Can’t sleep? Can’t blame you. Is it the COVID-19 pandemic? The economy? The election? Your children’s school situation? Climate change? Murder hornets?

We all have something that keeps us up at night. Sleep can’t solve these kinds of problems, but it can help us cope with them. Sleeping well improves our mood, alertness, concentration and memory. It helps dispel anxiety, depression and irritability. In short, getting enough sleep every night is essential to our physical, mental and emotional health.

So how do you sleep when you… just can’t? These simple actions can help you get a good night’s sleep even when you’re as stressed and anxious as you’ve ever been:

Check your sleep health — answer

Wake Up and Go to Bed at the Same Time Each Day

If it feels like you’ve been living in a timeless void since March, imposing a little structure can work wonders. Work schedules, school and family obligations can make this a challenge, but do your best to keep your bedtime within 30–45 minutes of your target.

Resist the Temptation to Sleep In

Get up at the same time every morning, even if you went to bed late or didn’t sleep well.

No Naps!

Avoid dozing off during the day unless it is necessary, e.g., your job involves driving or operating machinery.

Avoid Alcohol Close to Bedtime

Alcohol may help you fall asleep quickly, but it can cause disrupted sleep later in the night.

Avoid Caffeine After Noon

Research shows that even if you had your last cup of coffee six hours before bed, you may still have more trouble falling asleep. Limit your caffeine intake to the morning.

Optimize Your Bedroom

If it’s allowed where you live, install blackout curtains in your bedroom. You may also want to pair them with a white-noise machine. Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature.

And now, the hardest one for many of us…

Turn Off Your Screens at Least 30 Minutes Before Bed

The bright blue light of electronic screens tricks your body into thinking it’s still daytime, which causes it to hold off on producing melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep. That becomes a problem the closer you get to bedtime. It’s not easy to go cold turkey, so here are some tactics to help you work up to it:

  • Change your display settings: Many devices offer a way to shift the color of your screen’s light to warmer colors after a certain time of day. On iPhones, for example, it’s called Night Shift and can be found under your Display & Brightness settings.
  • Cease thy doomscrolling: Beyond the device itself, what are you using it for? If you’re actively seeking out information that agitates you (the news, social media, hot takes on Star Wars, etc.) right before bed, stop. Set an earlier “curfew” in the day for that kind of activity.
  • Use your ears instead: Your device can be a great relaxation tool so long as you don’t have to look at it. Before bed, consider plugging in some headphones and piping in:
    • Your favorite relaxing music
    • Mindfulness exercises
    • Guided meditations
    • Ambient soundscapes (e.g., rain softly falling on a tent in the forest)
    • White noise
    • Calm, quiet podcasts

YouTube is a treasure trove of free relaxation content and you can also download a variety of relaxation apps.

Still Can’t Sleep?

If you’ve followed these guidelines and are still struggling to get a satisfying amount of shut eye, there might be something other than insomnia preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep.

Talk to your primary care doctor about undergoing a sleep study. This outpatient procedure can diagnose sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. The best part? There are no needles or incisions; all you have to do is go to sleep in a private, hotel-like room.

About the Author

Clifford Massie, PhD, FAASM, DBSM, MSCP, is a licensed clinical psychologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. He specializes in behavioral sleep medicine and has post-doctoral training in clinical psychopharmacology. His previous research on CPAP treatment has appeared in several medical journals. Dr. Massie has also presented at two World Congresses on Sleep Apnea and the Associated Professional Sleep Societies meetings. Dr. Massie is an employee of the AMITA Health Medical Group. He treats patients with sleep disorders at AMITA Health Medical Group Pulmonology Elk Grove Village.

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