What Should I Do if I Have Insomnia?

A licensed therapist suggests techniques to help you improve your quality of sleep and how fast you can drift off to dreamland.

Last updated: Sep 8th, 2022
What Should I Do if I Have Insomnia

You know that sleep is essential, and you desperately want a good night’s rest. Yet, you can’t shut your brain off when your head hits the pillow. Hours pass. You’re tossing and turning, increasingly frustrated that you can’t just fall asleep. The cycle repeats, and sleep deprivation prevails.

Insomnia affects anywhere from 10-30% of the adult population. And if you’re suffering from this condition, you know the combined frustration and anxiety well.

Insomnia is treatable, but you will need to take some proactive steps to develop a healthier relationship with sleep. Here’s what you can do.

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Optimize your sleep environment and routine

Even if you’ve heard this advice, it’s worth repeating: only use your bedroom for sleep and sex. Avoid keeping too much clutter, and don’t have a visible clock on your nightstand. Other ways that you might be able to streamline your sleep routine include:

Make your bedroom comfortable

Your bedroom should be calm, cool, and quiet, with minimal distractions. You might like natural light but aim to get your room as dark as possible at bedtime and use blackout curtains if needed.

Use high-quality items

Invest in a good mattress, comfortable sheets, and a pillow that feels supportive and relaxing to you. (If these items seem expensive, remember that you ideally spend one-third of your life asleep.) Moreover, sleep coincides with nearly every facet of mental and physical health, so consider these costs as important as paying for nutritious food or a gym membership.

Reconsider sleeping with pets

You may love your animals, but their movements and sleep habits can wake you up at night. Many people with insomnia report experiencing increased sleep disturbances from their cats and dogs. It might be worth trying to sleep without them to see if it improves your insomnia.

Go to bed and wake up around the same time each day

Consistency keeps your circadian rhythm on track. Your body will naturally start feeling tired around the same time each day once it can reliably predict when you go to sleep, which may reduce how long it takes to fall asleep.

Implement a nightly schedule

You should strive to keep your night on a similar schedule. For example, aim to eat dinner around the same time each day. If you exercise regularly, stick to the same hour whenever possible. When one schedule is misaligned, it can disrupt other internal clocks.

Avoid or limit naps

As much as possible, try to avoid taking naps. They may affect how sleepy you feel by the end of the day. If you must nap, limit it to around half an hour before 3:00 p.m.

Be mindful of substance intake during the day

People with insomnia must be mindful of how various nutrients affect their sleep. Taking things like caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine appears to significantly impact your sleep, so be especially cautious of evening use. Other timing and consumption habits to consider include:

Limit caffeine in the afternoon and evening

People with insomnia often drink coffee to combat their sleepiness during the day. But its stimulant properties can make you too awake, causing problems at night. Caffeine peaks within 30-60 minutes, but it has a half-life of 3-5 hours, meaning it stays in your body for several hours after you stop feeling it. If you enjoy coffee, stop drinking it at least six hours before bedtime. Avoid consuming no more than 300-400mg (3-4 cups of coffee) daily. Plus, many unassuming nighttime snacks like ice cream, chocolate, and protein bars may contain caffeine, so always check the ingredients list.

Reduce alcohol and stop binge drinking

Some people with insomnia drink alcohol at night to relax or induce drowsiness. And while alcohol has sedative effects, research shows that it can wreak havoc on the quality of your sleep. Although it may help you fall asleep faster, alcohol can disrupt REM sleep. REM is the most important stage of sleep when your body and its muscles are entirely relaxed, and dreaming takes place. Disruptions to REM often lead to daytime fatigue and grogginess. If you decide to have a nightcap, consider having one drink at least four hours before bedtime.

Avoid eating heavy meals close to bedtime

Heavy meals can disrupt your digestion and make it harder to fall asleep. Likewise, research shows that you should generally avoid eating before lying down for the night. If you must have a snack, choose a small portion of something easy to digest, like nuts, fruit, or steamed veggies.

Limit fluids at night

Too many evening fluids may result in excess trips to the bathroom, which might wake you up in the middle of the night. Ideally, stop drinking three hours before bedtime. If you feel thirsty, drink a few sips of water and avoid chugging.

Retrain how you relax during wake-ups

Some people with insomnia have no trouble falling asleep but frequently wake up at night. If this is the case, consider trying the following tips:

Leave the room

If you’ve been awake for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and engage in a quiet, non-stimulating activity like reading a book or listening to soft music. Avoid using screens. After 20 minutes or so, get back into bed to try again.

Practice mindfulness

If you wake up at night, use a calming phrase or practice deep breathing to restore a sense of relaxation. If you notice yourself becoming anxious, pause and regroup. Remember that you can focus on resting without necessarily focusing on sleeping and that closing your eyes while lying down can still benefit your body.

Have an orgasm

Orgasms release numerous hormones that promote sleepiness, including prolactin and oxytocin. They also inhibit the release of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. Research shows that orgasms achieved through masturbation also coincide with favorable sleep outcomes.

Try cognitive-behavioral therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is an evidence-based treatment that helps people understand and change their negative associations with sleep. In many cases, CBT-I has higher success rates than prescription sleep medications.

Getting frustrated with being unable to sleep is understandable, but the negative thoughts it creates can worsen your insomnia. If you have negative thoughts about sleep (i.e., I can never fall asleep or I’m just going to wake up in an hour), you may experience self-fulfilling prophecies where these beliefs become true because you think they will. CBT-I focuses on disrupting this automatic cycle, letting your body relax into sleep.

Your therapist can also help you try the following strategies:

Temporary sleep restriction

By eliminating naps and reducing your time in bed, you can trigger a mild sense of sleep deprivation. This, in turn, can make you more tired the next night (which may trigger better sleep).

Passive wakefulness

Your therapist may encourage you to practice mindfulness when you’re awake. People with insomnia often panic or feel upset when they can’t fall asleep. Accepting you’re awake requires less energy, which may relax you enough to trigger sleep.

Relaxation exercises

Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and guided imagery can help promote calmness. These practices can induce sleepiness and help people with insomnia fall or stay asleep.

Light therapy

Various light therapies may be effective for people who wake up too early and don’t feel rested enough during the day. You might expose yourself to more natural sunlight during the day or use artificial light boxes.

Look into medication

There are numerous supplements and sleep aids available for insomnia, from CBD to melatonin and magnesium. Before starting a new medication, always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits.

Prescription sleeping pills, such as zolpidem (Ambien) or trazodone, can help with insomnia. However, you may experience side effects like gastrointestinal distress, intense daytime drowsiness, headaches, and memory problems. They also usually interact with other medications, and you should never drink alcohol while taking them.

Furthermore, it’s possible to build a tolerance to some of these drugs. Always take your pills exactly as prescribed and talk to your doctor if you have trouble stopping your use. Some prescription sleep medications have higher risks of dependence than others, so if you struggle with addiction or have a family history of addiction, be sure to discuss this with your doctor first.

Final thoughts

Insomnia can be a complex issue, and recovery doesn’t happen overnight. But you don’t have to keep tossing and turning. Implementing lifestyle changes and seeking professional help can significantly improve the quality of your sleep.