We all know the drill: you wake up in the morning feeling exhausted, go through your workday fighting off yawns, and spend the whole time romanticizing the idea of finally crawling back into bed and getting some much-needed rest. You feel so sleep-deprived that it only makes sense for you to be down for the count the moment your head hits the pillow. In reality, though, as soon as all of the noise and busyness of your day-to-day fades away and you’re soaking in the silence of the night, the metaphorical floodgates of your mind are busted wide open – thoughts about the day, worries about tomorrow, and what-ifs about the future all suddenly have free reign, and the task of slowing them down long enough for you to drift off seems like an impossible one.
While there isn’t one catchall solution that will work for everyone, there are some things you can try if this struggle sounds all too familiar.
Make a nightly gratitude list
If you’ve done any research on ways to get a better night’s sleep, you’re likely already familiar with expert recommendations around sleep hygiene and creating a wind-down routine (if you haven’t, you can check some out here). Practicing good sleep hygiene helps with both falling asleep and sleeping better, and includes things like having a no-screens-30-minutes-before-bed rule, and only using your bed for sleeping (and not for things like working and eating). Creating a consistent wind-down routine has similar benefits, and one thing you might consider incorporating into a bedtime routine is making a gratitude list. Writing positive thoughts down can make them more salient, and doing so before bed can help to prime your brain to focus on happier thoughts. Try carving out 5 minutes to write down 3 things you are thankful for before bed. Even if it doesn’t end up helping you fall asleep, practicing gratitude daily can be endlessly beneficial for overall feelings of mental wellness.
Use mindfulness to ground yourself and relax the body
Another way to prepare your mind and body for sleep is to practice mindfulness. Many mindfulness techniques are based on the idea that by bringing your attention to the present moment, often by refocusing your attention to your physical body and the space around you, you are better able to recognize your thoughts for what they are – just thoughts. There are tons of mindfulness exercises that you can try (a quick Google search can help get you started) but an easy one you can try is progressive muscle relaxation, which involves the tightening and relaxing of different muscle groups. You can start by clenching your fist for 5 seconds, really focusing on the tension you’re creating, and then relaxing the muscles in your hand. Move onto your wrists, your arms, your chest, slowly going through the whole body.
Try a “sleepcast”
While mindfulness techniques can be really effective, sometimes the thought of learning how to practice a new technique can feel overwhelming. Enter: the sleepcast. A sleepcast is just a podcast designed to help you fall asleep. Some sleepcasts (like those you can find on meditation apps) work kind of like guided meditations – they use many of the same mindfulness techniques you could practice on your own, but gently instruct you on what to do while you simply sit back and relax. Other sleepcasts work like bedtime stories but for adults. Sleep With Me and Nothing Much Happens Here are two great ones you can find for free wherever you listen to podcasts. Both tell stories that allow you to focus your attention somewhere other than your own thoughts, but they keep it dull enough that you don’t get too invested to fall asleep. Try adjusting the volume so that it’s not too quiet for you to hear, but quiet enough that making out what the host is saying still requires some level of concentration.
Get out of bed
This tip goes hand-in-hand with trying to take the pressure off of falling asleep. It may seem paradoxical, but giving yourself permission to be awake will be much more effective at helping you fall asleep than trying to force yourself to sleep. Counting down the hours until your alarm or constantly opening your eyes to check the clock only puts added pressure and stress on yourself, which will ultimately make falling asleep that much harder. If you’ve spent 20-30 minutes tossing and turning and have already tried the above tips to no avail, accept that it’s just one of those nights and get out of bed. Don’t turn on the TV or look at your phone, but go to another dimly lit room and journal, read a chapter of a book, or tidy up a desk drawer. You might be surprised at how sleepy you really feel when you remove yourself from the obligation of falling asleep for a short while. This tip is especially helpful if you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night and need help falling back asleep.
With all of the business of today’s working culture and how much of our day is spent looking at screens, taking in copious amounts of information, it’s no surprise that everyone has trouble falling asleep from time to time. However, if you’ve made real efforts to improve your sleep habits and still have persistent trouble falling asleep, it’s likely time to talk to your doctor or counsellor. Sleep provides our brains with invaluable time for emotional and informational processing, and longer-term sleep deprivation can have far-reaching negative consequences on our bodies and minds. Whether it’s situational life stress or an underlying mental health issue that’s making it difficult for you to fall asleep, you deserve whatever support you need to make sure you’re well-rested. For more information on Amira Health’s counselling services, click here.