Stop the ‘Can’t Sleep’ Cycle For Good

It's a vicious cycle. Life throws you a curve ball. Your stress level goes sky high and suddenly you can't sleep. You lie in bed with your mind buzzing--thinking of everything from the phone call you forgot to the person you last pissed off or let down to how awful/weak/incapable/unworthy a person you must be. You eventually fall asleep just in time for the alarm to start ringing, and guess what? Your stress level goes even higher.

Sleep disruption is the often one of the first signs of anxiety and stress. It is also one of the first causes of anxiety and stress increases. And so the cycle can go on and on until you want to tear your hair out. If this has gone on for an extended time for you, you might start seeing serious health problems, find yourself getting sick more often, sabotaging your relationships, and tanking in your school or work performance.

Not good.

But there is hope. Usually making a few minor changes to your routine can make a big difference. Things like meditation, mindfulness practice, stretching, avoiding/decreasing alcohol and caffeine, avoiding eating heavy or spicy meals late at night, making sure your room is dark and cool throughout the night... These are all things that are typically recommended. The bonus is that non of these costs any money (some like avoiding alcohol and caffeine may even save you money) and they really do not take a lot of time, either.

This is actually something I have some personal experience with. My sleep quality is one of my best tests to cue me into the fact that I am getting stressed. I usually fall asleep without problem, but wake up during the "witching hour" as I like to call it (somewhere between 2-3am). I usually get up to use the facilities and lie back down. Some sweet nights I am able to just fall back asleep. Some nights, though, I'll be sitting there twiddling my toes for hours. I literally just can't sleep. I might be thinking about something that's stressing me out and it's obvious why I can't sleep...or not. Often my mind isn't racing. I'm not worrying about anything in particular. This is when I know I'm going to need to spend some time figuring out what stress I am ignoring or recommit to some of my more healthy habits.

Since this happens to me on a semi-regular basis, I already have all those great recommendations firmly in place. And STILL I find myself waking periodically. I'm not the only one, either. I have plenty of clients who are doing everything "right" and still struggle to chase those illusive zzzzz's night after night. So, for those of you tough cookies, I thought it might be helpful to share my Can't Sleep Routine. As with anything in life, you'll probably need to tailor it to yourself a bit, but hopefully it will help inspire your own routine.

5 Easy Steps for Sleep
  1. If I've been lying in bed for 15-20 minutes with no signs of dropping eyelids, I get out of bed and go to another room. This is pretty critical, I have found. I don't bother turning on any lights. I go into my living room or go outside if it's a nice night. I either spend some time practicing mindfulness (listening to the sounds of the night, naming the smells around me, feeling the breeze, etc...) or do a 10-minute meditation on my breath.
    • During the day, I use Headspace, an app for mobile devices that you can also access through your laptop that has lots of different meditation practices and teaches you gently how to meditate correctly. But at night, I want to avoid all screens because the blue light instantly perks me up. So, instead, I just try to count my breaths in and out, counting to 10 and then starting over. I notice the differences between each breath. I notice (without judging myself) how hard it is or isn't to focus on the breath. When my focus wanders, I gently bring it back to my breath. I also might do some yoga stretches. In any case, after 10-15 minutes, I return to bed for step 2.
  2. Now it's time to repeat my going to sleep routine from the beginning of the night. I get comfy in bed, turn on my reading light, and do a little reading. This part does require me to be a little picky. I try not to read for work at night. It makes my mind start working, so instead I usually pick a novel, but nothing too good. I also don't want to be fighting sleep because I'm engrossed in the story line. (Hint: Remember not to read using a screen. The blue light is sure to wake you back up rather than putting you to sleep!)
  3. After 10-15 minutes, if I still can't sleep, I get up AGAIN.
  4. This time I go into the living room and try either one of the other strategies listed in Step 1 or I try to read a little out there. Then repeat step 2 until sleep finally blesses me.
  5. Other things you can try when you're out of bed include art, needlework, light cleaning (with lights on low), writing down what you are worried about, writing a letter/card to a friend or loved one, getting a light snack or something to drink, or working on a puzzle. Really anything that is calm, quiet, and low light/not involving a screen.
Quiet activities to help you sleep

So, the next time you are staring at the ceiling and listening to your house creak at 3am, try out my list and see what works for you. Don't forget to let me know what works and what does not.

Traci W. Pirri, LCSW

Traci W. Pirri, LCSW is a top anxiety therapist, depression counselor, and adoption therapist in Austin, Texas. She is also licensed in North Carolina. She is passionate about working with people whose lives or professions have caused them to struggle, but still desire a life worth living. She helps people find the connections they want with their relationships and daily lives.

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