8 Tips to improve sleep troubles

When it comes to falling asleep, there are many people who can easily pass out as soon as their heads hits the pillow. This post is not for them. For the rest of the population, please know that it is normal to have sleep troubles at some point in your life. Some of us find that these issues resolve after a few days. However, others may struggle for a long time with poor sleep quality.

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Often, what exacerbates our sleep is conditional arousal. Think of Pavlov’s dogs; they learned to salivate as soon as they heard a bell ringing because they were consistently provided food at the time of the bell. Even when food was taken away, they automatically started to salivate as soon as they heard that familiar noise. Similarly, we’ve learned to associate anxiety and restlessness with our bed. We start to anticipate that we will have poor sleep even before we climbed under covers. We stress that it will be another night of tossing and turning. Unfortunately, these expectations cause too much distress to fall asleep.

Luckily, there are ways in which we can create a better sleep pattern. Today’s post is all about simple behavioural changes that you can use to improve your sleep.

Behavioural Changes to Improve Sleep Patterns

1. Go to sleep when you’re sleepy

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Before you scoff at this point, I want you to consider when you go to sleep. Do you go to bed at a specific hour in hopes that you will be rested enough for the following day? Are you heading to bed when your body feels exhausted? Is your mind still whirling away at this time? If you answered yes to the above questions, this strategy may shift you out of current sleep troubles.

One of the best ways to reduce sleep issues is to recognize when we’re genuinely sleepy. Our “ideal” time for bed is when we can barely keep our eyes open. It’s when you cannot concentrate on your show or book, and are nodding off on the couch. It is at this state of fatigue that you will likely fall asleep when you go to bed. Prior to this time, while you’re body may be exhausted, your brain is still not ready to shut down. Therefore, if you typically go to bed at 10 PM, but you’re not drifting off until closer to midnight, then it’s best to wait until midnight before heading to bed (Don’t worry! There are other strategies to help bump your bedtime to a more ideal hour).

2. Get up at a consistent time

When you make changes to your sleep patterns, your body is working hard to shift its circadian rhythm (your internal 24-hour clock that tells you when to be awake or asleep). Your internal clock gets thrown off with insomnia. Getting up at a consistent hour helps your body regulate, and establish a routine of its awake and rest times. Unfortunately, many of us sleep in on weekends. While we force our system to get up at 6 AM on weekdays, we stay in bed until 2 PM on weekends. This creates more confusion to your circadian rhythm. Chances are that you will not be tired for 10 PM on Sunday night. You end up falling back into the same pattern of sleep disruption and fatigue for the rest of the week as you try and shift back to an earlier bedtime.

3. Do not use the bed when you’re awake

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I encourage clients to only use their bed for sleep or sex. It’s easy to get sucked into patterns of reading, eating, watching TV, or talking on the phone while in bed. However, when there are sleep struggles, we want to eliminate all connections of being alert while using our bed. Again, think about Pavlov’s dogs, and training your minds to associate bed with rest.

Most days, it will take approximately 20 minutes to fall asleep. If it takes you longer, or if you start to feel anxious within the first few minutes of lying down, the best option is to get out of bed. I know this sucks, and I encourage you to do whatever low-key activity will help you stay in good spirits at 3 A.M. This means watching TV (try not to choose something that you’ll feel compelled to binge watch), reading, tidying up, etc. Try to return back to bed in about 30 minutes, or whenever you start to feel sleepy.

Another consideration is getting up when you’re awake at 5 AM versus staying in bed. While your bed is likely cozy and inviting, by lying awake in bed during these early hours, you’re unintentionally reinforcing the message that it’s okay to be alert in bed.

4. Middle of the night wake ups

It is normal for us to have several awake moments during the night. We go through several rounds of REM (rapid eye movement) and N-REM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep cycles, which can typically last 90 to 120 minutes. Usually, we have short moments of being awake during the first phase of NREM sleep. For most of us, we don’t process these occurrences and usually fall back to sleep without any trouble (e.g. think about those times when you vaguely recall fluffing your pillow, turning over, and drifting off to sleep again). Vulnerabilities like conditional arousal can make us more cautious about being awake in the middle of the night. If anxiety kicks in when you have these wakeful moments, it can prevent you from easily falling back to sleep. If elaboration strategies are not enough to help you fall asleep in a few minutes, it’s best to get out of bed, do a low key activity, and try again in 30 minutes.

