I’ve done a lot of work on improving poor sleep over the years. My company’s insomnia coaching program was one of the first ones I worked on, and I was part of the team that developed My-Coach Sleep Workshop. More recently I’ve focused on coaching for pregnant women struggling to sleep well.
All of this experience has come in handy over the last few years when I began to have some sleep difficulties of my own. I’ve always been a champion sleeper, but with mounting stresses, frequent travel, and changes in environmental noises, I was bound to run into trouble sometime.
There are lots of resources out there about basic sleep hygiene and tactics to improve sleep like sleep scheduling/restriction and stimulus control. Here are a few of the psychology-specific tips that worked well for me based on these frameworks.
Make sleepy associations.
Stimulus control is all about associating your bed with peaceful sleep, not tossing and turning or stressful thoughts. I’m pretty good about keeping work and tv out of the bedroom, but I found it was not the haven it could have been. I have more of a nighttime routine now, with a white noise machine (something I initially resisted, but my husband loves it and now I’m hooked), a scented oil that reminds me of feeling relaxed, and soft lighting from a bedside lamp. I try to limit use of my phone in bed and read a novel instead. All of this makes my pre-bed moments more pleasant and peaceful, and a natural segue to sleep.
Find your mind game.
Cognitive behavioral therapy for sleep is all about recognizing the negative thoughts that keep you up (e.g. “I will never fall asleep!” or “At best I can only get 5 hours of sleep if I fall asleep right now.”) with more positive counterparts. Talking back directly doesn’t work for me so much as coming at the stressful thoughts sideways. I like to focus my thoughts on a specific scenario that is pleasant. I might deliberately daydream through cooking a meal or running along the river. Making myself think of something I enjoy crowds the stressful thoughts out of my mind.
I like doing number games with the digits in the time (e.g. 11:11 = 1+1+1+1 = 4), but have found this is NOT a good option when laying awake at night. Better to not look at the clock.
Don’t just lay there.
This one is hard but it really does help. It feeds back into the idea of stimulus control. If you’re awake and can’t sleep, get out of bed and relocate for a while. I will go into another room and read a book or even just sit with my cats. (However: Do NOT use this time to play on the phone or iPad, since the artificial light disrupts your circadian rhythm.) Once I feel sleepy, I go back to bed. Sometimes this means I fall asleep on the couch; that’s ok. I just move into the bedroom as soon as I rouse and can usually fall right back to sleep.