If you’re currently experiencing insomnia symptoms and are feeling anxious, worried or unsure what to do about it, then please read this mini guide to find out what you can do about it in the short term. Though bear in mind that the best thing you can do about insomnia is to seek help and speak to someone about it and not suffer in silence. These tips are just here to help you in the meantime.
This simple guide contains small but effective tips that are all backed by scientific evidence to help you get a restful night. Even if sleep seems out of reach, there are always things you can do to help. But be aware these tips are not magical solutions and won’t necessarily resolve your insomnia. See them more as small things you can do right now to help.
Other than arguably taking sleeping pills or being completely exhausted from a lack of sleep, there’s nothing that’ll definitely make you fall asleep. Hence these tips are designed to help you rest at night and not to directly make you fall asleep. If you follow them with the expectation they’ll make you fall asleep, they’ll just leave you feeling frustrated if they don’t ‘work’, like all the other things you’ve probably already tried. To be clear, being able to better rest at night is the aim here, not falling asleep, although you may find this happens as a by-product.
Insomnia is like quicksand
Attempting to control sleep and make it happen is like struggling in quicksand, it makes everything worse, costs lots of energy and becomes the only thing you can focus on. When insomnia symptoms happen our natural reaction is usually to struggle with the problem and try to force sleep. Unfortunately this tends to perpetuate the symptoms and can make sleep worse.
Instead when you do find yourself in quicksand what you’re meant to do is paradoxically lie back and stop moving your body, to stop you from sinking even deeper, and then wait for help. The solution for insomnia is similar: dropping the struggle with sleep; being open towards wakefulness and accepting of it; and getting help with the issue, such as through Acceptance & Commitment Therapy.
What to do in the moment for insomnia
1. Stay in bed
If you’re tossing and turning, let go of the urge to get up and watch TV, go on your phone or start work early. It’s easy to give up on sleep when you’re lying there wide awake and it might seem like a good distraction or helpful to do something else. However, firstly sleep is more likely to happen when you’re actually lying in bed at night. Secondly, leaving the bed can reinforce to your mind that you can’t sleep, sleep is currently a problem for you, you’ve given up on it and you’re unable to tolerate lying in bed awake, all of which possibly adds to the problem.
2. Rest, don’t struggle
What should you do if you can’t sleep? Rest! Struggling and trying too hard to sleep will only make things worse. It’s like a tug of war competition: the more you try and pull sleep towards you, the harder it pulls in the opposite direction. Instead, despite the worries your mind is having, try to rest like you’re having a nap and enjoy the comfort of your bed. Just close your eyes, notice that you’re actually safe and okay, and experience the pleasant sensation of lying down and napping.
This simple act can help restore your energy, as resting is a second best to sleep. Only if things get too dark or depressing is it a good idea to briefly leave the bedroom, but otherwise, aim to rest in bed through the night.
3. Be open to being awake
Although we naturally think of beds as places we should be asleep in, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to fall asleep. Instead go to bed with the intention of resting rather than sleeping. Be open to the possibility of being awake at night and the difficult feelings that may come with this, as opposed to hoping for this not to happen.
By reducing the pressure you put on falling asleep, you’ll enjoy resting in your bed more and be more content being awake. Even if you don’t sleep you won’t have been struggling to sleep so much or beating yourself up about it, making the night less bothersome. Recognise that your bed is probably a lovely place to be awake in, comfortable, safe and warm. Remember, even good sleepers sometimes lie awake at night, and that’s okay. Paradoxically the less you try to sleep the more likely it becomes.
4. Stick to your plans
Bad night? It’s tempting to cancel the next day’s activities, fearing you’ll be too tired to do anything. But even after a bad night’s sleep, try to get out of bed at a normal time and carry on with your plans for the day. It’s tempting to sleep in or put things off in the morning in an attempt to give yourself more time to sleep, but it’s best to avoid this.
Essentially don’t let a lack of sleep hold you back in life. You’ll probably function fine, perform better than you think and would most likely regret cancelling the plans. It might feel hard, but you have the ability to live your life despite the bad thoughts and feelings that come with poor sleep. People without insomnia, who have the odd bad night don’t usually let that bad night of sleep dictate their day and neither should you.
