Trouble falling asleep is a truly frustrating experience. Your mind is swimming with thoughts from the day and with everything you have to do tomorrow, and the fact that you’re not asleep makes you even more anxious. It’s why a few relaxation exercises before bed can be the difference between a good night’s sleep and feeling like a zombie the next morning.
And if this problem sounds familiar, you are absolutely not alone. Lack of sleep among Americans is so prevalent that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention classifies it as a public health concern, stating that up to 30 percent of the population gets less than the 7-9 hours of sleep a night medically recommended. The CDC also noted that adults suffering from a chronic lack of sleep are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression, and a "reduced quality of life and productivity."
I personally find that the more stress I have in my life, the harder it is for me to unwind at night and calm my brain before bed. The bitter irony of this of course is that my stress levels are also usually linked with how much I actually have to do, meaning that I'm often sleep deprived during those stretches of days I need sleep the most.
If this all sounds too relatable, here are seven ways to relax before bed that can help break the cycle and get you the nightly rest you need.
1. Create An Optimum Sleep Environment
In a piece for PsychCentral on ways to shut off your brain before bed, Lawrence Epstein, M.D., chief medical officer of Sleep HealthCenters and instructor in medicine at Harvard University, stressed the importance of having a good sleep environment. He said this includes keeping your sleep space dark, quiet, and neither too hot nor too cold. And don't forget to make sure your bed is as comfortable and cozy as possible.
2. Have A Sleep Ritual
An article on the sleep-aid site BetterSleepBetterLife.com recommended creating a ritual that you do before bed every single night. The site noted that we tend to be creatures of habit, so the very act of doing things we associate with sleep will make us more tired and ready for bed. This ritual could be as simple as a cup of (decaf) tea, or a warm shower and moisturizing session.
For me, sticking to a formal ritual sounds good in theory, but it's something I've never been able to manage in practice (it's a byproduct of living with roommates and not having a super consistent schedule). Instead, my "ritual" is to plug my headphones into my phone when I get into bed and listen to relaxing sleep-aid videos on YouTube like this one (I try not to actually watch them so that my room stays nice and dark). I promise it helps.
3. Have Decaf Beverages On Hand
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that consuming caffeine as early as six hours before bed (and that includes sodas and many teas!) has "important disruptive effects" on our sleep patterns. However, if you're a beverage addict like myself, you'll probably want to be able to drink something other than water in the hours before sleep, and that's why it's important to always keep non-caffeinated options on hand, like seltzer or certain herbal teas.
4. Write Down Your Thoughts And Worries
Harris also noted that one of the biggest things that keeps so many of us up at night is thinking about all our worries and all the things we need to do the next day. She recommended taking time before bed to actually write these worries down or even just making a simple to do list. That way you can check these thoughts off as already dealt with as they come when you lie in bed.
5. Do Mental Gymnastics
In the same PyschCentral piece, sleep specialist Stephanie Silberman, Ph.D, suggested doing mental exercises as you lie in bed that force your brain away from the thoughts and worries of your day. It can be as simple as “thinking of fruits and vegetables with a certain letter," or thinking of a certain object and visualizing everything about it, such as its shape, color, and size.
6. Avoid Phones And Tablets
Psychologist Shelby Freedman Harris recommended avoiding the bright lights of TVs, phones, and tablets for up to a full hour before bed on a piece about shutting off your brain for The Huffington Post. All the lights "can make your brain think it's still daytime," and instead she recommended simply reading or journaling. I know first hand this one can be super, super hard, so I sometimes just make sure the brightness on my phone is turned all the way down for those nights when I just can't help myself.
In a piece for MindBodyGreen, life coach and author Stephen Guise provided a simple breathing exercise to calm our minds before bed. He said to breath in and then slowly exhale while visualizing tension leaving your body, focussing on the areas where you feel the most tension, like in your stomach or shoulders; repeat as needed. He also stressed the importance of not "trying to relax" while you do this, and said to instead just focus on the actions themselves.
Sleep is really important, and falling asleep (or rather, not falling asleep) shouldn't be a major stressor in our lives. If you're finding yourself having trouble in this area, some or all of these tips should definitely help!