We all need it, but most of us don’t get it the way we want, or enough of it.
I’m talking, of course, about sleep.
And with 1 in 3 adults not getting enough of it, it’s an important issue.
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
Long story short, if you’re not getting enough sleep, you will be slowly wearing down your mind and body. From the obvious tiredness, to heart disease, high blood pressure, looking old before your time, weight gain and a slower reaction time, sleeping properly is a basic element of looking after yourself and your mental health.
How I Went From Insomniac to a Regular 8 Hours A Night
As with all of my posts, the tips and advice I give is straight from my experience. Unlike depression or anxiety, the way that people experience insomnia (not being able to sleep) is pretty much the same:
- They can’t sleep at all, and feel tired the whole time (but not when it’s time to go to sleep, when they are wide awake),
- They sleep for very short amounts of time, sleep lightly, or getting to sleep is very difficult.
Most people will experience a combination of the two. Either way, it’s a horrible, frustrating experience.
And I should know. I’ve battled with insomnia on and off for the past 10 years.
Insomnia can be triggered by any number of things. For me, it began with stress – I was organizing a big, black tie ball at my university, and I needed to find $8000 in 3 days, or the event wouldn’t happen.
It was the first time in my life that I lay awake at night, listening to weird noises from my stomach and staring at my bedroom ceiling and having no idea what to do. The situation was so stressful, I couldn’t sleep, no matter what.
Other reasons I couldn’t sleep over the years have been:
- Exhaustion (this one was the worst- you’re so tired and need to sleep, but can’t)
- Trying to catch up on sleep at other times, and then not being able to sleep later
So I did some research, and came up with a sleep plan. And it took time. But finally, after a bit of practice and patience, I managed to work my way up to a regular 7-8 hours a night – even on a Sunday night. Nowadays, I even fall asleep on the sofa, watching a tv show or film!
The Sleep Plan: Change the Way you Sleep
Before I tell you how to do it, you need to know how not to do it:
Using this plan and changing the way you sleep takes practice. Your sleep patters won’t change overnight, but if you stick to this list, they will start to change pretty quickly – for me, it took about 3 or 4 nights until I saw an improvement. It took a full month before I was sleeping properly, every single night.
For other people who’ve followed my plan, it’s taken them as little as 2 weeks to see a regular improvement. If I could give you one tip, it’s that you shouldn’t expect your sleeping patterns to change immediately – and that if you stick to the plan below, you’ll see great results.
Let’s get you started. Here’s how I did it.
Have a Bedtime Routine
It may sound funny, but having a routine every night before bedtime helps you change the way you sleep.
Think about it – your mind likes repeated patterns. So why should preparing yourself for sleep be any different? Getting yourself into a habit before you go to sleep trains your mind to expect whatever you’ve trained it to.
A tip here: it’s best to have relaxing activities in your routine, rather than anything that risks you being too awake and energetic just before you go to sleep.
What worked for me: I tried a few things before I found the right routine, but after a few tries, I settled on having a hot shower, watching TV, then getting into bed and reading for an hour. This allows my mind and body to wind down in stages, no matter what has happened during the day.
Don’t Sleep in at Weekends
Following on from the above, it’s best to stick to your routine as closely as you can for the first month or so – and that includes at the weekends.
The bedtime routine mentioned above also applies to the morning after. If you’re used to having a certain wake up time during the weekday, once you’ve started sticking to a sleep routine, you’ll find you’re waking up at similar times at the weekend. This is how it should be.
Of course, if you still feel tired, feel free to sleep in a little longer – my general advice is for no longer than 1 – 1.5 hours longer than your weekday wake up time.
What worked for me: For the first 2 weeks of my bedtime routine, I noticed I was waking up at around the same time I did during the working week. At first I would go back to sleep for a few hours, but then find it hard to get back into my routine for Sunday night.
After a few more weeks of sticking to it, I noticed that my body started naturally making me sleepy at certain times – and waking me up refreshed in the mornings. So I went with it, and had no problem getting back into the swing on Sunday nights.
No Electronics in the Bedroom
This one is scientifically proven, but otherwise, the reason is simple: if your phone makes a noise, you are going to want to look at it.
Electronics such as smartphones and laptops emit blue light, which is not only harmful for your eyes – it tricks your brain into thinking it’s daylight, which alerts your brain to wake you up. The result is, every time you look a your phone or laptop, you’re telling your brain that it’s not the time to go to sleep.
You see where this is going…
What worked for me: I’m a self-confessed laptop and smartphone kinda gal. This one was the hardest habit to kick, so I did it gradually. if I was using my laptop for 2 hours before bed (or in bed), I slowly cut down to 1 hour of laptop and 1 hour of reading. Then, I cut down some more – 30 minutes of laptop and 1.5 hours of reading. After about a month, I was falling asleep with my face in my book!
The trick is to leave your laptop and phone outside your bedroom (especially on a cold night) and get so comfortable that you don’t want to leave- and to buy an alarm clock to use instead of your phone.
Have a Drinking and Eating Cut Off Time
This one is a neat little trick, which is common sense when you think about it – but one that most people don;t really see as something related to their insomnia.
