My Top 10 Tips For Insomnia

nighttime sunset at sea

When I tell people that I write about sleep, they usually ask me if I suffer from insomnia myself. When I tell them that I do, they invariably ask me to recommend some techniques for dealing with it.

I’ve spent more than 20 years coping with insomnia, but fortunately it’s nowhere near as severe today as it once was.

Even though I still have the occasional bad night, I think I’ve done a good job of managing the sleep problems that have intermittently plagued me since I was a teenager.

So I’ve decided to share in this article the things which I feel have personally helped me the most. They might not all be applicable to you, but hopefully you’ll find some useful advice here if you sometimes struggle to sleep well.

My approach to sleeping better

If you look around this website, you’ll find lots of typical advice about sleep hygiene and good sleep habits, as well as some lesser known techniques.

Although I think they all have the potential to help, many of the classic sleep tips didn’t do much for me on their own. A nice cup of chamomile tea was never going to be enough on its own to cure me of insomnia.

What I discovered is that I needed to make quite extensive lifestyle and attitude changes before my sleep really started improving.

So I’ve spent years researching and experimenting with lots of different techniques, slowly but surely making major changes to the way I view sleep along the way.

It’s important to note that I try to do all of the things in this article as regularly as possible. It’s only when I consistently hit the problem from different angles that I can stay on top of my tendency to sleep badly.

1. Tired body + tired mind = better sleep

My insomnia was at its worst in my early to mid 20s. I led a rather sedentary life, with a laid back job and not much interest in serious exercise.

In my later 20s I started a far more mentally challenging job and got into weight training, running and swimming. What I found was that on the days when my brain and body were both tired, I would usually sleep well.

So to this day I try and engage both my brain and body every day. And even if I’m having a rest day from more strenuous exercise, I’ll at least go for a long walk and spend plenty of time outside.

It makes a huge difference.

photo of a man running at night

2. Bye bye lazy Sundays

A key sleep hygiene technique is to maintain a regular sleep pattern. For many years, I’d get up at a regular time during the week to go to work. However, I had no set bedtime and it could be anything between 10pm and 2am.

And at the weekend, like many young people, I’d often stay out late on a Friday, Saturday or both. And then have a long lie-in on Saturday, Sunday or both.

In the worst case scenario, I’d wake up on a Sunday with a hangover and have a very relaxing day. Then I wouldn’t be tired enough to sleep well on Sunday night, which in turn would knock my whole week out of sync.

The answer? No more lie-ins and forget about catching up on sleep. So I now try to go to bed and get up at more or less the same time every day of the week.

And if I do stay up later at the weekend one night, I still set my alarm for a reasonable time the next day, making do with a bit less sleep but keeping my schedule more or less on track.

3. Read yourself to sleep

This particular tip is one of my personal favorites: every night I’ll read until either I can’t even focus on the words, or I wake myself up with the book dropping out of my hand.

It’s important to note that whilst in an ideal world you’d go to bed at the same time every night and fall asleep instantly, it doesn’t usually work that way.

Instead, it’s better to do one of two things:

  • Only go to bed when you actually feel tired.
  • Go to bed at a regular time and read until you feel tired enough to sleep.

The first method can work well if you have severe insomnia, and are fed up of lying in bed tossing and turning. However, I personally prefer the second method. At least you’re in bed relaxing, and letting your body and mind know that it’s bedtime.

If you’re not a fan of reading books, there are a couple of other options you could try:

  • Do relaxation techniques in bed until you do feel sleepy.
  • Play a simple game on the phone or tablet until you literally can’t focus on the screen. My father swears by this, playing a simple puzzle game until he’s sleepy. It does go against the standard advice of not using electronic devices in bed. However, if you have the screen dimmed and use a blue light filter, it might work well for you.

A book on a bedside table

4. Keep calm and carry on

For many years I was my own worst enemy when it came to dealing with insomnia – and I didn’t even know it.

I used to think I should be able to fall asleep immediately (20 to 30 minutes is actually normal). And when it didn’t happen within a few minutes, I’d start stressing about being awake.

Even if I did fall asleep, I’d often wake up in the middle of the night or long before my alarm was due to go off. This would then trigger feelings of panic and anxiety that the next day would be awful because of a lack of sleep.

My self-defeating stressing was pointed out to me one night by my partner. She was fed up with being woken by my constant position changing and increasingly loud complaining.

Over the following weeks I thought about this, talked about it, processed it and eventually decided to try and do what she suggested – stay calm.

And just by making the decision to change my attitude, the miraculous happened: I started falling asleep quicker, no matter what time of the night it was.

