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How to Fall Asleep at Night (When You Can’t)

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It’s two in the morning, you've got a big day ahead of you at work tomorrow, and all you want to do is sleep. But your brain just spins and spins.

“I need to sleep,” you complain.

“But sleep is so boring,” your brain replies. “Instead, let’s go over all the things you've got to do tomorrow, and imagine all the different ways in which they could go wrong. Or hey, even better, why don’t we play that highlight reel of your biggest regrets in life, just one more time?”

Cant Sleep
If you can't fall asleep, your electronic devices could be keeping you awake. (Image Source) 

Getting into a cycle of insomnia can be frustrating, as we all know. It can also have some serious consequences for your health and work life. We write all the time here on Envato Tuts+ about productivity, but the sad truth is that if you’ve missed too much sleep, you probably won’t be able to follow through on your good intentions to be productive, no matter which apps or techniques you use.

So, in this tutorial, you’ll set the foundation for a better work life—and a better life in general—by learning some simple techniques to use when you can't fall asleep at night.

First, we’ll look at the effects of sleep deprivation on your work and health. Then we’ll look at things you can do when you can’t fall asleep right now, before moving on to cover some lifestyle changes you can make to ensure better sleep patterns for the long term. And we’ll also talk about when you may need to see a doctor.

1. How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Work and Health

For a start, let’s see why this subject is so important. What are the effects of poor sleep?

Sleep and Work Performance

First, sleep deprivation harms your work performance. Academic research has shown that going for 24 hours without sleep is like drinking four glasses of wine. It affects your decision-making, perception, reaction times, and more.

Another study found that lack of sleep reduced employees’ self-control and made them more likely to argue, steal, or engage in other unwanted behavior in the workplace.

Then there’s the research on learning and memory, which shows that sleep-deprived people are less able to learn new skills or retain new information. And multiple studies have found that a lack of sleep simply makes people slower and less productive

Sleep and Health

It’s not just your work life that will suffer if you miss too much sleep—it’s your health, too.

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) puts it in stark terms:

Regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes—and it shortens your life expectancy.

Scary enough for you? If not, here are some more details, again from the NHS.

  1. Lack of sleep weakens your immune system, making you more vulnerable to illnesses.
  2. Sleep deprivation causes hormonal changes that make you more likely to gain weight.
  3. Chronic sleeplessness can lead to long-term mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
  4. People who sleep less than five hours a night have a higher risk of developing diabetes, due to changes in the way the body processes glucose.
  5. People with impaired sleep often have lower libidos (less interest in sex).
  6. Long-term sleep deprivation can increase blood pressure and put extra strain on the heart.
  7. Regular sleep disruptions can affect the production of reproductive hormones and increase the chances of infertility.

Well, that’s probably enough scary facts. What can you do to prevent these horrible outcomes? Quite a lot! Learn some healthy sleeping techniques in the next two sections.

2. What to Do When You Can't Sleep

Sleeping advice often mixes up two separate things:

  1. What to do when you can’t sleep right now.
  2. What to do in general to prepare yourself for better sleep.

If you’re tossing and turning and desperately searching the web for advice, it doesn’t help much to be told you should have avoided caffeine three hours ago. So today we’re going to look at the two situations separately. This section will cover short-term fixes, and the next section will look at longer-term solutions for better sleep.

So here are seven short-term techniques to use when you can’t fall asleep:

1. Stop Trying

This one sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? But sometimes, trying to sleep can be the worst thing to do. It just makes you more frustrated, less relaxed, and less likely to sleep. You need to stop the cycle.

So, get up, go somewhere else, and do something relaxing, like reading a book on the sofa. Only return to bed when you start to feel tired. This short-term fix also has a long-term benefit of associating your bed with sleep, not wakefulness—more on that later.

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the technique of paradoxical intention is often used to treat insomnia. Actually trying to stay awake can sometimes, paradoxically, help you fall asleep. So, give that a try!

2. Stop Judging

One thing that’s guaranteed to keep you awake is making judgments about your sleeplessness or indulging in catastrophic thinking (“If I don’t get to sleep soon, I’ll only have four hours before work, and I’ll mess up the presentation, and...).

If you find judgments coming to your mind, just label them and let them go. This can be easier said than done, but some of the following techniques may help you.

3. Meditate

Studies have found clear links between meditation and better sleep. So even if you’re not a transcendentalist by nature, try a few simple breathing exercises to help you sleep.

Personally, I use an app called Buddhify, which has guided meditations specifically designed to help you sleep. But the good thing about meditation is its simplicity—all you really need to do is close your eyes and focus all your attention on your breath as if flows in and out. There are loads of meditation books, websites, and apps out there if you need more advice.

4. Read a Book

Remember those bedtime stories when you were a kid? They worked, didn’t they? As the adult voice droned on about fairies and castles, you felt your eyelids drooping, and soon you were asleep.

Try the same thing now. Reading a good book can distract you from your worries and preoccupations and help you to relax and sleep. You could also try an audiobook to mimic the bedtime story effect of listening to someone else’s voice.

5. Write Down Your Worries

Sometimes you can’t fall asleep because you've got too much on your mind. In those cases, it can help to write down everything that’s bothering you. By committing it all to paper, you can stop things from getting out of proportion, and you can start to relax in the knowledge that you've got it under control and will deal with it in the morning.

