Observing the rules of good sleep hygiene may not work as a standalone treatment for insomnia. But now that I’ve learned to manage my insomnia, I follow most of the rules because they help me maintain sounder, more regular sleep.
Some are especially helpful in preventing backsliding. They may help you, too.
Maintain a regular sleep routine.*
After sleeping when I could and all I could for decades, I finally faced the music: consistent bed and rise times were actually helpful to my sleep. Of the two, I think a consistent rise time is the more important. Getting up at the same time every day helps keep circadian rhythms synchronized and allows time enough for sleep pressure to build until it puts you to sleep and keeps you asleep at night.
But life isn’t as regular as clockwork. By the end of the week you may be feeling sleep deprived. To catch up on lost sleep, sleeping half an hour or even an hour later than usual on weekends may not throw your sleep off track.
But when I’m short on sleep, getting extra sleep at the beginning of the night (i.e., going to bed earlier than normal) works better than allowing myself to sleep late. That way, I catch up on lost sleep but avoid setting myself up for Sunday night insomnia.
Don’t watch TV or read in bed.*
If watching TV in the bedroom or reading in bed reliably puts you to sleep, you may want to ignore this rule. In an earlier blog post, I mentioned one sleep expert who finds that reading in bed is exactly the kind of soporific he needs to fall asleep.
For other insomniacs (I was one) engaging in wakeful activities in the bedroom does not reliably put us to sleep. On the contrary, activities such as reading or studying in bed lead to more wakefulness at night. Then anxiety about sleep starts creeping in.
“It’s midnight and I’m still not sleeping,” you may find yourself thinking. “It’s 1 a.m. . . . it’s 2.” If night after night things continue in this vein, simply being in bed starts to cause anxiety about sleep. But anxiety is not compatible with sleep. Insomnia, which may have begun as an occasional thing, becomes a permanent state of affairs.
It’s hard to unlearn this association between the bed and wakefulness and reprogram your brain to expect sleep. At a very minimum, it involves moving every activity except sleep (and sex)—reading, TV watching, grading papers—outside the bedroom, and leaving the bedroom if you find you can’t sleep.
Kicking and screaming, I finally managed to do it: learn to go to bed expecting to sleep rather than lying anxiously awake. And now that I’ve done it, I’m loath to go back. I follow this rule in both letter and spirit, using my bed only for sleep and sex. Period.
Exercise to promote good quality sleep.**
I was never quite a couch potato. I knew a sedentary lifestyle wasn’t healthy, so I jogged, hiked, or rode my bicycle the recommended 3 times a week.
It was when I started to keep a sleep diary that I noticed a correspondence between aerobic exercise and my sleep. After days when I exercised, I fell asleep more quickly and had good quality sleep.
Thirty minutes of vigorous exercise every afternoon hasn’t exactly turned me into a jock. But now I find a daily dose of exercise is something I crave. And when I can’t have it, I get fidgety and sometimes a little bit cross. I don’t fall asleep as easily or sleep as soundly that night.
So I build swimming or working out on the elliptical trainer into my days as regularly as I do my meals. It’s a small price to pay for holding insomnia at bay.
Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine.**
You may feel exhausted, but going straight to bed after a long, hard day can be a setup for insomnia. It was and is for me. So no matter how late I’m out or how absorbing my daytime activities are, I always make time for a wind-down ritual at the end of the day. Beyond incorporating the necessities (bathing, brushing teeth), a bedtime routine should be calming (no surfing the internet) and enjoyable (no washing the dishes).
Reading a novel works for me. Not only does it divert my attention away from the events of the day. Now that it’s habitual it also cues sleep. Suddenly I’m yawning and nodding over my book. After a few failed attempts to return to reading, it’s time to head to bed. I’m out in a flash.
If you’re a clock watcher at night, hide the clock.*
Viewing clocks at night makes me anxious. It’s another learned association, one I’ve never managed to break. So ever since going through sleep restriction (where I had to watch the clock, which drove my sleep anxiety sky high) at night I simply turn my clocks to the wall.
Observing these rules of sleep hygiene may not cure your insomnia. But once you’ve found a way to manage your sleep, it may keep your sleep more regular.
What change of habit has helped your sleep the most?