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.
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.
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.
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.
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.