By accepting the fact that sometimes I won’t sleep right through the night, and by understanding that actually the next day won’t be as painful as I fear it will, it’s much easier to keep the late night anxiety at bay.

5. Take your foot off the gas earlier in the day

There’s a lot to be said about how diet can affect sleep, especially all the little pleasures in life that we consume during the day.

And although it’s difficult to follow the perfect anti-insomnia nutritional regime, there are a few points which have made a noticeable difference for me:

  • I don’t drink caffeine after lunch.
  • If I drink alcohol, I stop at least two hours before bedtime and drink water.
  • I try to eat a big lunch and a lighter dinner.
  • I try not to eat chocolate, sweets or cake late at night.

6. Don’t take stress to bed

Stress, anxiety, worry, nerves, thinking, ruminating – if your mind is full of thoughts about the past, present or future, it can be tricky to switch them off at night.

But it’s important to try not to allow your bedtime to be your thinking time, especially if you have some major worries at the moment. Here are a few of the things I do to keep this in check:

  • I have a rule about no emotionally demanding conversations in bed – neither with my partner nor with myself. Anything important can be talked about during the day.
  • If I have lots on my mind, I write a list of things I need to do, plan or even think about on paper before getting into bed. That way I can relax, knowing that nothing will be forgotten, and I can resume working on them in the morning.
  • If I find my mind is just a bit too overactive, I do some relaxation exercises. I personally like to practice mindfulness exercises, which can be very effective in controlling an out of control thought train.

7. Sleep is precious

Sleep is crucial to our physical and mental well-being, yet we so often sacrifice it for other things and don’t give ourselves enough time to sleep.

Personally, I used to push my bedtime right up until the start time of what would be my ideal amount of sleep. So if I felt I needed eight hours to be at my best and had to get up at 8am for work, I’d go to bed at 12am.

The problem, however, is that this can then trigger that feeling of stress if you get into bed and don’t fall asleep straight away. You’re setting yourself up to fail.

Nowadays, if I want eight hours sleep I’ll go to bed at least eight and a half hours before my wake up time. If I’m watching a film, I pause it. If I’ve got work to do, I leave it until the morning.

Sleep is precious, and it’s great if you can see it that way. Don’t allow things to eat into that precious time, and give yourself a chance to go to bed feeling relaxed about how long you have to sleep.

photo of a man sleeping while working on the sofa

8. Sleep alone and get the bedroom conditions right

Although it’s a wonderful thing to have someone to cuddle up to in bed, it’s not always in our best interest where sleep is concerned.

It’s estimated that 1 in 4 couples in the United States sleep in separate beds. And recently, my partner and I also took the decision to sleep separately.

Noise, movement, temperature, bedding choice – these are just some of the things that can dramatically affect your sleep.

Being a sensitive sleeper, I’m easily woken by my partner, and we have completely different ideas about key details such as bedroom temperature.

Since moving to the spare bedroom, I sleep much better thanks to the fresh air coming in through the permanently open window, the lighter bedding and the lack of movement next to me.

9. Don’t face your insomnia alone

It’s important to get a professional opinion if you have ongoing problems with your sleep. If, for example, you snore or have any kind of breathing irregularities in your sleep, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about it.

If your sleep problems are impacting on you or your family’s well being, it’s worth seeking a medical opinion and advice. There could be an underlying health condition which needs treating, and there could be a sleep disorder which can be managed.

And in my experience, it also helps to talk to family and friends about your sleep. In doing so, I discovered that I’m both a worrier and prone to eating and drinking things that keep me awake.

Now I make sure the people close to me understand what can disrupt my sleep. And they helpfully remind me not to do those things if they catch me, for example munching on chocolate late at night!

10. Stay positive

It’s easy to get stuck in a vicious cycle of worrying about not sleeping well. So often we go to bed dreading that the same problem as the night before will crop up.

This can be especially true with insomnia, but also with frightening sleep disorders like sleep paralysis or nightmares. So I think it’s important to recognize that vicious cycle and then do your best to stay out of it.

Try to see every night as a fresh start, or ending, and tell yourself that you’ll sleep just fine. Even if you do sleep badly again, don’t give up – keep that positive thought in your head every time you go to bed.

Even if you do have problems sleeping night after night, it can be good to shift your focus. For me, if I’m not feeling that tired when I go to bed, I just read my book and try to think about how cozy, warm and relaxing in bed it is.

By thinking about the pleasant things rather than worrying about what may or may not happen when I turn the light off, it helps keep me calm and positive. And importantly, it helps keep me out of the vicious circle where worrying about not sleeping itself becomes the cause of my sleep problems.

Your views

Do you have any experience of the tips in this article? Did they help you sleep better, or not really do it for you? Do you have any techniques of your own that you’d like to share?

