Insomnia is a common side effect to having a chronic illness. Heck, insomnia is common in general. Whether it's having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early, if you're not getting the sleep you need it can have really detrimental effects on your health. There is no ideal amount of time we should sleep as every person is different. The question is how much sleep do you need to feel rested when you wake up? If you've been dealing with insomnia, there are probably some behaviors you can change to help.
The technical term for sleep habits is "sleep hygiene," which sounds like something you should be doing in the shower versus in bed. Here are some things to think about and evaluate if you're having a hard time sleeping:
- No caffeine after 3 p.m. That's right, none. As a recovering caffeine junkie from my grad school days, I appreciate how hard this might be if you're a regular coffee/soda/tea/monster/red bull drinker. And 90% of Americans are regular consumers of caffeine! But the fact is, caffeine takes a while to get out of your system, and its half-life - or the amount of time for the levels of caffeine in your body to reduce by 50% - varies widely depending on a host of factors from your age to what medications you take.
- Your bed is for sleeping only. No TV, no laptop, no reading, no working, no smartphone. But you can have sex. This is a hard one for people, but we know that doing other activities in bed other than sleeping and sex causes the bedroom to be conditioned in our brains for these more alert activities. Rather than unwinding when your head hits the pillow, your brain remains or becomes activated making it harder to fall asleep. If reading or watching TV makes you sleepy (and for me TV is about as good as Ambien), do this in the living room or somewhere other than in bed. When you feel sufficiently drowsy, move to your bedroom.
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule. This is especially true for wake-up times. You've probably read that you can't catch up on sleep by sleeping in on the weekends or your days off, but it sure feels nice to stay in bed late, doesn't it? Unfortunately having an erratic sleep cycle can contribute to insomnia. If you're having trouble sleeping, set a wake time for 2 weeks and stick to it. So if you decide that 6:30 a.m. is when you'll get up, it doesn't matter if you go to bed at 10 p.m. or 2 a.m. Wake up at 6:30.
- Hide the clock. One of the most frustrating things about insomnia is looking at the clock, expecting it to be much later than it is, and realizing you've been asleep for 7 minutes instead of 3 hours. The frustration and worry we develop about not sleeping only adds to our insomnia. Hiding our bedroom clocks can help with this. Turn it around, put a shirt over it. And don't look at it.
- No laying in bed awake. This is the most important rule of them all. If you find yourself awake in bed for more than 15-20 minutes, get up and go do something that will make you sleepy. The more mind-numbingly boring the better. I've had people go read the instructions to their washing machine or the phone book (when they still made phone books). Avoid activities that involve screens because light triggers the brain to wake up. Only return to bed when you feel tired. If you find yourself still laying in bed awake after 20 minutes, get up again. This goes back to the conditioning I mentioned earlier. We can actually condition our brains to think laying in bed = time to think about everything.
When I tell people these rules, most people want to inflict some sort of bodily harm on me. It's not to say that you can never watch TV in bed again, or you'll always have to wake up at 6:30 on a Saturday, but if you're dealing with insomnia these rules apply. Try them for 2 weeks, which is about as long as it usually takes to reset our sleep habits. If the insomnia continues, there are more advanced strategies that you can try with the help of a professional.