5. Get rid of naps

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Getting out of bed every time you are anxious or unable to fall asleep, and consistently getting up at an early hour will be exhausting. Chances are you’ll experience several sluggish days at the start of your new sleep routine. This is normal, and in fact, a good thing. After a few days of being in this zombie-mode, your body will feel so tired that you’ll start to feel sleepy earlier in the night (thereby bumping your midnight bedtime slowly back up to your ideal hour).

What often prevents people from getting to the above stage is due to naps. Your body is ready to fall asleep at night time, but if you take a rest during the middle of day, your circadian rhythm is getting confused once again. In order for this to work, stay out of bed during the daytime. It’s okay for you to go to bed at 8 PM during the first week if that is when sleep starts to encroach. It will take a few weeks before your circadian rhythm is regulated.

6. Create a bedtime routine

We teach young children about bedtime by using a simple routine at the end of the day. This involves activities like taking a bath, completing toiletries, putting on pyjamas and then reading a story before turning off the lights. When this pattern is followed daily, a child gets used to winding down by the end of this routine.

Unfortunately, we drop all pretences of having a bedtime routine when we become adults. Fair enough; you’re an adult and don’t require being tucked in. However, creating a simple routine (approximately 20 minutes) that you follow daily can help your body learn to settle down prior to bed. Some simple activities to include into your routine are:

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  • Having a cup of decaf tea
  • Stretching
  • Playing a low-key game (e.g. crosswords, candy crush)
  • Toiletries
  • Taking a bath
  • Doing the dishes
  • Prepping lunch
  • Listening to a podcast

The point is that these activities are not so riveting that they’ll hold your attention for a long time. Because the entire process takes approximately 20 minutes, and because it’s repeated daily, your system will learn to adjust to this new pattern.

7. Check your environment

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What kind of distractions are readily available in your room? You know yourself better than anyone else. This means recognising your vulnerabilities and habits. If you can easily spend hours on Instagram at the end of the night, chances are that having the phone next to your bed can make you more susceptible to staying awake.

Another common distraction is the alarm clock. If you tend to obsess about the time (e.g. “It’s 3:00 AM and I’m not asleep yet…. it’s 3:10 AM and I’m not asleep yet… it’s 3:20 AM and I’m not asleep yet.”), then this device is actually causing more harm than good. Turn the clock so it is facing away from you. Set your alarm for the next day so that you can trust the option of waking up on time without having to check the time constantly.

Assess whether your bedroom is truly a comfortable place for sleep. Making small changes like setting a cool temperature and adding dark curtains to reduce light can make a significant impact for sleep troubles.

8. Review your daily activities:

What you do during the day impacts your quality of sleep. Consider the effectiveness of when you work out, play video games, eat large meals, etc. For example, many individuals feel more alert after working out. If you fall under this category, you want to ensure that your work out is done earlier in the day.

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What kinds of foods and beverages have you consumed? If you are experiencing sleep troubles, your best option is to cut out caffeine by midday. Consider the types of food you had for dinner. Digestive issues can make it really hard to feel comfortable when you get into bed. If you struggle with digestion, especially at night, consider speaking with your doctor or a dietitian for feedback about what foods to restrict.

While having a glass of wine at night is a treat, research has also shown us that having too much alcohol reduces your quality of sleep. You’re more likely to fall asleep due to the sedative qualities of alcohol, but chances are you’ll be awake in the middle of the night.

What if none of these strategies get rid of my sleep troubles?

If your sleep issues are caused by more complicated factors like anxiety or trauma, more intensive treatment is recommended. In these circumstances, we can incorporate various therapeutic modalities like EMDR or cognitive-behaviour therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) to address your unique needs.

Let me know if any of the above tips worked for you!


Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.

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