I've listed below some of the areas to work on if you're not sleeping well. Some of these are hard to accomplish, especially in the beginning as you are just starting to address your insomnia.
Some people need help and feel anxiety just thinking of making these changes. You might notice that stopping some of the habits you have now increases anxiety or frustration when you first start. Remember, your goal is to change habits in the long term so you can get good sleep every night, not get a good night's sleep for one night.
Start slow, stay committed, and get help if you need it.
Start slow if you need to, and seek help from a therapist for support and guidance. Pick one or two areas you're willing to change at a time. And don't forget that it might be a good idea to see your physician to rule out any medical reasons for insomnia.
- Start by tracking your habits in a sleep diary so you can learn where you might want to focus your efforts. Click here if you're looking for a worksheet, offered for free from the National Sleep Foundation: sleep diary.
- Limit or eliminate caffeine, cigarettes and tobacco, and alcohol. Limit caffeine to the early hours of the day, preferably no caffeine after lunch. Eliminate alcohol or limit alcohol to no more than one or two drinks in an evening, at least 2 hours before bed.
- Stick to a bedtime and wake schedule, even when you don't have to work. Avoid the snooze button! Even if you didn't sleep well the night before, you might have a hard time breaking the cycle if you nap or sleep in late. This is often the hardest goal for folks to stick to on a regular basis, and it's one of the most important ones!
- Keep the bedroom for sleep and sex only. Take non-sleep related items out of the bedroom, including electronic screens such as phones and laptops, work, and bills. Other than reading from a book or possibly listening to a meditation or audiobook for a few minutes before bed, keep the bedroom for sleep and sex only.
- Make the hour before bed a dedicated screen free time. Screens might affect your ability to fall asleep and sleep restfully. Turn off all screens, including the TV, video games, phones, and computers. The lighting on the screens has a negative effect on many people, and the activities associated with screens is likely too activating for most of us. I recommend removing the TV from your bedroom if you have one and getting a regular alarm clock to avoid using your phone on your nightstand as an alarm.
- Make sure your bedroom is cool and your bed is comfortable. Your bedroom should be a little cooler than you might think; getting too warm in the middle of the night might be waking you up. Make sure your sheets, pillows, and bed are comfortable.
- Address sound and light. If you live in an urban area or live with noisy people, take measures to reduce sound as much as possible. Use earplugs, a noise machine or thick curtains to reduce sound. Use an eye mask and get rid of night lights if you can and cover all electronic equipment at night. Some people find that the lighting from alarm clocks, modems, phones, etc. can flicker and disturb sleep. Do a test to find out if you're sensitive to light by getting rid of as much light as possible and sleeping with a mask to see if it helps.
- Eat and drink as early as possible in the evening. Try to keep from drinking or eating for a couple hours before bedtime. If you need a snack, consider protein over carbs. If you wake in the middle of the night regularly, it might be due to ups and downs of processing carbs, sugar, or alcohol you're consuming too late at night.
- Move every day, well before bedtime. If you can, try vigorous cardio-vascular exercise as often as possible. If that's not possible, get moving in any way you enjoy. Go for a swim, a walk, do stretching exercises, and take breaks away from computers and TV watching frequently. Try to build in movement into your day whenever you can. For example, if you can, take the stairs, walk to work, or park farther away than usual.
- Set a time during the day well before your bedtime ritual to worry, review the activities of the day, or write in your journal. If you know there is a set time for these activities, you can often calm your own mind knowing that a good night's sleep is one of the most important things you can do to feel awake and focused. When it comes time to work, make to-do lists, review the day, and plan ahead, you'll be in better shape if you've gotten enough sleep. Limit worrying to 10 minutes. During this time, you can pace, rant to yourself, ruminate, or whatever worrying looks like to you. Let it out! If one of your worries is that you'll forget how important items are that you're worried about, which is more common than any of us would admit, try writing it all down. After 10 minutes,pocket your written list of worries and move on. Spend some time afterward if you can with pro-active activities such as making a to-do list, writing in your journal, creating a budget, setting goals, etc. Knowing that you have a set schedule for these activities can help set your mind at ease when you need to sleep.
- Create a bedtime ritual, preferably one that takes at least 30-60 minutes and provides a transition from work, chores, and tasks to sleep and relaxation. Move toward sleep well in advance of bedtime. Have you been working and running around the house and then getting into bed without a transition? That is likely to affect your sleep. A sleep time ritual includes turning off screens and phones, turning down the lights, and moving more slowly and mindfully. Rituals often include activities like brushing your teeth, taking a bath, reading a book for fun, guided meditation, and stretching. Many people enjoy doing dishes at this time because it's a quiet activity with warm water. If you move slowly, enjoy the warm water, and feel satisfied with preparing your home for a new day, it may be a great time to do the dishes or other tasks around the house like clearing clutter. If you move quickly from task to task as you take on a multitude of items from your to-do list, then these tasks aren't a good idea to include in your bedtime ritual. Remember to breathe mindfully and move slowly, in a dimly lit room.
- If you wake up too early or have a hard time falling asleep: do not get up and move around actively or turn on lights. If you wake up because you are too hot or have to go to the bathroom, try to move slowly with as few lights as possible. Then, return to your bedroom and try deep breathing exercises. Put your hand on your belly and take a long inhale, feeling your belly rise. Then, take a long exhale and feel your belly fall. Focus on the feeling of your belly rising and falling, your breath moving into and out of your nose. Count the seconds of your inhale and your exhale to remove the focus from any thoughts, urges to grab your phone or turn on the TV, or any intrusive worry.
- Commit to letting go of work and worry. Bedtime isn't the time to solve problems or review conversations from the day. Take action to relax your body muscles one by one, breathe deeply, and reduce moving and ruminating. If you find your mind wandering, come back to counting the seconds of your inhale and the seconds of your exhale. Or repeat the phrase "breathing in a long inhale...breathing out a long exhale".
- Bedtime is a great time to practice gratitude. Take a few seconds to remember some little thing from your day that you're grateful for. You might be less likely to wake up worrying, and you might be more likely to have a balanced perspective of your day if you remember meaningful moments. It can be something about your environment, like a crisp fall day or the beautiful flowers you saw. You can also be grateful for yourself and something you did during the day. You might be not be accustomed to thanking yourself, and I highly recommend giving it a try during your regular gratitude practice. You can acknowledge and express thanks for getting to bed on time, for practicing new things, for doing something that was hard for you (even if your mind tells you it was small or silly).
Talk to a therapist to see if you might benefit from treatment for insomnia, especially if you need help addressing the issues listed above or if you try these tips and still have trouble sleeping. A therapist trained in therapeutic mindfulness techniques or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help if you're having trouble implementing some of these tips and tricks.