Six Tips for Overcoming Sleep Onset Insomnia

Poor sleeping conditions such as those found on planes can interfere with anyone’s sleep. But sleep onset insomniacs may find them particularly challenging, accustomed as we are to not falling asleep very quickly and being bothered by things that other sleepers readily tune out.

Why is it so hard for some insomniacs to fall asleep and what can help? Following are six ways to hold sleep onset insomnia at bay.

Poor sleep conditions compound the problem of sleep onset insomniaIt’s been 10 years since I experienced persistent sleep onset insomnia, but I was reminded of what my nights used to feel like when recently I took a red-eye flight on Spirit Airlines.

Conditions on that plane were not conducive to sleep: seats locked in the upright position; flight attendants whose nattering could be heard over the noise of the engines; dim lighting rather than darkness; kicks to my seat as the 6-footer behind me shifted around in his coach class cubicle; turbulence. I didn’t sleep a wink.

Conditions like these can interfere with anyone’s sleep. But sleep onset insomniacs may find them particularly challenging, accustomed as we are to not falling asleep very quickly and being bothered by things that other sleepers readily tune out.

Why is it so hard for some insomniacs to fall asleep and what can help? Following are six ways to hold sleep onset insomnia at bay.

What Brain Waves Reveal About Insomnia

Research has shown that people with insomnia have a different pattern of cortical activity as we’re drifting off to sleep. Compared with good sleepers, insomniacs are more prone to high-frequency brain waves in the sleep onset period. Once sleep onset has occurred, delta, or slow, waves take longer to appear. This is often taken as evidence of hyperarousal. At night, and possibly during the daytime as well, people with insomnia have higher levels of cortical arousal.

Results of recent study argue otherwise. Here, in the sleep onset period, sleep onset insomniacs were found to experience less high-frequency brain activity than sleep maintenance insomniacs (those who tend to wake up in the middle of the night). But the high-frequency activity in the sleep onset insomniacs took longer to decline. Authors of this study suggest that sleep onset insomnia may be the result of “some form of fast wakefulness inhibition” rather than an expression of cortical hyperarousal.

Relief for Sleep Onset Insomnia

Whatever may be the case, habits I’ve developed over the past 10 years enable me to fall asleep quickly now (barring nights when I’m trying to sleep on a plane). They may help you, too:

  1. Adopt a regular sleep schedule. Be especially regular about getting up at the same time every day—even on weekends. This can be a challenge if you have an erratic daytime schedule or an active social life. If you find you’re really sleepy, catch up on sleep by allowing yourself to go to bed somewhat earlier than normal rather than sleeping in late. The problem with sleeping much later than usual to catch up on sleep is that it sets you up for trouble falling asleep the next night.
  2. Break the association between your bed and wakefulness by reserving your bed (and the bedroom) for sleep and sex. Reading, TV and movie watching, surfing the net, playing video games—all this should happen outside the bedroom. Only go to bed when you’re sleepy enough to fall asleep.
  3. Exercise late in the afternoon or early in the evening. Exercise warms your body up. This triggers an internal cooling mechanism, and when your body is cooling down it’s easier to fall asleep. Aerobic exercise is best but rigorous strength training may work as well.
  4. Observe a wind-down routine in the hour leading up to bedtime. Have the same routine—shower, put on pajamas, brush teeth, read or look at picture books—every night. Your brain will learn to expect that this sequence of activities ends in sleep.
  5. If clock watching at night makes you anxious, turn your clocks to the wall starting at about 9 or 10 p.m. Use a backlit alarm clock on your bedside table—the kind that stays dark at night except when you press the button on top.
  6. If you have to fly at night, arm yourself beforehand with all the accoutrements I forgot to pack in my carry-on: neck pillow, eye mask, earplugs. As for Spirit Airlines, they may say they’re the company with the newest fleet of planes, but seats that keep you locked in an upright position do not lend themselves to a good night’s sleep!

If you often fly at night, what measures do you take to get a decent night’s sleep?

A Sleep-Friendly Bedtime Routine

A cardinal rule of sleep hygiene involves establishing a bedtime routine and here, I’m a believer. Even if I’m out till midnight, leapfrogging from a meeting or a party straight into bed is a setup for insomnia. I’ve got to have at least 45 minutes—better yet, an hour or more—to shift myself out of overdrive and into idling mode.

Here are some things to do in the run-up to bedtime to ease the transition between wakefulness and sleep.

