember that it’s normal to take 10 to 30 minutes to fall asleep. So don’t stress out if you do take a while to drop off.
- Stay calm, enjoy the feeling of being in bed. Think about how nice and cozy it feels to be in bed at the end of a long day.
- If you tend to have a busy mind when you go to bed, do some relaxation exercises until you feel sleepy.
- There are some excellent guided meditation Apps you can listen to before going to bed, or even when you’re in bed. I highly recommend Headspace, Let’s Meditate, and Calm.
How can I sleep better in general?
In my experience, there’s no magic technique guaranteed to make anyone fall asleep on any given night. Even strong sleeping pills don’t work equally for everyone!
However, it certainly helps to understand which health and lifestyle choices can affect your sleep. And how your bedroom environment, attitude and approach to sleep, and daily routine all play a key role.
If you’re reading this section, I imagine you’ve probably had more than your fair share of insomnia or other sleep problems. It’s frustrating, and understandably you want it to stop.
I do recommend reading through the previous sections, as there’s lots of great advice there and I don’t want to repeat it here.
But in addition to those ideas, there are some other points worth considering which are more long-term approaches.
1. Consult your personal physician or doctor
If you often have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you should consult your doctor.
People sometimes think sleep is less important than illness or injury, and not something to bother their doctor about. But a lack of sleep can have serious consequences in the long run.
Furthermore, there are more than 80 sleep disorders. So although you might call it insomnia, your specific symptoms may warrant further investigation.
Many different physical and mental health conditions, as well as medications, are associated with sleep problems. Your doctor can help work out if there’s a connection and treat the condition.
2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been shown in clinical trials to be as or more effective than sleeping pills.
For that reason, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that doctors offer CBT before hypnotic medication.
And the United Kingdom NHS also suggests that CBT works well for insomnia.
CBT for insomnia usually involves several components, such as:
- Stimulus control (e.g. only using the bedroom for sleep)
- Sleep restriction (e.g. not spending longer than needed in bed)
- Cognitive strategies (e.g. replacing fear about not sleeping well with positive feelings)
This is something you can speak to your doctor about. There are also online CBT courses you could consider.
3. Tackle stress and anxiety during the day
For many people, the normal stresses of life can cause short-term or even long-term sleep problems.
Even if you don’t have chronic insomnia or another sleep disorder, it’s normal for sleep to be affected when life is particularly challenging. And major life events and changes can be stressful times.
A relationship, new job, bereavement, moving home, exams, financial trouble, family worries – these are just a few examples of major life stressors.
In my personal experience, it’s helpful to do simple relaxation exercises in bed. But it’s even better to tackle anxiety and stress during the day on an ongoing basis.
Some ideas include:
- Try self-help, such as mindfulness.
- Ask your doctor for a referral to a counseling service.
- Stay active.
- Use your support network – talk to family and friends about how you feel.
- Take some ‘me time’ a couple of nights a week to do activities you enjoy.
- Help others (the NHS has an interesting article about how helping others improves our own mood).
- Avoid unhealthy habits and addictions, like alcohol, smoking, and recreational drugs.
- Develop better time management skills if it’s an issue for you.
- Practice regular yoga, meditation, Tai Chi or other relaxing exercises available in your area. If there aren’t any group classes, watch online videos, get a book or use an App.
4. Be consistent with good sleep habits
You may have already heard some of the standard advice about good sleep habits. It’s often called ‘sleep hygiene’ and refers to behavior that helps or hinders sleep.
Here are some of my personal favorites, which I know from experience help me fall asleep more easily in general:
Good sleep habits
- Stick to a regular sleep pattern. Try to go to bed at the same time every night. Get up at the same time every day, which is easier to control than when you fall asleep.
- Avoid naps or siestas in the daytime.
- Create a bedtime ritual that’s calm, free from bright light and screens, and makes you feel positive and less stressed.
- Invest in your bedroom and bedding. Use the best mattress, covers, and bedding that you can reasonably afford. Make your bedroom a clean, calm and airy space to be.
- If you don’t fall asleep after 30 minutes, get up and do something relaxing for 10, then try again. Avoid suffering in silent darkness for hours on end!
5. Have reasonable expectations of how long it takes to fall asleep
The title of this article raises an important point: in how much time should you be able to fall asleep anyway
According to the National Sleep Foundation, it’s normal to take 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep.
If you drift off the minute your head hits the pillow, it’s a sign that you might be sleep deprived.
If it takes an hour or more, you’re either spending too long in bed or might have insomnia. But it could also be due to other influences like stimulants, shift work or jet lag.
20 minutes of lying awake in the darkness can seem like a very long time, especially with an overactive mind.
So it’s helpful to remind yourself that it’s normal to stay awake for a while. Try not to get into a vicious circle of worrying about falling asleep, and do what you can to relax.
6. Don’t just rely on sleep tracker data
Sleep trackers can provide interesting insights, but there’s a potential downside to relying on them too much.
If you use a sleep tracker, do remember that they aren’t perfect. And that sometimes the data can give a worse impression of your sleep than the reality.
It’s important to assess how you actually feel and track your sleep consciously. If you wake up feeling okay, that’s all that really matters.
But if you regularly wake up feeling lethargic and tired, and struggle through the day, then it’s something to raise with your doctor.
Your views and ideas
Do you have trouble sleeping? How long does it normally take you? What helps you fall asleep quicker, or does nothing seem to work?
Leave a comment below!