A Survival Guide for Insomnia

Everybody does it, but not everyone does it well. Sleep is an important aspect of our overall health and non-restorative sleep can have implications on both work and play, as it affects how we think, feel and behave. Thirty-three percent of Canadians sleep less than the recommended hours per night for optimal emotional and physical health (Statistics Canada, 2017). Sleep issues can present as either having problems falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up well before your alarm clock and being unable to fall back  to sleep. Those who experience recurrent poor sleep that interferes with their daily functioning may meet diagnostic criteria for insomnia, a disorder that affects approximately 13% of Canadians (Morin et al., 2011).

When you’re not getting much sleep, you can start to believe that getting good sleep is completely out of your control. Some things such as working long or overnight shifts, environmental conditions, personality traits, pain and some disorders can make sleeping more difficult. While getting back to sleeping like a teenager on summer break isn’t always realistic, the following are some strategies to help you get the best sleep:

  • The 20-minute rule. If while in bed you cannot sleep within 20 minutes of laying down, get up and do a light activity such as meditation or reading, then return to bed when you feel as though you are minutes away from falling asleep. Upon wakening, get out of bed and don’t linger. Essentially, the bedroom should be kept only for intimacy and sleep; that means no television, video games, or reading while in bed. Doing activities in bed trains your brain to be awake in bed. Keeping the bed only for sleeping, trains your brain to be asleep in bed.
  • Power down. Having a bedtime routine cues your body that it is time to settle, allowing for an easier transition into restful sleep. Consider light stretching, drinking non-caffeinated tea, having a warm bath or listening to a meditation as some things that can be part of your nightly routine. This, in combination with going to bed and waking up at the same time, can help improve your chances of restful sleep.
  • Create an oasis. When it comes to your bedroom environment make sure to darken the room (blackout curtains will help), choose a mattress that is comfortable, keep your room temperature below 23°C, and layer your bedding so you can adjust as needed. If you have a partner and cannot agree on a bed that is comfortable, there are some beds on the market that allow you to customize the firmness of either side.
  • Sound the alarm. Technology is here to stay, so how do we make technology our friend at bedtime? There are specific apps that have meditations or bedtime stories that can help you relax or fall asleep (check out Calm.com). Some cell phones also have a “Night Shift” option to adjust to warmer colours in the evening automatically. In addition, there are alarm clocks designed to mimic a sunrise, which provide a more natural wake-up rather than the blaring sounds of your alarm clock (check out this list for the most popular wake-up clocks for 2018). For those who struggle to stay away from your phone at night, try the Do Not Disturb setting to limit late night texts or notifications.
  • Shift for shift work. Shift work disrupts sleep…period. While on shift, keep lights bright, nap if you can, exercise on the worksite, and keep your caffeine intake limited to the early evening. When ready for sleep, ensure your bedroom is an oasis (see above) – blackout blinds are a must, white noise can help, and keep your sleep routine consistent no matter when your “nighttime” is.
  • Worry well. Does it ever feel like just as you lay in bed your mind starts racing about stressors and things to do in the day ahead? Research suggests that writing in a journal for five minutes before bed will help to clear your emotions and settle your scattered mind. Even more helpful in easing nighttime worry is writing a to-do list for tomorrow.
  • Workout wisely. When exercising, engage in vigorous exercise earlier in the day (before 3pm). In the evening, keep exercise to light activities such as walking or yoga.
  • Avoid naps. Napping reduces the need for sleep at night. If you must nap, nap as early in the day as possible (e.g., before 3pm) and keep it to 30 minutes or less. Most people believe they need to make up for poor sleep the night before but this is false as your body will do this naturally overtime.
  • Be substance savvy. What we intake can affect our sleep, including medication, drugs, and other substances. There is a common misperception that alcohol helps with sleep, but in actuality it contributes to frequent wakening throughout the night and non-restorative sleep. Stimulants will also interfere with sleep so limiting nicotine in the evening should help, as should refraining from drinking caffeine in late afternoon/evening. If you think your medications may be impacting your sleep, speak with your doctor as there may be benefits to taking your medication at a different time.
  • Snack smart. Having a light snack before bed can help with sleep onset. There are several foods that have been researched to help with sleep onset including milk, cheese and peanut butter.

Improving sleep takes time so it is important to be patient and keep consistent. Try not to get into the mindset of worrying about sleep as ruminating about whether or not you are getting enough sleep will actually interfere with your sleep. If you continue to struggle with achieving restorative sleep, consult with a psychologist or family doctor, either of whom can assist you with finding ways for a more restful night’s sleep. At YEG Psychology, Dr Janice Dicks is experienced in utilizing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I).