Feel free to share your story and thoughts in the comments below.

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hi Ethan I desperately need your help if your reading this then please answer my question.For the 9 days I am not getting regular sleep 4 of those I did not sleep at all and 3 of the days I slept very well.what is the problem how can I fix this?please help.

    • Hi Kaushik
      Thanks for your comment, and sorry it’t taken so long to reply! Has your sleep improved now? If not, and it continues to bew that bad, I’d speak to your doctor about it. Going 4 nights without sleep at all over a 9 day period is something which needs to be looked at.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I’m from Brazil, 39 years old and i always had relatively good sleep. However a couple of months ago i discovered i had an eye condition called central serous retinopathy, it’s a rare disease which basically causes distorted and poor vision in one eye, has no treatment and usually gets better by itself in about 6 months. So the doctor just suggested me to ‘wait’ but is very difficult because i’m literally seeing the problem all the time. Since then i’m having bad sleep almost every night because anxiety due to my eye’s problem. I go to bed and start to think about this, that it’s not getting better yet, why i had this and so on, and i’m caught in a vicious circle of tons of thinking that always result in nothing, just more anxiety and i just can’t sleep. I reached the point that i had almost no sleep in 3 consecutive nights. So recently i looked for help and went to a doctor that prescribed me Xanax and the medication is helping for a while. I started taking one pill, reduced to half and now i’m taking one quarter every night. I know the problems and risks to take this every night and i’m really trying not to take it (that’s why i reached out this site), but usually if i don’t take one quarter of it, i can’t sleep. I’ve been taking the pills for more than one month now, but because i don’t take an entire one, my box with 30 pills are lasting longer than 1 month. I’ve read a lot of hints in your site and will follow some of them and hope it will work for me, specially the one that says to go to bed only when you are really tired / asleep. This is one thing i’m doing wrong, because i go to bed always at the same hour, tired or not, and i will struggle to fall sleep no matter if i’m asleep or not. Thanks for your articles, i wish all the best !

    • Hi Paul
      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your story, and I’m glad you found the site helpful. Sorry you’ve been struggling with your sleep with the anxiety due to your condition. I can totally understand – I also find that when I have serious worries on my mind, I struggle to sleep.
      There are good techniques for dealing with recurring thoughts at night. I highly recommend mindfulness. I wrote an article a while back describing some specific mindfulness exercises for sleep that you might find interesting and helpful.
      I agree that it might help you to go to bed when you’re tired – but do try to keep a stable waking time. But if you do find yourself in bed stressing, just spending some time doing those techniques can really help take your mind off your anxiety.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi Ethan,
    Just started having bouts of Sleep Maintenance Insomnia a year or so ago. Definitely related to many issues in my personal life, not entirely in my control. Also, I am a super-light sleeper. I couldn’t really read or get out of bed either because my guy needs his sleep, too! Somehow, I found a podcast through Google Play (it’s free) called, “Sleep with Me”. I download two episodes at a time and it has been a miracle. I just hit play in the middle of the night and it pipes through a pillow speaker. He basically tells boring, silly stories and you just drift off to the sound of his voice. He lists the things he is going to talk about in his synopsis and in the morning I look at it and just laugh–“Well, I sure don’t remember that!” It has been a game changer. Check it out!
    Cheers,
    Janis

    • Hi Janis
      Thanks for your comment. I’ve tried a few different sleep apps before, with varying degrees of success. I’ll have a look at the one you mention.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I have had bouts of insomnia throughout my 62 years, even as young as 12. I also have various kinds, the normal is when you wake up and cannot go back to sleep be because you don’t feel tired, that one no longer bothers me since I am retired; if I get 4 or 5 hours sleep I no longer care, just have an easy day after it.

    However the one that does bother me, and I have always had bouts of this since I was young, is when I waken up but I still feel tired and when I begin to fall of back to sleep I awaken again immediately. This continues for maybe an hour or so before I eventually fall back to sleep or sometimes not at all; worse is when it’s accompanied with body irritation, an itch on my nose moves quickly to one on my back from there to anywhere else, then after 20 minutes I think I need a pee, but I don’t really but cannot ignore so I go. Get back into bed and thinking that’s it this time I am going back to sleep, only for it to start all over again; in the space of two hours I scratched myself about a hundred times been to the loo around eight to ten times, moved from my left to right-side umpteen times. Eventually I fall back to sleep unfortunately I sometimes wake up one or two hours later and go through the whole procedure again; that’s really challenging when that happens, sometimes it last for a few days but sometimes its weeks and then it disappears as quickly as it comes.

