How to Deal with Insomnia
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How to Deal with Insomnia

Sleep Health
Read Time: 6 minutes

The sun is coming up and you’ve been staring at the ceiling all night.

You begin to panic about getting through the day ahead after a restless night. “I’ll sleep tonight,” you tell yourself as you get yourself out of bed and out the door. Then you spend the whole day worrying you won’t get the sleep you need tonight.

This cycle is the reality of living with chronic insomnia. It’s a painful struggle.

Although good sleep is top-of-mind for insomniacs, most have poor sleep habits. Insomniacs often have counterproductive thought processes and associations with sleep.

1. Practice Sleep Hygiene for Sleeplessness

Sleep hygiene is a set of behaviors that can help you get a good night’s sleep and curb chronic insomnia. Just like daily dental hygiene helps you stay cavity-free, good sleep hygiene promotes healthy rest.

Incorporate some of our tips for better sleep into your day-to-day, and you may notice an improvement in your insomnia in as little as one week. Building new habits can repair your sleep schedule and boost deep, healthy rest.

  • Sleep until you feel rested. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep to feel rested. If you still feel groggy when your alarm rings, consider going to bed earlier or learning more about your sleep cycles to determine the best time to wake up.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule. Wake up and go to sleep around the same time each day. Your bedtime may vary slightly each night based on how tired you are, but it’s most important to set your alarm and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Don’t force sleep. If you go to bed and aren’t tired, your mind will race. Head to bed only after you feel sleepy.
  • Have your coffee in the morning and opt for herbal tea after lunch. Caffeine shouldn’t be consumed after noon because it can make it harder to fall asleep. A cup of coffee isn’t going to ruin your night’s sleep, but some people are more sensitive to caffeine than they realize, which is why it’s best to eliminate it after lunch time.
  • Get rid of anything stimulating in your bedroom. Don’t watch TV or use a smartphone or tablet in your bed.
  • Don’t go to bed with worries on your mind. If something is bothering you, journal about it. Then try to relax for an hour before bedtime.
  • Use exercise for sleep. Research has found exercising at least five hours before bedtime can help you doze off faster and get more deep sleep.

2. Stimulus Control

Stimulus control is a specific type of sleep hygiene that works well for many insomniacs. If you’ve been living with chronic insomnia for a while, you might start to fear your bedroom.

People with insomnia develop negative feelings about their beds and bedrooms. When you lie in bed fearful of not sleeping, it makes the bedroom an unpleasant place to be. A method called stimulus control therapy can help you develop new associations with your bed and bedroom.

  • Don’t go to bed until you are sleepy.
  • Use the bed only for sleep. Choose another spot for reading and watching TV, and don’t eat in bed. Choose a separate, designated spot for worrying.  Only sit in this area when you are spending time worrying.
  • If you are awake after 20 minutes in bed, it’s time to get up and do something else. Sit in another room and do something relaxing like reading or listening to a podcast. Don’t eat or watch TV. You don’t want to associate the out-of-bed time with a reward. Head back to bed when you are sleepy. If you are awake for 20 more minutes, repeat the process again.
  • Set an alarm to wake up at the same time each day, including weekends.

You might not notice improvements immediately. But if you use stimulus control consistently, results will appear over time. When stimulus control is practiced nightly, sleep quality and duration will improve.

3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Chronic Insomnia

Progressive relaxation works by relaxing one muscle at a time. Relaxing each muscle slowly calms and relaxes the whole body. Progressive muscle relaxation is a form of sleep hygiene effective for insomnia as well as anxiety in general.

  • Start with your facial muscles. Squeeze them tight for two seconds, and then relax them completely. Repeat this a few times until the muscles feel loose and relaxed.
  • Repeat this sequence for all your other muscle groups. You can try the following sequence, but it’s OK if you forget this list. Just squeeze and tighten all your muscles until you feel a sense of relaxation.
  • Jaw and neck.
  • Upper arms, lower arms, fingers.
  • Chest, stomach.
  • Buttocks, thighs, knees, calves, and feet.
  • Repeat the sequence for 45 minutes or until you fall asleep. Include breathing exercises if necessary.

4. Sleep Restriction Therapy

Chronic insomnia is a burden to bear.

