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Insomnia Difficulty Falling Asleep

For many of us, as soon as it’s time for bed, the brain begins buzzing. We might experience racing thoughts or a thought or two that keeps gnawing at us. Then those thoughts can turn into worry or thoughts about not being able to function the next day because we slept poorly. It can become a vicious cycle.

While there’s “no button to push” to deactivate our thoughts, of course, we can “create the right associations” to help us sleep well.

1. Turn off the lights

Sleep is triggered by a hormone produced in the Pineal Gland (seen to the right) called melatonin.  This hormone is released when the eyes sense darkness.  By taking Melatonin (a supplement), it imitates the Pineal Gland, and it causes drowsiness and improves sleep onset.

  • Note:  Turn off ALL lights 1 hour before designated bedtime. Use dim lights – just enough to see.
  • Night Shift Workers.  When you drive home from work, you should wear very dark sunglasses to avoid light activation.

2. Turn off electronics

Electronics including TV, tablets, and radios are stimulating to the brain and can cause insomnia.  They also play into #1 in the sense that artificial light from the screens prevent your Pineal Gland from releasing melatonin.

3. Have a regular sleep schedule

Your body has its own internal clock called a Circadian Rhythm.  If you wake and sleep at different times throughout the week, your Circadian Rhythm will be out of sync.  This prevents you from sleeping well.  If you maintain regular hours, your Circadian Rhythm will get more powerful, and you will eventually be able to fall asleep naturally without any sleep aids.

Note:  It is crucial to sleep and wake at the same times on days off (or the weekends).

4. Create a “Sleep Ritual”

Winding down before bed is one of the best ways to get your sleep back on track. Sometimes it is very hard to shut down your brain or quiet anxious thoughts when going to bed.  Therefore, you need to create a ritual that distracts your brain and paves the way to going to sleep.  Your body craves a routine.  At first, the Sleep Ritual may not work which is why sleep aids (Melatonin, Ambien, Restoril, etc) may help jump start your routine.  You should take your sleep aid at the onset of your sleep ritual.  Your sleep ritual should take about 30 minutes, and it should not be activating.

  • Good Ideas:  Washing your face, taking a bath, brushing your teeth, combing your hair, rubbing your feet, setting the coffee pot, , listening to classical / calming music, stretching, relaxation exercises, etc.
  • BAD Ideas:  Watching TV, listening to music, playing on the iPad, reading an exciting / suspenseful book.

By creating a pre-sleep ritual, you’re establishing a clear association between certain activities and sleep.

5. Write down your worries

If you lay in bed worrying, you should write down all of your worries hours before bedtime.  If a worrying thought comes up right before bed, you can mentally check it off, and either say to yourself, “I’ve dealt with that,” or “I’m dealing with it.”  This usually helps to create a sense of relief.  Avoid writing up your list before bedtime because you want to have enough separation from your thoughts at night.

6. Use your bed for sleep and intimacy.

Create a clear association between your bed and sleep. Do not use the bed for any activities besides sleep or sex.  You may read in the bedroom, but you should not read, watch TV, nap, or use a tablet / laptop in the bed itself.  These activities stimulate your brain instead of relaxing you.

7. Create an optimal environment.

Think of bats when you create an optimal sleep environment:  Cool, quiet, and dark.

8. Busy your brain with mental exercises.

Being able to distract yourself from your worries can be enough to help you fall asleep. If I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, your mind automatically thinks about a pink elephant.  Instead of telling your mind to not do something – it works better to tell it to do something else.

A mental exercise helps your brain focus away from your worries. It can be as simple as “thinking of fruits and vegetables with a certain letter.”  Another idea is to focus on the details of a particular object, such as its color, shape, size and what it’s used for. Or you can recite lyrics from a favorite song.

9. Practice relaxation exercises.

Relaxation exercises are very helpful in reducing anxiety and racing thoughts. Exercises to try include progressive muscle relaxation.  This involves tensing your muscles as tight as possible for 10 seconds, then concentrating on how relaxing it feels to let go of the tension.  Start with tensing and relaxing your toes, then calves, then thighs, then abdominal muscles.

10. Participate in physical activities.

Exercising regularly helps with sleep. It is also a major anxiety-reducer. But make sure you exercise a few hours before bedtime – physical activity can be stimulating. 

11. Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol

The biggest sleep saboteurs are caffeine and alcohol.  These both boost anxiety in the long-run although initially they lower anxiety levels.  Caffeine’s effects can last four to seven hours.  You should not drink any caffeine at least 6 hours before bedtime.

  • Note:  Tea and chocolate contain caffeine, too!
  • Note:  Alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, but it fragments your sleep and makes it less restful.

12.  Restarting Sleep Ritual

Do not allow yourself to get frustrated that you are not falling asleep.  If you cannot sleep, get out of bed and occupy yourself with relaxation exercises or calm music. Do not stimulate your brain!  After 30 minutes have passed, do your sleep ritual again and lay back in the bed.

13. Set Reasonable Expectations

If you are currently sleeping 4 hours per night, do not get in the bed and expect to sleep 8 hours.  Instead, wait until the time that you usually fall asleep to get into bed.  After 1 week of success, subtract 1 hour from your bedtime.

For Example:  If you usually do not fall asleep until 2am, do not get in bed at 10pm in order to toss and turn for 4 hours.  Wait until 1:30am, start your sleep ritual, take your sleep aid, then get in bed at 2am.

After 7 successful nights of sleep, then try starting the sleep ritual at 12:30am and get in bed at 1am.