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

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.