Over time, struggling to sleep can become an obsession. If you have insomnia, you might stay in bed longer than you should. You’re trying to make up for lost sleep. Yet staying in bed actually disturbs your circadian rhythm. When you stay in bed longer, your sleep schedule will be disrupted the following evening.

Sleep restriction therapy can help your body improve its natural sleep drive. Over time, sleep quality and efficiency will increase. The goal of sleep restriction therapy is to improve the efficiency of your sleep. This simply means the time you spend in bed correlates with the amount of time you are asleep. Sleep restriction therapy is the most effective form of sleep hygiene.

  • Keep a sleep journal for two weeks. Average the amount of hours you sleep each night.
  • Use this number to determine how long you will be allowed to stay in bed. For our example, we will say this number is five hours. Add 30 minutes to the total time.
  • Allow yourself to stay in bed for five and a half hours.
  • Avoid daytime napping.
  • Keep a consistent bedtime routine.
  • Wake up at the same time every morning, regardless of how much good sleep you got the night before.
  • If you feel daytime sleepiness, add 15 minutes to your total time in bed.
  • The goal is to continue to add 15-minute increments until you’re getting the amount of sleep you need.

Sleep restriction therapy has been studied with good results for up to a year after it was completed. This type of therapy isn’t recommended for people with mood disorders exacerbated by lack of sleep.

5. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia

Chronic insomnia is a vicious cycle. Your sleep patterns are a mess. You can’t sleep, so you worry you can’t sleep, so then you can’t sleep again.

Because insomnia is rooted in worrying, a type of therapy can help. This therapy, called cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT, is effective at changing the unhelpful thoughts you have about sleep. During CBT, you work with a therapist to identify your thought patterns and anxieties. Then you and your therapist build strategies to reshape these patterns.

Your therapist will create a program based on your chronic insomnia, and it will vary based on your specific needs. For example, it might be an eight-week session. The session includes sleep education and helps you shape a sleep hygiene plan. Elements of stimulus control and sleep restriction will be included.

CBT for insomnia will arm you with a set of tools any time you experience insomnia throughout your lifetime. Healthcare providers generally prefer CBT over sleeping pills. CBT has no adverse side effects and the benefits can last a lifetime. CBT is available in person and online.

How to Deal With Insomnia

Insomnia is so troubling that it’s one of the most common reasons people visit their healthcare provider. You have a strong biological desire to sleep. Yet sometimes your brain interferes with that drive. Your ability to sleep is influenced by many factors in your life. The key to dealing with insomnia is identifying what those factors are and changing them.

Common Questions

Why Do I Have Insomnia?

Some predisposing factors contribute to chronic insomnia:

  • Health problems like heartburn, overactive bladder, or shortness of breath.
  • Sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.
  • Psychiatric medical conditions like anxiety and depression.
  • A history of childhood trauma, especially if the trauma occurred at night.
  • Medication side effects.

Can you attribute your trouble sleeping to any of these factors? If not, the best way to deal with insomnia is to adjust your sleep hygiene and try some behavioral therapies.

Is Insomnia Curable?

Yes! When you’re an insomniac, it’s easy to feel like you are never going to sleep again. But insomnia is a curable condition. It takes commitment and persistence to follow through with behavioral changes.

If you can be consistent with your new sleep habits over time, your insomnia will improve. You might have trouble sleeping again in the future, but you’ll know how to deal with insomnia the next time it happens.

How Do You Deal With Severe Insomnia?

When your trouble sleeping is so severe you can’t function, you have to take equally severe action. Sleep restriction therapy is the most successful type of sleep hygiene. It’s especially beneficial for chronic insomnia resistant to other measures.

How Can I Fight Insomnia Naturally?

Behavioral changes like the ones listed above are the most natural way to fight insomnia. These changes get to the root of your sleep disturbance. Unlike taking an herb or a sleeping pill, they are free and reusable.

Goodnight, Insomnia

You might identify as an insomniac, but you don’t have to let chronic insomnia ruin your life. You may need to make some serious lifestyle changes, though.

Behavioral therapies are often more effective than sleeping pills and are longer lasting. A combination of stimulus control, relaxation therapy, sleep relaxation therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy is usually most effective. Insomnia feels like it’s going to last forever, but you will get through it and you will sleep again.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

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