Dear Lifehacker, I’m not an insomniac or anything, but sometimes I just can’t fall asleep. Is there anything I can do to help the process along? Sincerely, Sleepless On Sundays
Not being able to fall asleep sucks. While certain life changes can help you pinpoint more chronic sleep problems, those occasional sleepless nights demand a more tactical approach. Here are a few ideas.
Do a Few Mental Exercises
When you’re laying in bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering why on earth you’re still awake, your brain goes to all kinds of weird places. One of the best ways to get to sleep is to calm down and focus your thinking on something that isn’t the fact you’re still awake.
One way to do this is by doing some mental maths. That might be counting off the Fibonacci sequence, calculating your yearly income, or just counting from 100 backwards to zero. If maths isn’t your thing, you can distract yourself by pretending you’re tired. Visualise the physical sensation of tiredness and picture how you look and feel as you’re falling asleep. The more you think about it, the more you’ll slowly drift off to sleep.
You can also just go through the day and replay all the events in your head. The goal here is to dedicate your brain to something that requires slow, mostly automatic thought so that you’re not worrying about other things. If stress is the reason behind a particular sleepless night, a post by the New York Daily News suggests turning to pen and paper to solve your woes:
Of course logging your troubles is all well and good, but it’s a habit you build in the light of day, during the hours when you’re supposed to be studious and bright. It’s not particularly helpful when you’re wide awake at 4 a.m. At that point, [Dr.] Walia suggests, “jotting down all your worries on a piece of paper so it’s out of your head.” And try the breathing, muscle relaxation and visualisation techniques above.
All the above methods are about distracting yourself long enough to fall asleep. They work best for those nights when you feel like your mind is going a mile a minute even through your body is dead tired.
Try Relaxation Techniques
Sometimes when you’re too wound up to sleep, mental exercises just won’t cut it. That means it’s time to try some physical exercises instead.
You can try pretty much any relaxation technique that works for you. This tends to mean deep breathing exercises. The University of Maryland Sleep Disorders Clinic has a few suggestions for how to do this:
- Lie on your back.
- Slowly relax your body. You can use the progressive relaxation technique we described above.
- Begin to inhale slowly through your nose if possible. Fill the lower part of your chest first, then the middle and top part of your chest and lungs. Be sure to do this slowly, over 8 to 10 seconds.
- Hold your breath for a second or two.
- Then quietly and easily relax and let the air out.
- Wait a few seconds and repeat this cycle.
- If you find yourself getting dizzy, then you are overdoing it. Slow down.
- You can also imagine yourself in a peaceful situation such as on a warm, gentle ocean. Imagine that you rise on the gentle swells of the water as you inhale and sink down into the waves as you exhale.
- You can continue this breathing technique for as long as you like until you fall asleep.
If deep breathing doesn’t help you relax enough to fall asleep, toe curls might. Just curl your toes, hold them for a few seconds, then uncurl.
Mix Up Your Environment (or Yourself) a Bit
Finally, if none of the above works, it might be time to change things around a bit.
Probably the easiest thing you can do is just get up and put some socks on. It sounds silly, but your body redirects blood flow to your hands and feet when you’re about to fall asleep. When those extremities are warm, it increases blood flow and makes it easier to fall asleep. So anything you can do to make your hands and feet warmer should help you fall asleep faster.
Then again, sometimes it’s best to just accept the fact that sleep isn’t coming. When that’s the case, it’s time to get out of bed and relax elsewhere for a little while. We all know that the bed is for sleep and sex. While that’s typically meant to mean you shouldn’t play around on your phone all night, it also means it’s good to get up when you can’t sleep. If you had into another room and relax for a bit, you can try to sleep again with better results.
Of course, if you have trouble sleeping a lot, you’ll want to take more extreme measures to improve your sleep health. But the above tips should do better than counting sheep for those occasional nights.
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