Bedtime routine helps condition body and mind to expect sleepA cardinal rule of sleep hygiene involves establishing a bedtime routine and in this, I’m a believer. Even if I’m out till midnight, leapfrogging from a meeting or a party straight into bed is a setup for insomnia. I’ve got to have at least 45 minutes—better yet, an hour or more—to shift myself out of overdrive and into idling mode.

Here are some things to do in the run-up to bedtime to ease the transition between wakefulness and sleep.

Create a Healthy Sleep Environment

  1. Turn off devices with screens. The light they emit (and your proximity to it) may delay secretion of melatonin, a sleep-friendly hormone whose levels normally start to rise a couple hours before bedtime.
  2. Set the bedroom up for comfort in advance. Adjust thermostats, windows, or fans so that by the time you go to bed, the room temperature will be a little cooler than is comfortable during the daytime. Turn down the covers and set the alarm clock. Your sleep environment should be set up so that at bedtime, the only thing you have to do is slip between the sheets.
  3. Turn clocks to the wall. If you’re a sleep onset insomniac like me, clock watching at night will make you anxious—and anxiety is incompatible with sleep. Stay away from rooms with wall clocks.

Dial Down Stress

  1. Take an evening walk. High levels of circulating stress hormones prepare your body for action—not to slow down. Work the stress out with physical activity, even if it’s only walking around the house.
  2. Relieve tension with the help of a shiatsu massage pillow for 15 or 20 minutes.
  3. Do 20 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or yoga. All these activities help to reduce stress.
  4. Take a bath or a shower. Warmth relieves muscle tension. Warming the skin also increases your core body temperature, triggering an internal cooling mechanism conducive to sleep. In the summer months, lower your body temperature more quickly by taking a cool shower instead.

Immerse Yourself in a Relaxing Pastime

  1. Read an engaging book (but steer clear of books that are scary or upsetting), and keep a stash of them by your favorite chair. Or listen to a book on CD. If reading’s not your thing, stream movies on the TV (but not on the computer screen).
  2. Listen to mellow music or make music yourself (if you can do it without disturbing others).
  3. Page through photo albums, coffee table books, old National Geographics and Life magazines, or catalogs. Arresting images capture the attention quickly: they’re a good way to refocus your attention outside yourself.
  4. Do crafts: beading, needlework, scrapbooking, knitting, woodworking, leatherworking, macramé, or any other sedentary activity involving use of the hands.
  5. Keep a sketchpad and pencil next to your favorite chair and draw.
  6. Do crossword puzzles or play Sudoku or any other word game.
  7. Play Solitaire (with cards, not online).
  8. Work on jigsaw puzzles.

Once you’ve got a comfortable bedtime routine, stick with it. Going through the same routine night after night will condition your mind and body to expect sleep when it’s finally time to turn the lights out.

What type of activity helps you fall asleep at night?

Clocking the Hours at Night

Does the sight of a clock at night make you anxious?

Here’s my solution to that.

Clock watching at night fuels anxiety and insomniaA student once described to me the lengths he had to go to in order to get to work on time. He was in my night class, and he was always struggling to stay awake.

“I get up at 4 every morning,” he explained. Or, he added, he was supposed to get up at 4. But often he overslept the alarm. So he’d devised a system where he set four alarm clocks – one at the head, one at the foot, and one on each side of the bed, all facing toward him – to go off at the exact same time. That’s what it took to wake him up. This was one sleep-deprived man!

A quadrumvirate of alarm clocks standing sentry at my bed is my personal vision of hell. Never mind that the piercing clamor in the morning would blast me through the roof. What the mere presence of those clocks would do to my nights is even worse. Knowing that their luminous faces were trained on me like four sets of malevolent eyes, waiting for a flicker of my eyelids to broadcast the passing of time, would seal the deal: I’d never get to sleep at all.

Clock-watching and sleep don’t mix, I’ve discovered through the years. It’s not that otherwise I’m unaware that time is passing. It’s that coming fact to face with a clock at night triggers tension, a reflexive response I haven’t been able to shake despite the many ways I’ve succeeded in improving my sleep in recent years.

I’m not the only insomniac who feels this way. “When you have to work the next day, I think its hard not to watch the clock,” Liz said in an interview on the phone. “You try not to. But when the hours are rolling by, you start to count the hours you’ve got left. It gets to be 3 or 4 in the morning, and you think, ‘Christ, I’ve got to be up by 6!’ That is anxiety …

I’ve learned to turn the clock in my study to the wall an hour or two before bedtime. And the alarm clock on my bedside table is a Brookstone, one of those back-lit types that don’t shine in the dark unless you press down on the top. It’s a small thing, but it’s done wonders for my sleep.