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What is Insomnia and 10 Ways to Combat it

Let’s face it: sleep is something we all need to function and when we don’t get enough of it, we can feel pretty awful. Medical studies have shown us just how important sleep is for our overall functioning. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to higher risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, cognitive impairment, weight gain, weakened immunity, lower sex drive, depression and even car accidents.

So I got a bad night of sleep… How do I know if I have insomnia?

The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed.) classifies insomnia as a disorder that is given to people who experience poor sleep for at least 3 nights a week for 3 months. Poor sleep isn’t solely the total number of hours of sleep but also the quality of sleep you’re getting (i.e., how deeply you are sleeping). For instance, have you ever woken up and maybe not known where you were or what day it was? That disorientation is likely due to coming out of a deeper sleep. Some insomnia sufferers find that they have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or even both. Others might find that they frequently wake up in the middle of the night and aren’t easily able to return back to sleep.

For insomnia sufferers, sleep issues cause distress or impairment in important areas of everyday life. They might notice issues in their social, occupational, educational or academic lives. It’s important to note that in order to receive a diagnosis of insomnia, your sleep difficulties can’t otherwise be explained by another sleep disorder (i.e.., narcolepsy, sleep apnea, etc.), a mental health condition (anxiety etc.), medical condition (chronic pain, etc.) or from substance use (alcohol, medication etc.).

What can I do if I have sleep issues? Here are 10 strategies you can use:

1. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. 

This is an incredibly important first step! Try to establish a regular schedule by getting up and going to bed around the same time every day (yes, even weekends!). This will help your body maintain a rhythm and know when it’s time to wake up and go to sleep.

But what happens if I get a bad night of sleep or go to bed late the night before? 

Still get up at your regular wake up time! While it may seem challenging, if you can stick with your regular wake up time you will help your body maintain its circadian rhythm.

2. Don’t stay in your bed if you can’t fall asleep. 

While this may seem counterintuitive, you should actually get up and out of your bed and go to a different area of your home if you haven’t been able to fall asleep after 30 minutes.

But what do I do with myself in the middle of the night? 

As tempting as it is, try not to think about how much sleep (or lack therefore) that you’re getting. Instead, focus your mind on doing something relaxing (i.e., reading a book, drawing, meditating etc.) until you feel sleepy again. Once you feel sleepy again, feel free to return to your bed. The idea here is that when you’re in the bed you want to be asleep and not awake so that your brain doesn’t associate the bed with feeling alert.

What if I return to bed and STILL can’t fall asleep?

Repeat the process above. While it might feel aggravating, this is scientifically proven to work (academically it’s termed “stimulus control”).

3. Create a nightly routine & a “buffer zone” before bedtime. 

Try to establish a nighttime ritual and be sure to give yourself time to wind down after the day. Creating a “buffer zone” is basically allowing yourself a quiet time to relax prior to bed. It’s often hard for us to switch our brains from “on” to “off” quickly so allowing yourself enough time to do this will help you fall asleep when you’re ready for bed. Buffer zones can look different for each person but some ideas could include reading a book, listening to soft music, practicing meditation or prayer, taking a hot shower or bath or engaging in self-care (face masks, etc.).

4. Adjust your bedroom environment. 

Eliminating distractions and unnecessarily bright lights-especially at night-can help you fall asleep. Keeping your room quiet, dark and cool at nighttime can also help.

5. Use your bed only for sleeping.

Try your best to avoid doing anything aside from sleeping in the bed. As challenging as it may be, this includes eating, reading, watching TV, texting, TikToking, etc. in bed! Sex is the only exception.

6. Avoid daytime napping. 

While a 20 minute nap midday is unlikely to interfere with your sleep, avoid longer napping, especially in the afternoon or early evening! Naps decrease your sleep drive which can cause issues for you when you actually want to fall asleep at night.

7. Don’t stress, worry, or plan ahead while in bed.

Again, the idea here is to link “bed” with “sleep” in our brains. If we’re awake and alert enough to plan, organize or even stress about things while laying in bed we are accidentally creating a link between “bed” and “wakefulness” in our brains. Overall this can make it more challenging for us to actually fall asleep when we want to. If you find that you can’t shut your thoughts off, implement step #2 by getting out of the bed until you are sleepy and only then return to the bed. If you find that you continually struggle to turn your thoughts off, seeking a therapist to work through these thoughts can be incredibly helpful.

8. Turn your clock around. 

While this one might sound odd, physically turning the clock around so that you can no longer read the numbers can reduce anxiety and help you get better quality sleep. Have you ever found yourself laying in bed counting down the amount of hours of sleep you’ll get? We’ve all done it. However, focusing too much on the clock and counting the number of hours you’re getting that night will only further contribute to anxiety and can unfortunately keep you awake.

9. Plan your daytime activities.

What you do during the day can really make an impact on your sleep at night. Staying mentally active can prevent daytime fatigue and napping. Staying physically active (any type of exercise or movement) can help you sleep better at night. The main belief here is that exercise can lead to a buildup of adenosine which can help you sleep at night. Just try not to exercise too close to your set bedtime.

10. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and heavy eating too close to bedtime.

Avoid eating as well as drinking alcohol and caffeine too close to bedtime. Try to limit your caffeine consumption after noon (better yet-avoid caffeine entirely after noon). Similarly, limit your alcohol intake and do not consume alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime. Lastly, try to avoid eating heavy meals close to bedtime as well (light snacks would be the exception here).

Call to Talk to a Sleep Therapist Today!

While we hope these tips help, if you continue to struggle with sleep don’t hesitate to reach out for additional support. You’re not alone. Dr. Ruth Robbins is now offering evidence based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). Give us a call at (310) 453-8788 or fill out a contact form to speak with Dr. Robbins today so you can learn more about how CBT-I can help you finally sleep better.

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