5. Keep to your normal routine
After a poor night’s sleep, you might be tempted to change your routine around sleep, such as by going to bed early, sleeping in late or trying new sleep tips and hacks. When something bad happens to us in life our natural reaction is to try to fix it and we often end up googling it.
When you google for sleep advice it typically just brings up sleep hygiene stuff and methods to help you relax. These aren’t likely to help that much, despite their promise, and might even make things worse by making you focus too much on sleep. So stick with your normal routine, as there’s probably nothing wrong with it.
6. Be kind to yourself
Having trouble sleeping doesn’t mean something is wrong with you or that you’ve done something wrong. Bad sleep happens to many people and when it does often our natural reaction is to blame ourselves or others for it.
Insomnia can be a very stressful experience which naturally makes us become quite harsh critics of ourselves and others. But these thoughts aren’t helpful and it’s always better to be kinder to yourself and others in these situations. Remember that sleep isn’t something you can force but something to handle gently. It’s not your fault bad sleep happens, and it’s likely not anyone else’s either, despite who our minds might try to blame.
7. Recognise it’s not just you
Experiencing insomnia is typically lonely and it can also make you feel isolated. However, remember that you’re not the only one dealing with insomnia, unfortunately literally millions of others are too. Many of whom will be in a very similar context to yourself and so you are very much not alone in how you’re feeling. In fact what you’re thinking and feeling right now probably makes sense and is pretty understandable given the circumstances.
With insomnia it’s also easy to get envious of others who sleep well. You may naturally start to wonder why others can sleep so well and you can’t. Try to acknowledge that envious feelings are normal and to be expected, it’s a part of being human. The important thing is not to act on these feelings or let them jerk you around and just let them pass. Remember that insomnia is very common and there’s nothing right wrong with you if you’re struggling with sleep.
In a nutshell: enjoy your comfy pillows and duvet; appreciate the rest you’re getting; acknowledge that you’re probably perfectly safe and okay; don’t let poor sleep hold you back in life during the day; and try not to be too hard on yourself or others.
Be cautious of using the internet for answers
Lots of people have problems sleeping sometimes, and what’s our first instinct? Google it! Searching the internet for answers is a common reaction for many of our problems. If you’ve been lying awake at night unable to sleep, chances are you might have searched something along the lines of ‘how to sleep better’ or ‘what to do about insomnia’.
What comes up is a sea of advice, some from respected organisations, offering lists of ‘tips’ to help you sleep. They might tell you to drink less caffeine, exercise more, stick to a routine, or wind down before bed etc. Other websites might promise quick fixes with gadgets, supplements, or special tricks. Sounds great and simple, right?
But here’s the catch: these tips typically don’t often work. You might try them, expecting and hoping for a good night’s sleep, only to find yourself still wide awake again. When tips don’t work this can make you feel more anxious, stressed, and worried about your sleep, which only makes the problem worse.
Many people with insomnia end up trying lots of different strategies and remedies to help them sleep, all without much success. This relentless searching is driven by our natural desire to want a quick fix for a problem that affects our health and wellbeing. When it comes to sleep difficulties, we try lots of things with the expectation they’ll work (make us fall asleep), only to find they don’t, which can lead to even more frustration and desperation.
So what should you do then? Rather than relying on generic tips from the web, it might be time to talk to someone about your problem. Firstly, the simple act of sharing your concerns with a friend, family member, or professional can make a world of difference. Why go through insomnia alone? Secondly, insomnia often needs personalised support and generic tips don’t always cut it. Just like many things in life, a personal touch is often the best solution.
Recognise your fears about sleep are probably wrong
Not sleeping well can really mess with our heads. You might be tossing and turning all night, worrying and catastrophising about how not sleeping may affect something important happening tomorrow, such as a big exam or meeting, or your life more long term. Often these worries build up the longer we’re unable to sleep, making us more and more anxious about our insomnia and the possible consequences this will bring.
It’s normal to have these worries if you’re struggling with insomnia. Our brains are wired to see a lack of sleep as a problem for us, as we know how important it can be for us to feel well in ourselves and be able to handle life’s challenges. Hence we end up getting anxious and worried about sleep when we don’t get enough of it. But here’s the thing: our minds often make things seem worse than they really are.
Let’s break down those fears. You’re worried about failing at work, not being a good parent, or not enjoying an event? The reality is, even if you’re tired, you’ll still probably do just fine. Sure, you might not feel at your best, but has that ever stopped you from having an okay day before? Okay being a keyword. Probably not.