Have you ever felt too full to go to sleep? Or had to get up from bed because you needed the bathroom, then couldn’t get back to sleep after?
You need a food and drink cut off time.
Before my sleep routine, I always noticed that I needed to pee just before bedtime, and sometimes I’d lie awake at night with a stomachache, as I had just eaten. Once I chose to put away the midnight pizza (yes, there was a lot of midnight pizza in those days) and to hold off on drinking things before bed, I could get to sleep quicker, and stay asleep longer.
What worked for me: Caffeine cut offs are important too. I will drink my last cup of coffee by 4pm (and none at weekends), and make sure I’ve eaten by 8.30pm at the very latest. My last drink will be by 9.30pm. Our bodies generally need around 2-3 hours to digest and process food, so giving yourself a 2-3 hour window before bed to deal lets your body deal with it. I also make sure to go to the bathroom before I settle into bed to read – it’s an important detail of my routine!
Make Your Room Sleep-Friendly
Help yourself out here – make your room be the best it can be for sleeping. That means –
- Close any gaps where light could come in and wake you up early,
- Make sure it’s as quiet as possible,
- No distractions, or anything which could wake you up in the night.
If light is coming through your curtains, buy some blackout material and attach it behind them. Try to find out where the light is creeping through, and find ways to block it out – a well-placed ornament or stuffed toy works wonders.
Having a quiet environment is important too – I ended up rearranging my bedroom, to put my cupboards against a wall shared with some very noisy neighbors lived. While it didn’t block them completely, it did reduce the noise by about 50% – and then I bought a white noise machine.
No distractions, means no distractions – so whether that’s a pet (who move around and can jump on you int he night, or demand attention), your phone or laptop (discussed above), this one is open to your interpretation.
What worked for me: I made a makeshift curtain for a small window which would wake me up when the sun rose, and I have given my cats a shift sleeping next to me while I’m reading – but as soon as it’s my bedtime, they’re in the living room.
Get the Temperature Right
Surprisingly, having the right room temperature is more important that the time you go to bed or how dark the room is. Because we lose body heat during sleep, you’d think that having a warmer room is a better idea, right?
Well no. It turns out, the colder we are, the more blankets we can use – which subconsciously comforts us, calming us down and making us more settled for sleep. So it’s always better to have your room a little on the cooler side.
This works both ways by the way – if you’re too cold, you’ll need to warm up a bit to make sure you’ll be sleeping without disturbance.
What worked for me: I’m freezing in the winter, so I wear a pair of socks and a hoodie over my pajamas. In the summer, I sleep with a standing fan – blowing into the room, but not directly at me, and always on low. I have it on timer so it comes on just before my bedtime, and switches off just after sunrise, which is the coolest hour of the day time.
Good sleep practices (‘sleep hygiene’) also relates to general personal hygiene. Having a shower as a part of your routine not only helps you wind down after your day, but also leaves you clean to get into bed, and keeps your bed a cleaner place.
This goes for your bedsheets and pajamas. Being in cleaner sheets and PJs will make you feel better – and anything that makes you feel better makes you sleep better, right?
What worked for me: I wash my bedsheets regularly – once a week, sometimes more if a cat has an accident, and I change my pajamas anywhere from 3 times a week to once a week, depending on the season.
Let Go of the Day
This one sounds tough, but if you get into the practice of it, it will become pretty easy!
Sometimes, we’re still irritated or mulling over something that happened to us earlier in the day. Maybe we’re stressed out about something happening tomorrow. Either way, it keeps us up at night and we lie awake thinking about it.
One way to let go of all these fears and anxieties is to write them down. That way, you’re literally transferring them from your head to the paper. Sometimes it’s good to add a little mantra as you do this, such as ‘I’m letting go of these things, I won’t think about them now’.
What worked for me: I say everything that’s bugging me out loud to my husband. He either gives advice on it, or acknowledges it’s not something I should be thinking about. He listens most of the time, by the looks of it.
Don’t Just Lie There
Look, I did mention at the beginning of this post that it won’t be an instant thing – this is something you have to stick to! And, for the first couple of days, and maybe even weeks, you might have nights where you can’t get to sleep, or cant stay sleep, and you’re going to be lying there awake. And that’s completely ok.
The best thing to do, is to give yourself ten minutes – don’t look at the clock (it will only stress you out) – but what feels like ten minutes (most insomniacs can count time without clocks) – and then go to another room. Try to avoid the TV (remember that blue light we discussed?) or anything that will make you more awake. The best bet is reading, or even writing down your thoughts.
What worked for me: I did find myself lying awake at night, and getting very frustrated. So I went to join the cats in the living room, read for a bit and then – and only then – when I felt like I might be able to sleep, did I go back to the bedroom. It took a few hours at the beginning, but that time soon got cut down. Then I wasn’t doing it at all. You should be training your brain to see the bedroom as a place for sleep.
And there you have it. A super-duper, tried and tested, long, step-by-step guide to changing the way you sleep for the better.
So tell me – did it work for you? Are you having any issues with the sleep plan? Let me know in the comments!
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Also published on Medium.