It’s 3am and you’re staring at the ceiling. Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen has 9 drug-free ways to get back to sleep now.
For me, after a night of tossing and turning, my sheets look like a preschooler had a nightmare and my bedhead would spark envy in a Brooklyn hipster. Insomnia plagues us all from time to time, but chronic insomnia is a problem for one in 10 Americans.
We all know the tips for long-term better sleep, including going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, avoiding rigorous exercise before bed, and turning down caffeine and alcohol before turning in. But at 3am, long-term solutions aren’t what we need. If these words are reaching your bleary eyes in the wee hours, here are 9 things you can do right now to get back to sleep:
- Write it out. When a worry or tomorrow’s to-do list is swirling through your head, get it out of your brain and onto paper. Keep paper and pen by your bedside for quick middle-of-the night scrawling.
- Dog tired? Kick out the furry friend. You love Fido. You love Mittens. But when a pet shares your bed, sleep suffers. The Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Center found that 53% of pet owners report sleep disturbance from a pet every night.
- Get up. It’s counterintuitive, but if you’ve stared at the ceiling for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed. Avoid associating your bed with wakefulness.
- Minimize environmental distractions. Upstairs neighbors just brought home a newborn? Overly-twitchy car alarm down the street? Run a fan to create white noise. Wear earplugs. Try an eye mask to block out light. Turn off your smartphone. Most importantly, turn off the TV. Better yet, carry it out of the room permanently.
- Ignore the clock. Repeated clock-checking will only make you anxious and exasperated. Turn your alarm clock to face the wall.
- Don’t lose sleep over lost sleep. Ironically, thinking about insomnia keeps you awake. Thoughts such as, “I’m going to be a disaster tomorrow,” or “This is totally going to ruin my day,” are stimulating and compound the problem. Approach your insomnia with resigned composure. Yes, you’ll probably be tired tomorrow. No, you won’t be in top form. But you’ve handled sleepiness before and you can manage. Tomorrow night you can catch up.
- Do something non-stimulating. Do a crossword puzzle or Sudoku. Read (on paper—see the next tip). As long as it’s soothing, or better yet, boring, you’re on the right track. For goodness’ sake, don’t check your work email, pay bills, or research the projected cost of college for your teenager.
- No 3am screen time. Your laptop, TV, tablet, smartphone—even energy-efficient lighting—emits blue light that suppresses melatonin, the hormone that influences circadian rhythms and facilitates sleep. Restrict yourself to (gasp!) paper in the middle of the night. In dim light, write in a journal, read a real book, or flip through a magazine. See also: Can't Sleep? Blame the Tablet
- I Wear My Sunglasses at Night: If you absolutely must watch TV or get online, try wearing a pair of glasses that block blue light.
Talk to your doctor if insomnia persists. It may be a sign of a sleep disorder, depression, chronic anxiety, or another primary problem. Some medications for colds, allergies, depression, or high blood pressure may also interfere with sleep.
But tonight, once your head start to nod or the yawns set in, put on some warm socks (improving circulation to your extremities hastens sleep), turn down the thermostat (facilitating the drop in core body temperature that induces sleep), and head back to bed. If you’re still watching the ceiling in about 20 minutes, get up and try again, but chances are, you’ll be snoozing away, happily watching the inside of your eyelids.
Onen, S.H., et al. (1994). Prevention and treatment of sleep disorders through regulation of sleeping habits. La Presse Medicale, 23 (10): 485-9.
Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Ellen graduated from Brown University, earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. In her clinic, she treats everything from depression to trauma to panic, but she has a special place in her heart for anxiety disorders. Ellen is also an active research scientist and develops therapy programs for individuals and families living with chronic illness. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons, ages 5 and 2. ;
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.