One of the most common issues I hear about when it comes to difficulty sleeping is the experience of trying to shut down your mind in order to relax and fall asleep, only to have your thoughts start speeding up and preventing sleep. It is often the case that busy people keep mentally busy throughout the day, holding anxious thoughts at bay due to focusing on other concerns. Only when they start to relax, and stop the mental busyness, do the simmering anxious thoughts in the background heat up to a full boil. Much like when you try to drown out your neighbor’s obnoxiously loud music by turning your stereo up to 11 (Spinal Tap anyone?), only to be berated by that obnoxious music once you turn your stereo off right before bedtime. Instead of continuing to block out the anxious thoughts, there are ways of addressing them proactively.
Since there are many causes of poor sleep, any short list of suggestions will be inadequate for everyone. Hopefully, the following recommendations will be general enough to offer some help to most people suffering from inconsistent sleep. My recommendation is to try them out for several days in a row and evaluate if they are helpful to you. These techniques are considered elements of good sleep hygiene.
Preemptive techniques to improve your sleep:
- Set a consistent bedtime and waking time: Regardless of the day of the week, start going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning. Having a consistent schedule will help your mind get into a healthy pattern and will eliminate the difficulty of switching routines on the weekends/readjusting to the week.
- Have a routine for bedtime: Practice a sleep routine prior to bedtime which includes shutting off screens/email 30 minutes prior to bedtime (gives your mind an opportunity to slow down), doing the same preparation (PJs, brush teeth, wash face, etc.), and incorporate some soothing elements (softer lighting, relaxing sounds, etc.).
- If anxious thoughts replay in your mind, write them down as a to-do list: Try to get your thoughts out of your head. If your mind is replaying all the things you have to do tomorrow (or for the rest of the month), try writing them down on paper and telling yourself that they are documented for your attention starting tomorrow.
- Make a strong association between your bed and sleeping: Keep your bed “sacred” for sleep. In other words, if you only use your bed for sleeping (instead of eating, emailing, watching TV, reading books, pillow fights, etc.) you will create a strong association in your mind. If your mind understands that your bed is the place to sleep, it will start to prepare itself to sleep once you get into your bed. In the same way you can condition yourself to feel warm and fuzzy when you look at your favorite photos (they have an association with a positive emotion), you can condition yourself to feel sleepy when you get into bed.
It is best to be proactive in trying to get good sleep. However, there are many techniques to try in the moment once you realize your sleep has been disrupted. More on this later.
Shawn Healy, Ph.D.