I have slept intermittently poorly for as long as I can remember. The main reason for this is that my brain is almost always operating in top gear and busy grinding on something. Furthermore, I have something called Restless Legs Syndrome, which makes my legs tingle in restlessness when I go to sleep, and this condition also reduces sleep quality.
When you sleep poorly, it affects your mood, your ability to concentrate, your willpower and your general well-being. That’s why I think one can say that sleep is perhaps the single most important factor impacting your well-being in life. That makes it all the more important to get a grip on your sleeping habits and to improve your sleep.
I have read a lot about the topic and experimented with myself for decades and am hence starting to get a pretty good overview of what helps for insomnia and what does not. Here are 7 steps you can take to improve your sleep:
1. Map your sleep problems
Sleep researchers say that sleep problems or insomnia isn’t a disease, but a symptom. If you sleep poorly, it is because of one or more underlying problems, and it is these underlying problems that needs to be addressed, not the insomnia itself. The most common reason for poor sleep is that you lie awake and think about problems and concerns, but it may also be that you have a disease that interferes with your sleep. You should consult a physician for help to determine the exact cause(s) of the problem. The doctor may also prescribe sleeping pills (for example, based on the natural hormone melatonin), which can help you overcome a particularly bad period of insomnia.
But you can also do a lot yourself in order to map your sleep. You simply fill in a form – a sleep log – where you rate the quality of sleep the night before and log how many hours you’ve slept. An helpful tool is to use an electronic activity monitor, which will automatically monitor your sleep patterns. These activity trackers are connected to an app or web page where you can monitor your progress over time.
When conducting a manual sleep log, also note down what and when you ate the day before, what mood you were in, whether you were stressed and worried, whether you exercised, the amount of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, etc. you’ve consumed. All these are things that can affect the quality of your sleep.
2. Try to relax about your sleeplessness
There is no doubt that it is sucks to sleep poorly, because of the above-mentioned consequences. But that said, it is not dangerous to sleep poorly, just uncomfortable. Prolonged sleep deprivation can cause damage to the mind and health (sleep deprivation is linked to depression, in a hen and egg-context), but these are usually not irremediable.
Do your best to relax when it comes to insomnia. Often, it is the panic over not sleeping that is the biggest obstacle in the way of good sleep. If you can manage to relax and imagine things will get better over time, you have already come a long way. Further down the list are techniques you can follow to help you do this. You can also read this post about getting rid of worries.
Using an activity tracker will also help here: The data collected by the device will often show you that you sleep more and better than you think. That will help relax a bit regarding your lack of sleep.
3. Cut down on stimulants, drugs, and monitors/screens
If you sleep poorly, you get tired, and that often resort to a craving for stimulants like coffee, tea, tobacco or sweets. This is a vicious circle as all of these agents interfere with your sleep. Cut down on tobacco, especially prior to going to bed.
The same goes for coffee, tea, and sweets. Set a time limit, for example 5 pm, when you take your last cup of coffee or smoke. Many people resort to drinking alcohol to relax before going to bed. Drop this habit too. It has been scientifically proven that alcohol reduces the quality of sleep, by disrupting the dopamine balance in the body (alcohol intake increases dopamine production, but then follows a collapse in dopamine levels a few hours later, and this collapse leads to bad sleep).
You should also cut down on watching TV, playing video games, checking social media and other screen activities before going to bed. All these activities will make it more difficult to sleep, partly because the brain interprets the light from the screens as daylight, giving you a signal to be more awake. Rather read a book or listen to calm music.
4. Take care of your sleep hygiene
Sleep hygiene is the degree of regularity in your sleep pattern. It is best for most people to go to sleep and get up in the morning at the same time every day. You know that you can catch up on your sleep deficit by sleeping longer on weekends, but this will also cause you to sleep less on Monday nights. People are different, and you can experiment to find out what works best for you (use the sleep log). Avoid taking a nap during the day, even if you are tired. It will definitely make it harder for you to fall asleep.
5. Exercise is good, but not right before you go to bed
In general, you sleep better when exercising regularly. At the same time, there is no doubt that training is invigorating, so it is not a clever idea to work out late at night. Rather find another time that works for you, in the morning for example, or right after work/school. Sleep specialist Peter Hauri recommends exercising 4-5 hours before your go to bed.
6. Learn to Meditate
People who sleep well are able to gradually calm down the part of their brain that is preoccupied with plans, worries, ideas, and other thoughts when nightfall starts. This is probably the biggest difference between those who sleep well and those who don’t. Therefore, it is very important that you learn relaxation techniques.
Meditation is easy, but it takes some effort to learn it. The effect on your sleep enhancement will be proportional to how good you are at meditating, and practice makes perfect. Find a course, buy a book or watch videos online. There are thousands of great tools to teach you how to meditate. Under Resources, you will find a recording that will teach you the meditation method Body Scan.
7. Use self-hypnosis
This summer I experienced a few weeks where my sleep suddenly became much worse. It took me some time to figure out why, but then I realized that I hadn’t used my sleep hypnosis for weeks. The reason was that I lost my phone in a nearby river, and on all my recordings were on that phone. (I was offline, so I couldn’t download it on the backup phone). Once I got the recordings back, my sleep improved extremely in a short period.
For me, these hypnosis recordings have become an integral part of a better-quality life because they really work. Thousands of other people do as well. I use them when necessary, but on average 3 to 4 times a week. And that’s all it takes from me to sleep relatively well.
Good luck and sleep well!