It's 4 a.m. The clock ticks, the moon glows, the dog snores and you just stare. Perhaps you stare into the blackish red of the inside of your eyelids as you lie still and fetal, thinking if you pretend to be sleeping, the real thing will surely come. Or maybe you stare at the paint chips in the ceiling, then the laundry on the floor, then the glowing 4:01 a.m. time, as you turn and shift and stare some more. And you know you shouldn't be staring - you should be sleeping! You should be logging those crucial seven-plus hours of quality sleep each night, and the frustration that you cannot will yourself to achieve that makes this 4:02 a.m. stare session all the more infuriating. And it's hard to fall asleep when you're infuriated.
So what do you do? The second step to racking more zzz's is to perfect your sleep hygiene. That means developing a regular sleep schedule, using your bed only for sleep and intimacy, and ditching electronics and caffeine well before bedtime. Here's a sleep hygiene guide to get you started. But that second step is for the daylight hours. The first step is to get to sleep now - pronto - so you can grab at least a couple hours before the birds start chirping.
The tips below might help you sleep easier. Here's the advice of Eric Olson, co-director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minn., and Harneet Walia, a doctor in the Cleveland Clinic's Sleep Disorders Center:
Get out of bed. When you lie awake in bed, you send yourself the wrong message. "You're basically training your body not to sleep in bed, but to lie there and not sleep," Walia says. "And your mind can get conditioned to that." Olson puts it another way: "The longer we lie there and get frustrated in that environment, the more we come to anticipate it next time we're there," he says. "We come to associate the bedroom with not sleeping well."
So if you're unable to sleep for about a 15- or 20-minute stretch, slip into your bunny slippers and out of the room. Try something relaxing and non-stimulating. Listen to music. Read a book. Even consider cleaning the house or doing the dishes, Olson suggests. A bath might do the trick, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, because sleepiness can brew from the post-bath drop in body temperature. Whatever activity you choose, do it away from bed, and return when you're feeling drowsy.
Try relaxation techniques. Call to arms whatever relaxation tips you know to combat this inappropriately timed alertness. Try your favorite calming yoga pose (Savasana, anyone?). Meditate. In this travel meditation article, neuroscience researcher Catherine Kerr explains a simple way of unwinding through breathing. You simply note the rising and falling of your breath, and focus on the parts of your body where you feel these slow inhales and exhales, whether it's in the lungs, abdomen, tip of your nose or elsewhere.
[Read: 3 Meditation Tips for Beginners.]
Walia suggests progressive muscle relaxation: Working from your toes to your forehead, tightly tense each muscle group for five seconds, and then relax. Visualization is another classic relaxing technique, in which you picture yourself someplace pleasant and calm. And what about the mother of all sleep remedies - counting sheep? Olson views this as a "mental distraction technique," like visualization. With sleep, he says, "the harder you try to get it, often the more elusive it is." So whether you're counting farm animals or picturing yourself in a hammock in Cabo, the idea is the same, Olson says. "You're getting your mind off of 'I can't sleep; I can't sleep; I can't sleep,' and onto something else."
Ease anxiety. Sometimes the sleeplessness stems from worry. Your brain is on overdrive, thinking about your bank account and the big meeting tomorrow and your kid's detention. For people who consistently have trouble "quieting the mind" at night, Olson suggests trying "to train your mind to think about those things at more appropriate times of the day." Schedule a time each day - say, between work and dinner - to simply write a sentence or two about what's worrying you and where you stand with that. "Maybe it's as simple as, 'I thought about this today, but I don't have any real solutions right now,'" Olson says. By systematically documenting these worries during the day, ideally, you'll be less likely to fixate on them at night.
Of course logging your troubles is all well and good, but it's a habit you build in the light of day, during the hours when you're supposed to be studious and bright. It's not particularly helpful when you're wide awake at 4 a.m. At that point, Walia suggests, "jotting down all your worries on a piece of paper so it's out of your head." And try the breathing, muscle relaxation and visualization techniques above.
Another common anxiety that lurks in the wee-hours of a sleepless night is the mounting awareness that you're not asleep when you should be. Stress and frustration - not typically emotions that welcome relaxation - escalate as you fret about how you need to be up for work in four (or three or two) hours. The experts' suggestion? Get rid of time cues. "No clock watching," Walia says, "That's a big no-no. Turn the clock around."
Medicate with caution. Whether prescription or over-the-counter, Walia and Olson do not recommend drugs as a first choice for relieving sleeplessness. Ideally, the tips above and improved sleep hygiene should do the trick. But, should you choose a sleep aid, Olson reminds people that, of course, they make you sleepy. This grogginess is great at 11 p.m., but not at 7 a.m. - when you have to drive a car.
"Avoid taking a sleep medicine the closer you get to morning," he says. "You don't want to be hungover because you took that Tylenol PM at 5:30 a.m. just to eek out another hour."
Olson also advises that those who turn to over-the-counter sleep aids do so intermittently, to help avoid building a habit, and to check with their doctors that the medicine doesn't interfere with any of their conditions or medications. If you wind up on a Food and Drug Administration-approved prescription sleep aid, Walia points out that it should be for the short term.
See a doctor. If your sleeplessness is frequent and impairing your daytime behavior, bring it up with your physician. "When people start to feel like they're worried about their sleep during the day, that's probably the time when they need some guidance," Olson says.
[Read: 5 Tips for a Smooth Doctor's Visit.]
- Eric Olson