6. Take a Hot Bath

A hot bath can be pretty relaxing by itself. An additional side benefit is that after the bath, your body temperature drops, which is exactly what happens when we go to sleep. So, your body may read the sudden cool-down as a trigger for sleep.

7. Picture a Relaxing Scene

You may have heard about the age-old advice to count sheep. Does it really work?

Well, no, it doesn’t, according to an Oxford University study. But the underlying principle of distracting your brain and lulling it to sleep is a good one. The study found that while counting sheep didn’t work (it was either too boring an exercise or added to people’s anxiety), picturing a relaxing scene like a quiet beach did help people fall asleep 20 minutes sooner.

3. Lifestyle Changes to Help You Sleep

Now that you’ve seen some quick fixes, let’s look at some longer-term solutions. What habits can you change to help you sleep better, not just tonight but every night? 

Here are nine longer-term solutions for what to do when you can't sleep:

1. Ditch the Devices

We often try to unwind by watching TV or playing on our phones or tablets. Those habits are damaging in three different ways:

  1. They stimulate our brains with lots of images and thoughts.
  2. The light they produce can stop our bodies from preparing for sleep.
  3. They prevent your bed from being a purely restful place.

So, ditch the devices. Instead, do the following.

2. Establish a Routine

We tend to sleep better if we stick to a particular schedule, even on weekends. So, try to avoid too many late-night parties, early-morning flights, or other big disruptions to the pattern.

It can also help to create a soothing ritual around going to bed. It doesn’t really matter what this ritual consists of—the idea is just to perform the same actions in the same order every night, as a preparation for sleep. And use the bed only for sleep and sex, not for work or TV or other activities.

3. Keep the Temperature Constant

Extremes of temperature can make it hard to get to sleep or can wake you up in the middle of the night. Try to set a constant temperature for your bedroom, and remember that slightly cool is better. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 60­–67 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal sleep.

4. Dim the Lights Early

A 2011 study found that exposure to electric light between dusk and bedtime could suppress levels of melatonin. Because melatonin is a key hormone that regulates the sleep cycle, the result of too much light could be disrupted sleep. Dim the lights a couple of hours before you plan to sleep; this could help your body to prepare for a good night’s rest.

5. Reduce Caffeine Intake

We all know that caffeine is a stimulant. We use it to stay awake and be alert, so it makes sense that you should cut down or avoid it altogether if you want to sleep better.

Be aware that caffeine can stay in your body for hours—the time varies depending on the amount you consume and your own metabolism—so even drinking coffee during the day can affect your sleep.

A non-caffeinated hot drink such as chamomile tea or warm milk, on the other hand, can help you to relax and get to sleep.

6. Avoid Alcohol

This one may surprise you—alcohol, after all, can make you feel sleepy. Although a “night cap” may help you get to sleep, it’s also more likely to make you wake up later on in the night, and to miss out on the important deep sleep known as “REM”.

7. Don’t Eat Too Late

A big meal just before bed may make you feel sleepy as the digestion kicks in, but like alcohol, it’s not a good idea. When you lie down, those stomach acids can flow back up your throat, causing acid reflux and/or heartburn. Eat at least three hours before you go to bed, and avoid very rich or spicy foods.

8. Get Some Exercise

Even just ten minutes of exercise during the day can improve your sleep—it’s best to do it in the afternoon or early evening, but not right before bed. Exercise tires you out, but it can reduce stress. And there may also be some benefits from raising your body temperature during the day and allowing it to drop and trigger sleepiness later on.

9. Ignore All of the Above

Some experts believe that following a bunch of rules about when to sleep and how to sleep only adds to people’s anxiety and makes sleep into a bigger deal than it really is. They advise simple acceptance of sleeplessness and trusting your body to do what it needs to do.

So, if none of the above techniques are working for you, try keeping it simple, reducing the anxiety of sleeplessness, and letting the natural, physical process of falling asleep take place by itself.

4. When to See a Doctor

Although these techniques will help most people, sometimes insomnia can be caused by something like anxiety, depression, sleep apnea, or a reaction to some medication you’re taking.

So, if you've tried these techniques and you're still unable to sleep night after night, or if sleep deprivation is having a serious effect on your ability to function, it's worth seeing a doctor.

Also take any other health issues into account—if you’re aware of other chronic illnesses that could be affecting you, or if you’re taking medication that could be causing your sleeplessness, go to see your doctor sooner rather than later.

For most people, sleeplessness is a temporary phenomenon that can be dealt with quite simply, but if it goes on too long, don’t be afraid to seek medical advice. There may be an underlying problem that can be treated with medication, therapy, or other solutions.

5. Learn More About Improving Your Work Life

When you’ve got your sleep cycle figured out, the next thing you’ll want to do is get more productive during the day. So, check out our productivity tutorials for useful tips, such as:

Conclusion

A good night’s sleep is critical for both your health and your work performance. In this tutorial, you’ve learned some useful techniques for getting to sleep. You’ve learned some short-term fixes you can use when you’re struggling to sleep, and some longer-term lifestyle changes you can make to ensure sounder sleep in the future.

Now that you know what to do when you can't sleep, you should notice that you've got more energy during the day and can perform better at work. So follow these steps and start to get better sleep today.

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