It may seem strange to think that anyone needs to be told how to fall asleep. But we've all had the experience of waking up in the middle of the night and then having trouble drifting off again. When this becomes an almost nightly occurrence, figuring out how to fall asleep quickly instead of tossing and turning till dawn could becomes critical for your quality of life and your health. Unfortunately, that desperate need to fall asleep can become one of the things that keeps you awake.
Previously, we discussed the importance of sleep for your health, and some ways to make sure you get as much as you need. For people who have difficulty sleeping, the basic practices that can help you to sleep soundly are relatively simple:
1. Maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule.
2. Exercise aerobically most days of the week.
3. Avoid eating, drinking alcohol, and exercising two to three hours before bedtime.
4. Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening. If you are very sensitive to caffeine, avoid it completely.
5. Make sure you're not taking medication that affects your sleep.
6. Enjoy a relaxing evening routine before bed; that might include a hot bath or shower, a cup of herbal tea, time listening to relaxing music, and reading.
7. Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, quiet, and uncluttered, and use your bed only for sleep and for sex.
But supposed you've done all that, and you still wake up during the night. What then? The good news is that you can learn how to fall asleep again when that happens, and get the rest you need.
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THE DETAILS: A good next step is to arrange a consultation with your doctor to rule out any physical causes of your sleep difficulty. If your difficulty getting back to sleep is not the result of a physical condition, there are some strategies that can help.
First, be aware that everyone wakes up during the night. Light sleepers wake up more often than sound sleepers, and they tend to have more trouble getting back to sleep. Sound sleepers wake up for a few seconds and get right back to sleep.
One reason light sleepers have trouble getting back to sleep is that their minds become active when they wake up. They start thinking about daytime concerns, and their bodies react to their thoughts with increased energy and alertness. In addition, when people with sleep difficulties wake up during the night, they often start worrying about whether they will get back to sleep. And then…catch-22…their anxiety about getting back to sleep prevents them from sleeping.
• Remember that nighttime is for sleeping, not thinking. If you find yourself worrying about something, remind yourself that you can think about it tomorrow, during the day. You can think more creatively and constructively during the day, so just set aside your concerns for now. If you worry that you won't get back to it, jot down your thoughts for later.
• Seek pleasant memories. Let your mind turn toward things that bring a feeling of contentment, rather than concern. Think about the people and things in your life that you appreciate. Remember a pleasant event or envision a beautiful place in vivid detail…a walk in the woods, a beautiful garden, a fabulous movie.
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• Ride the wave. If concerns do enter your mind, don't struggle to resist them. See if you can just observe your thoughts without getting emotionally involved in them. You might imagine they are like clouds floating across the sky, or waves on the ocean rising and falling.
• Control your breathing. Shift into slow, rhythmic abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, inhaling and exhaling through your nose. As you breathe in, imagine you are breathing a soft, soothing feeling of peacefulness into the center of your body. As you breathe out, imagine you are sending that peacefulness into all the rest of your body, including your arms, legs, and head.
• Give yourself a massage. Massaging specific acupuncture points relieves tension and releases your body's natural sleep substances.
1. First, massage the crown of your head in a circular motion using your index and third fingers for 30 seconds.
2. Next, using your two index finger tips simultaneously, make small circular movements at the outer ends of your eyebrows for 30 seconds.
3. Then, using the pads of your thumbs, wipe the upper, and then the lower edges of your eye sockets, from the inner to the outer corners.
4. Then, rub the palms of your hands together until they feel warm, and place them over your eyes for 45 seconds. Gently rest the heels of your hands over your closed eyelids for another 30 seconds.
You can use slow, rhythmic breathing and acupressure, along with the thought-shifting techniques described above, to help you relax and get back to sleep. Even if it takes a little while to fall back asleep, the restful time awake will help to balance and replenish your body.
If it takes longer than 30 minutes to get to sleep, go into another room and read in low light until you feel sleepy, and then go back to sleep in your bedroom. Remember, if you don't try too hard to get back to sleep, eventually sleep will come to you.
This story is by Jeffrey Rossman and originally appeared on Rodale.com. It is reprinted here with permission. Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and the director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA, and author of "The Mind-Body Mood Solution: The breakthrough drug-free program for lasting relief from depression."