Managing Stress: 6 Good (And 5 Bad) Things To Do When You Can’t Sleep
When my insomnia hit the other night, I did everything wrong.
I’d managed to work myself up about something before bed, but because I have the stamina of a toddler when I’m upset, I tired myself out quickly and crashed hard around 11:30pm. Then, at 4:30am, my brain went on like a light. There I was, in that strange time when “tonight” becomes “tomorrow” and the last thing in the world you should be doing is witnessing it. (Unless of course you’re doing something really fun—which I wasn’t. I was lying there with looping thoughts, the lights on, a search window open on my laptop, and Twitter fired up on my phone…)
We have written plenty about sleep hygiene here. We polled you once to find out how much you sleep (a lot!); we asked you guys to share your bedtime rituals with us (they were great!); we’ve explored how sleep can help your looks (duh); and we’ve covered ayurvedic principles about sleep before, as well.
But isn’t it funny (dumb) that no matter how much you know about the Right Thing To Do for your wellbeing, it’s often exactly when you need that advice the most that it escapes you?
With that in mind, here’s a primer, filled with things you already know, on the best and worst things to do when you can’t sleep. Obviously this advice is highly subjective. Where appropriate, we’ve mentioned some actual science to back us up. And, as always, we want your tips in the comments.
1. Tweeting, emailing, checking your stocks, approving comments on your blog etc. Research shows that light-emitting devices can suppress the production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin—which means when you wake up to check your cell, or simply have it on blinking at you from the bedside table, you’re sending signals to your brain that it isn’t time to chill out. Turn them off, use airplane mode, or put them on the other side of the room. When you wake up, try your best not to check them.
2. Watching scary TV shows. I can’t watch scary things at night anymore without getting nightmares and waking up a lot. Granted I’m on the sensitive side (cough), but there is good research that shows how disruptive this can be. It can spike stress hormones in the body and put you in an excited state (not the good kind) that doesn’t bode well for rest. Some people can watch anything before bed and fall asleep, but if you wake up in the middle of the night and decide to flip on the tube, maybe don’t try to catch up on a season’s worth of Boardwalk Empire?
3. Turning on the light. This actually can be a good thing (see below), but in general, if you wake up and have to pee or you stand a chance of falling back asleep fairly quickly, don’t turn on the lights or lift up your black-out blinds. (You all have black-out blinds, right? If not, you should! They’re super cheap at Ikea and make a world of difference.) For the same reasons you want to avoid electronics, you also want to avoid turning on the lights: It tells your brain that it’s time to be awake by suppressing sleep hormones. Pas bon.
4. Drinking booze. We’ve all seen the research about nightcaps actually disrupting sleep, and here’s why: It robs you of REM and the other, deeper stages of sleep—which are the ones that make you feel most rested. A glass or two of wine can make you feel nice and relaxed, and that can be sleep-promoting, but drinking too close to bedtime (not to mention in the middle of the night) should probably be avoided.
5. Just lying there freaking out. If you’re past the point of no return—meaning you can just tell you won’t be falling back asleep any time soon—do something else. You can go ahead and break rule number 3 here. Get up and do something, anything, until you feel sleepy again.
1. A cup of herbal tea or some aromatherapy. Many herbs—chamomile, lavender, valerian root—have been shown in research (and by wise grandmothers) to make you sleepy. Similarly, jasmine has a sedative effect when inhaled, as do Hope Gillerman’s Sleep Remedy and Essence of Vali‘s. Just be sure to do your research and/or check with your doctor before you start dosing yourself. Nature makes some very powerful plants
2. Reading something you’ve read before. This works wonders for me. A yogi and a nerdy scholar at heart, I have been rereading The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for years now. Here’s why it works: When you read things you are already familiar with, it doesn’t stimulate your mind with new information the way an exciting novel or a piece of nonfiction would. In fact, it has the opposite effect of comforting you with information you already possess, and, well, kind of boring you.
3. Meditate. A tough sell at 4am, I know, but it helps quiet the mind and ready you for more sleep. Our tips are here—and the compassion meditation is an especially nice one to do because it puts your focus on people you love. You could also try listening to recordings of meditations by Pema Chodron (or someone else, but man is she good). You can break rule number 1, above, for this one, obviously.
4. Do some yoga. Nothing too vigorous, but some poses have been shown to promote sleepiness. There’s a nice list over here.
5. Wake up your buddy and chat and/or have sex. This requires a forgiving and generous significant other, but if you have one, and you know they won’t mind hearing what’s on your mind and helping you simmer down, this can be very helpful. As for sex, just bear in mind that for some people, sex is sleep inducing (for example, every single man who ever walked the earth*) and for others it’s sleep inhibiting.
6. Pretend it’s already tomorrow. If you’re really stuck, try pretending it’s not 4am but 8am and it’s time to get ready for work or school. Take a shower, brush your teeth, drink some water—but be sure to skip the coffee. It sounds nuts but this has worked for me! At some point, when you’re going through the motions, something in your mind will click and you’ll think: “This is totally insane. I should be asleep right now.” And then maybe, just maybe, you will be.
Your turn! What are your tips: What’s the best—and worst—things one can do when one can’t sleep?
* I kid! Sort of.