Nothing feels more defeating than peering at your clock in the dark and realizing you haven’t had a wink — and you need to be up in a few hours. As if the worrisome thoughts keeping you awake weren’t bad enough, now there’s the added stress of being sleep-deprived.
The good news? There’s a bounty of research-backed methods you can try when counting sheep just isn’t cutting it. Let’s get to it so you can snooze, stat.
The military is known for pushing people to their mental and physical limits, and this technique is no different, albeit in a soothing way.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be in a bunker for it to work.
How to do it
- Fully relax all your facial muscles, including your jaw, cheeks, eyes, and forehead.
- Lower your shoulders as far as you can.
- Relax the muscles in your arms, from the top down to your fingertips.
- Breathe out, feeling all the other muscles in your body relax, starting with your chest and then down to your legs.
- Spend 10 seconds envisioning a relaxing scene to clear your mind.
- If that doesn’t work, repeat “Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think” to yourself for another 10 seconds. Quick march to the bedroom!
We’re big fans of the 4-7-8 method because you can use it both to relax when you’re feeling anxious and to fall asleep faster. Developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, it’s based on pranayama, a traditional yogic breathing technique.
The counting element serves as a distraction from the anxieties keeping your mind whirring, and the breathing regulates your oxygen intake. This helps kick your parasympathetic nervous system into gear to chill you out and bring on the calm.
Can you breathe? Check. Can you count to 10? Yup. Then you’ve got this.
How to do it
- Position your tongue behind your front teeth, resting against the roof of your mouth.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth to empty your lungs, and then close your lips together.
- Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds.
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
- Release this breath through your mouth over a count of 8 seconds.
- Repeat this cycle at least four times.
If the counts are a bit too long for you to start with, make them slightly shorter and build up. After all, the aim is to be relaxed, not gasping for air.
It’s midnight, and you’re sitting on the sofa, flicking through Netflix. You should go to bed to be ready for work in the morning, but you’re just. not. tired. Do you a) press play and hope for the best or b) go to bed and lay awake in the dark?
Neither! The answer is c) try progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), a relaxation technique based on tensing specific muscle groups throughout your body.
Dr. Edmund Jacobson developed PMR in the 1920s as a way to help his patients manage anxiety. He theorized that by physically tensing and then relaxing their muscles, people would at the same time relax their minds.
The method is widely used and often paired with other meditation techniques, like breath work and visualization.
How to do it
- Contract the muscles in your feet. Try curling your toes and the soles of your feet.
- Inhale deeply and hold both your tensed muscles and breath for between 5 and 10 seconds.
- Exhale all at once while quickly releasing the muscles. Imagine the tension flowing out.
- Rest for about 20 seconds before moving on to your calves, and so on with each area of muscles up your body.
This isn’t necessarily the quickest option, since it will take up to a half-hour once you’ve worked on a variety of muscles. But research shows it can be especially helpful when you’re all wound up with anxiety and can improve overall sleep quality.
Your mind loves replaying those anxiety-inducing moments from earlier that day just as you’re trying to doze off. With the “imagery distraction” technique, you can show your brain who’s boss by making your mind a positive-vibes-only mini cinema.
The idea here is that if you let your imagination run wild, your brain will be distracted from those pesky doom-and-gloom worries. Indeed, a 2002 study found that imagery distraction helped people with insomnia fall asleep faster and have fewer distressing thoughts as they lay in bed.
How to do it
- Think of a scene or memory that makes you truly happy and calm. Maybe you’re on vacation, exploring Paris.
- Then start to really focus in on it.
- Consider the smells around you — freshly baked bread from the boulangerie — and the sound of car horns as they navigate the Arc de Triomphe. Picture touching the metal at the base of the Eiffel Tower. It feels cool and weathered.
- Imagine what the view looks like from the top. Can you remember what it feels like in your body to be there?
Most of us aren’t used to concentrating in such detail, so if this feels harder than you expected, don’t worry. With enough nights of practice, it will become easier to guide your mind to a place of calm.
It might sound counterintuitive, but trying to make yourself stay awake could actually help you fall asleep quicker. The technical term is paradoxical intention, and research has shown that it’s sometimes effective.
The theory is that because sleep is an involuntary process, trying to make yourself do it will actually hurt more than help. By thinking about staying awake, you’ll feel more in control and distracted from your concerns, which will help you ease into sleep.
Brahms, Mozart, Handel, and co. could be your new BFFs when it comes to riding the fast train to the land of nod.
If classical music really isn’t your jam, don’t panic: You can find a whole list of contemporary songs with sleep-friendly tempos here.
Sleeping on your left side it thought to help with digestion by taking advantage of gravity to help food move through the different sections of your colon. Since there’s evidence that digestive issues and sleep are related, this might make your body happy and more able to find sleep.
Side sleeping is particularly helpful for heavy snorers and folks with sleep apnea, because it may help soften snoring, which disrupts sleep.
A great way to get into the groove of side sleeping is to hug a pillow. Pregnancy pillows are meant for pregnant people, but we don’t see any reason the rest of us can’t use them too.
What you do in the lead-up to bedtime has a huge impact on your sleep. If you heed these pieces of advice, the methods above will have a better chance of working.
Good bedtime habits
- Leave the screens — they’ll still be there in the morning. The blue light keeps you up by disrupting your circadian rhythm.
- Do bedtime yoga regularly. It can improve your sleep and help if you’re feeling stressed or anxious.
- Journal. Writing down your worries just before climbing under the duvet is also proven to help you get to sleep faster.
- Take a warm bath or shower. It can prompt those feelings of tiredness.
- Ditch the coffee and sugary foods 6 hours before bedtime.
Best sleepytime foods
These foods are high in sleep-promoting chemicals like melatonin, potassium, and magnesium. They may help you get those Zzz’s.
- warm milk
- chamomile tea
- white rice
Products to optimize your Zzz’s
Give your in-bed snooze tactics a helping hand with these popular sleep products:
- White noise machine. It’s proven to encourage higher quality sleep.
- Cozy socks. Wearing them to bed can reduce the time it takes to nod off by almost 8 minutes.
- Essential oil diffuser. Lavender and citrus oils, specifically, have a sedative effect, promoting deeper sleep.
- Eye mask. Total darkness encourages the production of melatonin.
- Weighted blanket. The pressure of these blankets (ideally weighing between 5 and 30 pounds) helps relax the nervous system. They were developed to help calm people with autism and sensory disorders.
While these techniques are designed help speed up the journey to the land of nod, they aren’t a cure-all. If your insomnia is chronic, reaching out to a professional is probably a good idea.
And keep in mind that sleep problems are a common side effect of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety. So if you’ve noticed other symptoms, that’s also a good reason to reach out to a professional.
Chantelle Pattemore is a writer and editor based in London, UK. She focuses on lifestyle, travel, food, health and fitness.