If you’ve ever struggled with sleeplessness, you’ll know that there are always tonnes of tips out there from well-meaning but non-understanding people. They’ll ask if you’ve tried leaving your phone alone for a couple of hours before bed (yes, of course you have). They will recommend that you get out of bed early and ensure you’re tired come bedtime (and won’t have reckoned with the “exhausted three hours before bedtime, get a second wind when it’s time to sleep” game our bodies love to play with us). They rarely have anything new or practically helpful to say, and it’s not their fault because they don’t live it.
When you’re familiar with insomnia, and every bit as familiar with the flawed approaches people recommend for dealing with it, you’re sure to still be wondering what you can do about it. One of the most common recommendations seems to be “just switch your mind off”, which sounds great, but doesn’t tend to survive contact with reality. Below are some tips from people who have genuinely studied sleep and understand the limitations of the cliched ideas you’ll have heard more than enough of. They won’t guarantee success, but the science is persuasive.
Hack your brain: Think about something meaningless
You won’t be able to shut up your inner voice when you lie down restlessly at night. It will want to have its say, and silence is so easy to break. So you could let your idle mind drive you to think about some nagging aspect of life that you really don’t have the answers for, or you could occupy that voice with busywork. What’s your favourite flag in the world? How many flavors of potato chips can you name? How would you go about building a garden shed from only items in your garage? The more anodyne, the better – scientists explain that it uses up mental energy without throwing you back into existential questions.
Try to stay awake
When you’re trying to sleep, you are repeatedly presented with the fact that you are still awake, and therefore you’re not managing to achieve the one thing you really want to do. It’s maddening because it’s so ever-present and it creates a vicious circle. So – and as petty as this sounds, there is method to the madness – call your own bluff by deciding you don’t want to sleep right now. Get up, grab a drink – something like a glass of water or Blue Bear, not coffee or Red Bull. Don’t turn on any lights, but do as much as you can to get ready for the morning. Before long, the fact of how long you have been awake, and the use of mental and physical energy, will remind your body that it needs sleep, and you’ll feel sleepy again.
Open a window
As it prepares for sleep, your body naturally drops its temperature gradually – it’s unconsciously creating the best conditions for getting useful sleep. This is why insomnia comes along more often during heatwaves. The warmer you are, the harder it is to sleep, and the more you’ll be thinking about how hot it is. You’ll stand a better chance of dropping off if your body is cooler. Even in a heatwave, by the time bedtime comes around, the temperature outside will be cooler than it is inside. Heatwave or no heatwave, that drop of temperature will increase your chances of sleep.