It’s estimated that one in three people experiences at least a mild form of insomnia. This doesn't just mean that people are a little more tired—sleep disorders can have myriad negative consequences. A study published in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that individuals who experience sleep disorders such as insomnia also use their brain less efficiently. Consequently, they feel they have to work harder to complete a task requiring concentration. Other research has also found that people experiencing insomnia have difficulty accurately reading others’ facial expressions and have a lower stress threshold, meaning they are more likely to feel irritable and get angry more easily.
As a therapist, I'm particularly invested in helping my clients sleep better because I know that getting enough quality sleep is critical to our general physical and mental well-being. While it can be exhausting (pun intended) to struggle with the effects of insomnia, there is a wealth of research-backed strategies you may not have heard of before to help you sleep better every night.
01. Try Weighted Blankets
What is a weighted blanket, you ask? It’s a blanket with small weights sewn throughout the fabric. It can usually be customized for specific weight preferences. While weighted blankets are traditionally used in psychiatric hospital wards to calm anxious patients, recent research like this 2015 study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders found that using weighted blankets can improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia.
The researchers attribute the weighted blanket's purpose for insomnia treatment to the calming and “cocooning” effect it has, which decreases the activity in the sympathetic nervous system (research shows increased activity in the sympathetic nervous system negatively impacts sleep quality). In a The Wall Street Journal article, one researcher even compared the calming experience of wearing a weighted blanket to getting a light massage.
02. Don’t Reach for Sleep Aid Drugs
When you can't sleep and you're watching the minutes and hours tick by, you’re likely feeling desperate. Your first thought might be to reach for an over-the-counter sleep aid such as Nyquil. If your insomnia is chronic, your doctor may have even prescribed you sleeping pills. Yet, the American College of Physicians issued new guidelines for treating insomnia, and guess what? Prescription medication isn’t the first step in recommended treatment for sleep disorders.
Nitin Damle, president of the American College of Physicians, told The Wall Street Journal that prescription sleep aids don’t provide natural sleep and come with a host of unwelcome side effects like fuzzy thinking and memory gaps. Over-the-counter drugs (like melatonin) have also been found to impair memory formation and attention. Instead, try non-medication insomnia treatments like the ones below.
03. Consider Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Rather than medication, the American College of Physicians recommends Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), a form of psychotherapy specifically designed for insomnia treatment. A therapist trained in this approach can help you identify what is preventing you from falling and staying asleep. Then they’ll work with you to develop an effective plan to help you sleep better. Sleep issues are so common that I address them in therapy with almost all of my clients, even if their sleep issues aren’t the primary reason they are seeking therapy.
04. Watch TV Standing Up (Really!)
If you can't sleep, you might need to reset your clock. No, not your alarm clock—your circadian rhythm clock. Sleep experts suggest one way to reset and maintain a healthy circadian rhythm is to pick a regular bedtime and stick to it. That means not dozing off while watching TV, waking up an hour or two later sore and uncomfortable, and then flopping into bed. To prevent falling asleep before your bedtime, experts recommend watching TV standing up so that you aren’t tempted to doze off. Better yet, add an easy and relaxing stretching routine to your TV watching to combine entertainment with a calming, sleep-promoting practice.
05. Don’t Try to Catch Up on Missed Sleep
As tempting as it may be to sneak in a nap or sleep in the morning after a sleepless night, experts do not recommend trying to catch up on missed sleep throughout the day. This can disrupt your sleep cycle and make it more difficult to fall asleep the next night. My clients often describe how they had trouble falling asleep one night, so they took a nap the next day. But then they find that they slept for longer than intended, making it harder to fall asleep the next evening and disrupting a healthy sleep cycle. I’ve even had some clients’ sleeping patterns get so irregular that they’ve practically become nocturnal. Instead of trying to catch up, go to bed the next day at your regular bedtime and wake up at your regular time to sustain your normal sleep patterns—and keep your circadian rhythm in balance.
06. Just Get Out of Bed
If you are tossing and turning and simply can’t sleep, it might be helpful just to get out of bed. As counterintuitive as it sounds, changing your environment can help your body reset and get back on track to falling asleep. When you are watching the clock instead of falling asleep, worry starts to kick in. Then, instead of feeling calm and sleepy, you’re thinking about all of the negative ways your sleepless night is going to impact you tomorrow. By going to a different room and engaging in a calming activity such as reading, listening to public radio, or doing a puzzle, you distract yourself from worry and allow your body to relax again. Avoid screens at all costs, as white and blue light wavelengths can prevent your body from producing melatonin, a hormone that helps control sleep and wake cycles.
Sleepless nights don’t have to become a regular unwelcome guest in your life. Instead of counting sheep, try these unconventional tips to help you reclaim a restful night’s sleep. Trust me, if you struggle with insomnia, it is possible to get a good night’s sleep.
Photo Credit: Erin Woody