    Over the decades I have tried various things, going to bed early 9.00 and getting up at 7.00, accepting broken sleep but accumulating sufficient hours so that I don’t feel tired when I get up, or going to bed late and getting up still early at seven, thereby forcing a tiredness on myself so that I have longer sleep episodes but less hours.

    Truth is you have to just wait it out and try not to worry about it, easier said than done though. One thing that does help is having an iPad and playing an audio book at a low volume but the screen switched of; basically a lot of the time you cannot go back to sleep because you end up thinking about it or you are worrying about something. Listening to a story stops you thinking and you fall off to sleep easily, it has to be low though or you waken back up, unfortunately it doesn’t really work on the insomnia when you fall to sleep easily but immediately waken again. The only good it does for that type of insomnia is that it stops you from panicking; basically you just keep trying to listen to the story and in my experience although it takes a while you will eventually fall back to sleep even if it is three hours.

    If you get a couple of hours early on and you manage to salvage another two or three before you get up, well Churchill and Thatcher survived on four each night for their entire lifetimes, but oh how I am envious of those who can sleep right through even on top of broken glass, it still wouldn’t bother them.

    • Hi Steve
      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your story. There are a few things that sprung to mind when reading it, so I’m going to list my thoughts in response:

      1. Have you ever looked into the sleep disorder restless legs syndrome? Usually it’s something which affects the legs, as the name suggests. But some people can experience constant itching or fidgeting on other parts of their body.

      2. Do you have any allergies that you know of? I say this because I’m allergic to house dust mite. For many years I struggled with itching in bed, which sometimes wouldn’t come on until a while after I’d gone to bed. Once I realised this, I made sure I washed my bedding on a very regular basis, never used a fabric headboard, used hypo-allergenic pillow cases when possible and generally kept my house and bedroom squeaky-clean. No more itching in bed!

      3. I’ve also suffered a lot in the past with waking up in the night for an hour or two. I think your attitude towards it is absolutely right – the important thing is to not panic, accept it and try to do something relaxing until is passes. Some call this sleep maintenance insomnia, others argue that it’s actually perfectly normal and sleeping in two phases is very natural. I wrote an article about waking up in the night a while ago that you might find interesting.

      4. I think that you might have been getting close to the best course of action with your experiments about bed time. My advice would be to work out how much sleep you really want and need, then be very strict about your wake up timings, as I suggested in the article.. You might find that by restricting your quantity of sleep you can reduce the broken sleep. And as you say, it’s often better to get a good solid few hours sleep than a bit longer but broken up through the night.

      All the best
      Ethan

  • Thanks a lot Ethan. Number one has to be the best. Often my body’s super tired but my brain just won’t shut down. I really appreciate you sharing this. Cheers

    • Hi Joanne
      Thanks for your comment, and I’m very happy to hear you found the article useful. I agree that number one is the most important in many ways. I guess for you, the trick now will be to find ways to calm your brain down. And for that I suggest either taxing it as much as possible during the day and/or doing some relaxation techniques before going to bed, or even once in bed.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I have tried sleeping tablets and herbal remedies for the last 3 and a half years and my insomnia has never changed… i have an irregular work pattern and can’t keep a steady sleep pattern, also my work hours can finish around 3 am which is difficult is i am off the next day without sleeping in or being exhausted to do anything with family or friends! What can I do to change this?? I am running out of ideas and doctors refuse to help as I am only 21 years old. Please give me advice to progress and make life manageable!

    • Hi Kim
      Thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear you’re struggling to get the sleep you need. I can completely understand your frustration because of this. Unfortunately, shift work is known to be really difficult for many people to cope with due to the disruption it can cause to sleep patterns. Medical staff, police men and women, airlines pilots and stewards, for example, all know this too well.

      Obviously some of my tips aren’t going to be practical for you. It’s not going to be possible to go to bed at a stable time if sometimes you don’t get home until well after 3am.

      Short of accepting that shift work isn’t for you and changing your job if possible, it’s often a case of trying to cope as best you can. I’d suggest on the days you do get home late, try not to sleep in too late. If you can bear it, sleep for less hours, but get up at a time closer to a normal rising time so that you reset your sleep pattern.

      It’s also helpful to ask family and friends to understand and respect your unusual sleep patterns and to try to let you get at least a few hours of undisturbed sleep. And if you can, have them stay quiet while you sleep, even if it’s daytime for them. Unplug your phone and put a note on your door asking people not to disturb you.

      Additionally, try to make sure your bedroom is blacked out and quiet. Perhaps use earplugs or a white noise machine to block out external sound, which is always louder in the daytime than the night.

      If you’d like more advice about this topic, I can recommend the Bupa website shift work article which has some good information.

      All the best
      Ethan

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