By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
For you the idea of sleeping well might be as far-fetched as a unicorn sighting. And in our productivity-driven society, sleep is usually the first thing to get sacrificed.
So many of us believe we need to focus on our priorities that we forget sleep is actually one of them.
“Prioritizing sleep is important to overall health and quality of life,” said Mary Rose, Psy.D, clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep specialist at Baylor College of Medicine.
Here are 14 ways you can improve the quantity and quality of your sleep.
Go beyond the eight-hour rule. We often hear that eight hours is a must. However, it’s actually an average, and you might need more or less to function optimally, according to Allison T. Siebern, Ph.D, a clinical instructor and sleep specialist at the Sleep Medicine Center at the Stanford School of Medicine. Interestingly, it’s not uncommon for Siebern to see patients at her clinic who sleep five to six hours and whose family or friends are worried that they’re not getting enough sleep. But in reality, “The individual has no daytime impairments, feels optimal during the day, has slept this amount of hours most of their adult life and if they try to stay in bed longer to sleep they don’t.” The takeaway? Pay attention to the amount of sleep that’s best for you.
Stop trying. Many people try to force themselves to fall sleep, especially if they have insomnia. However, because sleep is a biological process, Siebern said that it can’t be forced. In fact, “oftentimes short-term strategies of ‘trying to achieve’ sleep may actually maintain insomnia in the long-term.” Instead, focus on rest. Siebern suggested engaging in an activity that helps you relax, “rather than doing something with the expectation that it will put you to sleep.”
Don’t compensate for sleep loss. According to Siebern, avoid trying “to ‘catch up’ on sleep by going to bed earlier or staying in bed later than [you] typically do when the insomnia is not present.” That’s because “this can work against how sleep is regulated and can lead to more frustration.”
Take inventory of your habits. There are some essential rules for sleeping well such as keeping a “routine, with regard to a set wake and sleep time,” and “finding ways to relax at least one hour prior to bedtime,” according to Rose.
And then there are the rule breakers, which sabotage your sleep. These include drinking caffeine before bed, working in bed and watching TV in your room. If this sounds familiar, try to banish these sleep stealers.
Understand that sleep changes. Bad habits aren’t always to blame — even if your sleeping problems are recent. “Our sleep needs and the quality of our sleep changes over time,” and we “may become more sensitive to disruption at different times in our life,” Rose said. Many factors can trigger this, including age, hormones, (e.g., menopause), illness, injury, stress and environmental changes, she said.
Cultivate healthy habits. According to Rose, there are various ways you can “build your sleep drive,” such as avoiding naps, exercising during the day and keeping your room dim at bedtime.
Zero in on daytime worries. We tend to take our daily troubles to bed with us. If you’re experiencing anxiety during the day, it’s likely that this angst is affecting your sleep. “Many of my patients have daytime anxieties with work and their families which they have not resolved in the daytime,” Rose said.
At first, though, your worries might not be so obvious. “Often patients report that they are thinking about unimportant things while trying to sleep — but when they reconsidered and monitor their thoughts more proactively — they often discover that larger issues they have not yet resolved are at play,” she said.
So try to dig deeper to “identify and manage worrisome thoughts that may be magnifying nighttime anxiety and inability to wind down.”
Keep a sleep journal. This can help you better understand what’s keeping you up at night. Specifically, a sleep diary helps you track sleeping patterns, daily habits and thoughts, Rose said.
You can track what time you go to bed, how long it takes you to fall asleep, if you wake up during the night and when you finally wake up, Rose suggested. Also, record medication and alcohol and caffeine use.
One caveat: If you’re writing down your thoughts, Rose suggested waiting until the morning because “waking to record thoughts can be arousing.”
Pinpoint what you’d like to change. Before starting insomnia treatment, Rose suggested identifying your reasons for wanting change and thinking about the specific aspects of your sleep you find dissatisfying. Even if you aren’t experiencing insomnia, it can help to figure out precisely the issues you’re having so you can work on them.
Evaluate your work schedule. The two greatest sleep saboteurs? According to Rose, it’s “long work hours and busy schedules.” Consider how you can adjust your schedule to improve your sleep. Sleep deprivation can have serious consequences. It’s “a significant cause of accidents in those working excessive hours” and “may also magnify some health conditions and worsen mood,” she said.
Help your teen. For many teens the early school day can take a big toll on their sleep, Rose said. In fact, in some cities sleep specialists and parents have persuaded schools to start later. When that’s not possible, Rose suggested that “parents should educate their children and teens about the importance of adequate sleep, remove distractions such as phones and TVs from the bedroom and encourage earlier sleep times.”
Challenge and change disastrous thinking. “Often those with insomnia invest a great deal of their energy into catastrophic thinking about the impact of sleep loss such as ‘I will lose my job’ or ‘I will get sick’ even if they have very little evidence of either as an imminent danger,” Rose said. While it’s fine to acknowledge that a sleepless night is frustrating and you won’t be feeling your best, avoid making matters worse by magnifying the impact. This helps in “disempowering insomnia.”
Suffer from insomnia? Consider cognitive behavioral treatment for insomnia (CBTi). “Sleep hygiene guidelines are good preventative strategies,” like seeing the dentist for a cleaning, Siebern said. But sometimes, a cleaning isn’t enough, and you need a filling. Siebern likens to getting a filling.
CBTi is a brief empirically supported nonpharmacological treatment that’s “grounded in the science of sleep medicine, the science of behavior change and psychological theories,” she said.
Randomized studies that have directly compared CBTi to sleep medication have found that CBTi has comparable efficacy and even longer-term benefits, Siebern said.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine Practice Parameters and National Institutes of Health Consensus also recommend CBTi.
Seek a specialist. If you think you have a sleep disorder, seek out certified sleep centers and professionals certified in behavioral sleep medicine, Rose suggested. To find a specialist, visit the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Also, keep in mind that there’s no “one-size-fits-all approach” when treating sleep disorders, Siebern said. For instance, at the Stanford Sleep Clinic, the sleep specialist physicians and psychologists work as a team to educate each patient about his or her treatment options to decide the best approach.