How many times have you experienced this: You’re wide awake at 3 a.m., unable to get back to sleep. Your mind races with a rising sense of panic about the difficult day ahead if you don’t fall back to sleep. But it seems impossible, at that point, to drift back to sleep.
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What you’re experiencing is a type of insomnia, says behavioral sleep disorders specialist Michelle Drerup, PsyD.
Many underlying health problems such as chronic pain, sleep apnea or acid reflex can cause insomnia. But if your difficulty getting to and staying asleep isn’t due to health problems, here are some tips that can help you get back to sleep fast.
- Stop watching the clock. Marking off the minutes only heightens your distress about being awake.
- Try relaxing your body to fall asleep. Working from your toes to your forehead, tightly tense each muscle group for five seconds, then relax.
- If you can’t fall back to sleep after approximately 15 to 20 minutes, get out of bed. Use your “mind clock, ” Dr. Drerup says, to estimate how long you’ve been awake. After 20 minutes of wakefulness, get up and leave your bedroom. “Don’t spend time in bed trying to fall asleep,” she says. “You’ll probably worry about not falling asleep and then learn to associate the bedroom with not sleeping well.”
- Find an uninteresting activity. Read something uninteresting. Listen to relaxing music. When you start to feel drowsy, go back to bed.
In addition to these tips above, you can also adopt daytime habits that will help you sleep better at night, Dr. Drerup says.
- Create a consistent sleeping and waking schedule — even on the weekends and days off work. “What works best is going to around bed at the same time and waking up at same time every day,” Dr. Drerup says.
- Avoid consuming drinks or food with caffeine before bedtime. Don’t drink caffeinated beverages for at least five to six hours before you plan to retire, Dr. Drerup says. “Caffeine can play a major role in not getting a good night’s sleep,” she says.
- Make your sleeping environment comfortable. The room should be set at a temperature that’s not too warm or too cold. Find a mattress and pillow with a firmness level that you find restful.
- One hour before bedtime, stop doing work or other mentally-challenging tasks. Switch to something calming such as reading a book.
- Use your bed only for sleep or intimacy. Do not watch television or play with electronic devices while lying in bed. “Otherwise, we come to associate the bedroom with not sleeping,” Dr. Drerup says.
Chronic insomnia affects up to 15 % of adults, and many don’t seek treatment for it.
If your symptoms last longer than a month or so, it’s time to seek medical advice. Ditto if lack of sleep interferes with your daytime activities, Dr. Drerup says.