There’s an ‘F’ word in insomnia therapy and it’s called ‘function’. People often complain that they can’t function properly without a good night’s sleep. But is this really true? It’s not easy to be in good form the next day after a bad night, but most of the time, contrary to popular belief, most people do in fact ‘function’ okay.
If things spring to mind that previously didn’t go well for you because of a lack of sleep, then recognise your mind’s ability to always remember the negatives. There will almost definitely have been other times when you’ve slept badly but been okay during the following day. I am not trying to diminish anyone’s levels of suffering caused by insomnia, trust me I’ve been there, but hoping this reminds us that despite poor sleep we can get through the next day. At its worst insomnia can feel debilitating, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is completely debilitating, not like being grief stricken can be.
It’s hard to convince your mind not to worry about sleep when suffering from insomnia. So what can you do about the worry and anxiety? My advice is accepting that your mind will most likely worry and catastrophise when you’re struggling to sleep. That’s your mind doing it’s normal thing. But know and remind yourself that deep down that you’ll probably be okay. Even if you’re not feeling the most refreshed version of yourself, you’ll likely still enjoy many parts of your day and get through it just fine.
There’s also no need to believe all the worst case scenarios your mind throws at you when you’re lying awake at night. Instead you can just rest in bed and let your mind worry if it wants to. It’s almost like a game, “hello mind! I thought you might be worrying again!”
Give up trying to work out why you can’t sleep
When you can’t sleep, it’s natural to wonder why. Why is this happening to me? Why can’t I sleep? What’s wrong with me? Etc. Sometimes, it’s obvious: you’re nervous about tomorrow’s interview, a baby keeps waking you up, something traumatic has happened or you’re stressed about work. In those cases, remember that you’ve gotten through tough times before; you’ll probably be okay; others can help you with specific problems and importantly your sleep will likely return to normal once this stressor has passed.
But what if you can’t figure out why you can’t sleep? What if nothing seems particularly wrong or stressful, but sleep is still elusive? You might think, Everything was fine before, so what’s changed? Just like you’d want to know the cause of a sudden rash or pain, you’d instinctively want to find out why you’re not sleeping.
However, focusing too much on working out why you can’t sleep can make the problem worse. You’ll start to overthink and over analyse it, connecting it to things that most likely aren’t relevant. When this happens, which it does, we go into ‘problem solving mode,’ becoming sleep detectives trying to pinpoint the exact nature and cause of our sleep problem. All this does is add fuel to the fire and mostly makes us even more anxious and worried about sleep because there is no obvious cause.
We want to be able to pinpoint the cause for our poor sleep with the hope this then allows us to deal with the problem. The reality is this rarely helps and mostly we either end up going round in circles in our minds or identifying the issue as something it’s not. None of this is especially conducive to a restful night’s sleep.
Even if something might have contributed to a bad night’s sleep previously, that doesn’t mean it’s the main cause of the problem now. Think about the times when you or someone you know had a bad night’s sleep but didn’t dwell on it. The problem usually goes away on its own.
The key is accepting that you’re having a rough patch, moving on with your day and acknowledging our human tendency to problem solve. Our minds naturally want to over analyse the problem and clarify the issue, that’s human nature. But we do have a choice over how much we buy into this thinking. Instead we can let go of the need to figure everything out, and let your sleep be what it will be.
Most importantly get help
Finally, I cannot stress this enough, get help from someone if you’re struggling with insomnia. You’re not alone in this situation, and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. People of all ages, both men and women, healthy or not, can suffer from insomnia.
You might think your insomnia will go away by itself and it may well do. But why go through the pain of having to tough it out? Why suffer through sleepless nights if help is readily available? Trying to handle it by yourself can be lonely, frustrating and cause lots of other problems.
So what can you do? A simple first step is to visit your doctor, or GP. They can provide helpful advice and might even prescribe sleeping pills for short-term relief. Some people have negative views of sleeping pills for one reason or another, but they’re not that bad. It’s perfectly normal and understandable to take them if you need to for short term relief. But be under no illusion that they’re not a long-term solution.
A better long term solution, though, is to seek help from someone trained in treating insomnia, like me. I use Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, a scientifically proven method that can quickly help you overcome insomnia for good.