It happens to sleep doctors, too. But here’s how they use their expertise to avoid the insomnia spiral.
Use progressive muscle relaxation to nix the physical tension that’s preventing you from falling asleep, says Sandra Block, M.D., neurologist and author of The Girl Without a Name.
Focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group in 5-second intervals, starting at your toes and gradually working your way up to your head. Finish off by visualizing yourself in a relaxing scenario.
“I always go for the tried-and-true beach scene, with sun glittering on the waves, the heat of the towel, and the smell of coconut suntan lotion,” says Block. “I’m feeling sleepy just thinking about it.”
“It sounds counterintuitive, but when I find it difficult to sleep because I’m worrying about not falling asleep, I do the opposite,” says Sujay Kansagra, M.D., director of Duke University’s Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program and author of My Child Won’t Sleep.
“Instead of worrying about falling asleep, think about staying awake. This often lessens anxiety and gives your mind a chance to relax enough to fall asleep. It’s a technique known as ‘paradoxical intent.’”
Try swapping out your usual bedtime snack for a smoothie, suggests Robert S. Rosenberg, a board-certified sleep medicine specialist and author of Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day.
“I use a small amount of non-fat Greek yogurt and low-cal almond milk, both of which contain sleep-promoting nutrients like tryptophan, calcium, and magnesium,” says Rosenberg. “Then I add frozen tart cherries, which have recently been shown to increase sleep by as much as an hour.”
Clear your head of any stress by taking some time for yourself.
“I try to grab some ‘me time’ during the last hour before bed,” says Lisa Medalie, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at the University of Chicago. “It helps minimize the potential for distressing thought content while trying for sleep. Solo relaxing activities help clear my head from interpersonal problems and get me into the optimal de-aroused state for sleep transition.”
Cut back on the mental clutter that’s likely to keep you awake by writing it down.
“It’s a technique called ‘constructive worrying,’” says Rosenberg. “At least 3 hours before bed, write down your concerns and your solutions. Then put them in a desk drawer and leave them there for the night. My wife and I do this together.”
Physically setting your thoughts aside will likely keep the tossing and turning to a minimum.
“What I do for better sleep is focus on my breathing,” says Jose Colon, M.D., author of The Sleep Diet: A Novel Approach to Insomnia.
“I try to breathe a little more silently, a little more slowly, and count my breaths backward from 100. When I forget what number I’m on, it’s a sign that I’m drifting in and out of consciousness, and I just start over again from 100.”
As you count backward, try paced breathing: According to the Mayo Clinic, we take about 12 to 14 breaths a minute. With paced breathing, your number of breaths is cut in half—and word is that the long, smooth breaths help to reduce stress and trigger a relaxation response.
Your pup can make it harder to drift off and stay asleep.
“I don’t allow my pets to sleep with me,” says Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute in North Carolina. “They have a different circadian rhythm, which will reduce one’s sleep as they move around.”
“I sleep with a fan circulating the air in my bedroom and am mindful of the temperature,” says Rosenberg. “Most studies demonstrate that room temperatures between 62° and 70°F seem to work best for sleeping. The reason is that our core body temperature drops at night and is a signal to the brain to sleep. A warm room can inhibit this process.”
Coordinate your lighting with the sun to keep your circadian rhythm in check. For example, don’t work in a dark office during the day, and don’t turn on lights in the middle of the night.
“After dinnertime, I dim the overhead lights in our home to mimic the sunset outside,” says Cathy Goldstein, M.D., a neurologist at the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Michigan. “Light has an alerting effect and can shift the circadian rhythm. Even if I have to use the bathroom at night, I keep the lights dim.”