What Do The Experts Do When They Can’t Sleep?
The typical sleep latency time (the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep) is between 10–20 minutes. Anyone who goes over that threshold regularly is probably familiar with the frustration not being able to fall asleep can bring. And when many of us toss and turn night after night, we often develop our own rituals and processes to help us get some shut-eye.
Knowing that sleep and temperature make great bedfellows, I usually head to bed with the fan on—and no snuggling under the covers. My goal is to drop my body temperature so that sleep comes quickly. I’m a sleep science coach, that’s my process, and it works. But one night I wondered, what do other sleep experts do when they can’t sleep? So I asked. Here are the sleep tips they shared.
They don’t make a mountain out of a molehill
Expert advice: Dan Ford, a sleep psychologist specializing in insomnia treatment for The Better Sleep Clinic, says, “The most important thing about being awake at night is to remember that it’s your body’s way of telling you that it doesn’t need the sleep right now. I remind myself that effort will not get me back to sleep, and I consciously choose to go with the flow of being awake. I also remind myself that if you don’t sleep well one night, you’ll just be sleepier and sleep better in the next few nights, so there’s no need to stress. I make no effort to get back to sleep, as my body will allow that to happen if I’m sleepy, and I find something else to do (read, get on with some professional development, self-care (stretching), whatever).
Ford goes on to tell Sleepopolis that if you switch activities, the setting doesn’t matter (you can stay in bed or get up); the point is to dial down your stress about being awake. Also important— make sure you get up at the same time, no matter how much or how little sleep you get.
“If I think I’ll be fatigued or sleepy the next day, I don’t catastrophize; I just think ahead about strategies that will help me get through the day while not impacting my next night’s sleep.” Ford goes on to tell Sleepopolis that exercise and sunlight first thing in the morning, a cup of coffee or cold water during a meeting, and a 10-minute nap (if necessary) are all a part of his strategy.
Expert advice: Stephen Light, certified sleep science coach and CEO/Co-Owner of Nolah Technologies, says, “If I can’t fall asleep within about 20 minutes, I get out of bed and do something relaxing that takes my mind off of work and other responsibilities. [Doing something relaxing] also distracts me from the anxiousness of knowing that no matter how long it takes me to fall asleep, I still have to wake up at 6:00 AM. Usually, I’ll read a book for about half an hour or until I start to feel tired. Then, I get back in bed and start the body scan meditation technique.
Usually, this process works, and I fall asleep before finishing my mental body scan. If I don’t fall asleep within half an hour or so of finishing the meditation, I’ll get out of bed again and repeat.”
Just as its name implies, body scanning is a type of meditation where you mentally scan every part of your body, moving from your feet to your head, all the while paying attention to tension, tightness, pain, or any other type of sensation. For an in-depth explanation of the technique, Light suggests Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action.
More expert advice: Of course, there are many different ways to bring meditation into your nightly routine. Christine Brown, founder of Bella Luna Family, says, “Not being able to sleep doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I always turn to sleep meditation. I put on my blue light blocker glasses with red lenses before I pick up my phone so the blue light doesn’t tell my body to suppress my melatonin production. Then I open the Peloton app and find a 10-30 minute sleep meditation. I rub lavender lotion into my hands, turn to my comfy spot, and then focus on my breath and the meditation. Almost 100% of the time, I am asleep or back to sleep before the meditation is over! My favorite meditation teacher on the app is Ross Rayburn!”
They get up and do something else
Expert advice: Internationally recognized expert on sleep and health, and advisor to Sleep Reset, Dr. Michael Grandner, says, “Everybody has trouble sleeping sometimes. For me, if I have an early morning flight, I will probably have a rough night of sleep. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I will give myself 15-30 mins to fall back asleep, but if it’s not meant to be, I just get up. I will usually do something like clear out my spam folder or do some boring puzzles, read, or watch an episode of a show I’m interested in. Something relatively quiet and not too interesting. Then I will either head back to sleep or just start the day. I know that one rough night won’t throw off my day too much anyway, so it’s fine. I know I’ll sleep fine the next night.”
Grandner says stimulus control and ensuring your bed is reserved for its intended purpose is crucial. “The key, for me, is that I am pretty rigorous about stimulus control. I don’t do screens in bed,” he says. “When I get into bed, I try falling asleep right away, and in the morning, I don’t linger. I am so conditioned to sleep in a bed that I very rarely have trouble falling asleep, no matter what situation I am in.”
They purge their racing thoughts (and a little lavender pillow spray never hurt anyone)
Expert advice: Cynthia McKay, JD, MA, LAC, MFT, says, “As a therapist, I am constantly working on minute details regarding treatment plans, letters to the courts, charting, etc., and can easily miss something that could cause concern and wake me in the middle of the night. With only a nightlight (light suppresses Melatonin), I journal all of the unresolved issues that might interrupt my sleep. Once I put my “worries” in writing, I know that I can approach those issues in the morning. I then capture a strong night of sleep with the addition of 10 mg of melatonin. I also spray my pillow with lavender, which helps stimulate sleep after a tumultuous day at work.”
Incidentally, research shows that sleep journaling (even a simple to-do list) can be beneficial for sleep. “Knowing that your ideas and concerns are addressed by placing them on paper allows your subconscious to find peace and get a good night’s rest,” says McKay.
They don’t try too hard, and boring thoughts help…
Expert advice: Therapist Jason Dean says, “On the behavioral front, I take the standard approach of not trying too hard. If sleep isn’t commencing after 20 minutes or so, gentle activity (reading, a short walk) can help reset things before settling back down. The activity shouldn’t be screen/phone based.” Overall, Dean tries to stick to activities that guide his mind toward more boring thoughts.
Not sure how to have boring thoughts? Dean offers the following food for thought. “A specific trick that works well for me: I close my eyes and visualize the previous day. I step through the small detail of waking up, going to the bathroom, brushing my teeth, noticing the weather, etc. This gently guides my flow of thoughts but is sufficiently boring, and reflecting on all the small things I accomplished has a tiring effect.” Dean adds, “When I recommend this method to clients, I make the suggestion that they are unlikely to get as far as lunchtime.”
They drink chamomile tea
Expert advice: Edibel Quintero, a doctor with HealthInsider, says, “Whenever I struggle with sleeping, I drink a cup of chamomile tea. The chamomile plant contains apigenin, an antioxidant that attaches itself to the brain receptors and reduces anxiety while providing a sense of drowsiness. In addition to inhibiting the release of the stress hormone (cortisol), chamomile tea also gives a boost to the hormones (serotonin and melatonin) that promote a happy mood and better sleep. Chamomile tea is also beneficial for relieving headaches and migraines, resulting in better sleep.”
The last word from Sleepopolis
Everyone has trouble sleeping from time to time. And while a few restless nights may not be anything to worry about, you may consider speaking with your doctor or a sleep specialist if your sleepless nights begin to bleed into your day. Until then, give our expert sleep tips a try—you never know which one might make all the difference.
Sharon Brandwein is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and a freelance writer. She specializes in health and beauty, parenting, and of course, all things sleep. Sharon’s work has also appeared on ABC News, USAToday, and Forbes. When she’s not busy writing, you might find her somewhere curating a wardrobe for her puppy.