Did you spend last night staring at your walls, desperately wishing you could fall asleep? Did you seethe with envy at your cat, who seems to effortlessly sleep 19 hours a day, while your consumption of a full convenience store's worth of OTC sleep aids only buys you a few hours here and there? Was your boring vigil of sleeplessness interrupted only when you periodically got up to google "how to sleep," "why can't I sleep," and "how little sleep do humans need to survive"? Yeah, me too.
I've grappled with periods of crippling, chronic insomnia, but I know that nights when you just can't fall asleep are a beast all their own — they don't tend to come often enough to require medical intervention, and yet they're definitely awful enough to ruin the following day, no matter what you had planned (teaching a kindergarten class, negotiating a peace treaty, judging a dog talent show). And nights when you have trouble falling asleep can sometimes create a domino effect — you remember how hard it was to fall asleep last night, which makes you anxious when you go to bed tonight, until the whole thing topples down into full-tilt insomnia.
But don't resign yourself to that sad, sleepless fate just yet. Give the 7 bedtime tricks below a try, and see if you can't sleep a little easier (or at least a little more easily).
1. Stop Looking At Electronics An Hour Before Bedtime
Putting your phone aside as bedtime approaches is rough — I mean, what if someone on the internet has an opinion that is wrong while you're offline?! But it turns out that Twitter flame wars aren't the only way your electronics might be keeping you awake — researchers have found that people who used electronics right before bed "displayed reduced levels of melatonin, a hormone that...helps induce sleepiness." It's believed that the "blue light" given off by these devices is what disrupts our sleep patterns, confusing our bodies due to its similarities to sunlight. These researchers found that people who couldn't pry themselves away from Instagram took longer to fall asleep, and once they were asleep, spent less time in REM sleep, which is the kind of sleep that helps you feel well-rested; many subjects reported feeling sleepier the next day.
So what's the solution, besides smashing all your electronics with a hammer and then starting a new life as a simple arugula farmer? You can try turning off all your screens — computer, tablet and otherwise — at least an hour before bed. Experts actually recommend turning off electronics two to three hours before bed, but hey, you're not running for sainthood here.
And what if you absolutely, positively cannot stop checking your email an hour before bed? Like, maybe you're the President of the United States or something (if so: hello! I love your work!)? In that case, you can try something like the f.lux app, which dims your computer screen with a red filter as it gets later and later at night. This helps take some of the edge off the blue light, and thus reduces its impact on your sleep cycles. But considering that the odds are very low that you are answering life-or-death emails before bed, and very high that you're just looking at pictures of puppies in funny hats, just put down the damned tablet.
2. Put On Socks
I know, what? But it turns out that your dad's nightly habit of wearing socks to bed might have been doing more than just hiding his gnarly toenails. It turns out that keeping your extremities at a cozy temperature while maintaining a cooler core can help you fall asleep more easily. So even if you're still months away from wearing socks to bed so that you don't freeze to death, give them a shot and see if they help you hit the hay.
3. Try Deep Breathing
Sometimes, your inability to sleep is tied to some kind of physical discomfort (feeling too cold, feeling too warm, feeling your bed partner's hot nacho snores in your face). But more often, problems getting to bed come down to feeling anxious. So you'll want to try one of the most popular tools in the anti-anxiety arsenal: deep breathing techniques. Many folks claim that a deep breathing method called "4-7-8 breathing" can help people who are being kept awake by anxiety or stress power down. Other forms of deep breathing — like ones you may have learned in a yoga or meditation class — can also help. You can even try something as simple as counting your breaths for three to 15 minutes — a practice that can not just calm you down, but also potentially bore you to sleep (don't laugh — it's the same principle that counting sheep is based on!).
4. Exercise During The Day
I know, it's a little late for this one if you're already in bed, wide awake at 3 a.m., trying to remember the opening lyrics to the Family Matters theme song (those would be "It's a rare condition, this day and age/ to read any good news on the newspaper page," but I guess it's too late for that, too).
But if you find yourself consistently having problems falling or staying asleep, you may want to establish a more consistent exercise routine: a study by the National Sleep Foundation found that people who exercised 150 minutes per week reported a 65 percent improvement in overall sleep quality, including falling asleep and staying asleep. So if the myriad long-term health benefits of exercise weren't enough to get you off the couch and into a cycling class, maybe this is.
5. Write Out Your Troubles
If you've got deep thoughts keeping you awake — like worries about money, work, school or relationships that seem to keep playing in your brain on a frustrating loop — then writing things down may help you get to sleep, as Dr. Andrew J. Westwood of Columbia University told Men's Health. Try to keep it simple — the ideal would be a to-do list, which lets you get your worries out of your head without diving into them too deeply. But if you're finding that you're really haunted by your troubles, you might want to try writing it all out, diary-style. One word of caution from personal experience, though: if you're anxious or prone to ruminate on troubling thoughts, this technique might just help you fixate more — so you might want to skip it.
6. Start Relaxing Before You Get In Bed
If you're anything like me, you spend every second of the hour before you get in bed trying to "get things done." What are these things, and if they're so important, why did you wait until 11:15 at night to do them? I have no idea why (I think if I had any idea why, I'd probably have my own daytime talk show by now); but I now know that if you want to shoot for a decent night's sleep, you should leave them for tomorrow.
Janet Kennedy, founder of NYC Sleep Doctor, told CNN that we should give ourselves an hour to relax before bed — meaning that you shouldn't just steer clear of electronics, but also stressful conversations with a parent, roommate, or partner; paying bills or dealing with financial problems; and googling your cutest exes to see if maybe you two could get back together oh whoops no they're actually married now.
Instead, dedicate yourself to chilling out: put on some soothing music, read a fun book, and yes, maybe get a neck massager like our cat friend pictured above. She doesn't look like she stays up until daybreak wondering if Adrian was her only real shot at love, right?
7. Don't Have Caffeine In The Afternoon
I know, I know: caffeine is the American way. But caffeine also has a way of messing with your sleep long after you've consumed it. Caffeine has a half life of six hours, which means that there's caffeine present in your body for six hours after you chug your coffee — not a big deal for some folks. But if you're sensitive to caffeine, that afternoon coffee could be keeping you up hours later. A study conducted by researchers at at Michigan’s Henry Ford Hospital’s Sleep Disorders & Research Center and Wayne State College of Medicine found that caffeine consumed even six hours before bedtime could result in up to one hour less of sleep.So if you're having sleep troubles, try to stick to decaf from the late afternoon onward. Yes, we know your friends will make fun of you. Try to comfort yourself by imaging how soundly you'll sleep tonight, while your caffeinated friends toss and turn and google "how do I fall asleep."Images: Pexels, Giphy (7)