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This Is the Worst Mistake You Can Make When Struggling to Fall Asleep at Night


When we’re finding it impossible to fall asleep, our first instinct is often to just stay in bed and try to keep our eyes shut in the hopes that dreamland will finally take over. According to experts, that is also one of the biggest mistakes.

Frida Rångtell, PhD, the scientific advisor for the Sleep Cycle app, tells us, “We can’t force ourselves to fall asleep. Even if there are things we can do to aid the process, falling asleep in itself is out of our conscious control.” She adds that trying to force it will only make it more difficult to actually achieve a good snooze in the long run by causing our brains to associate the bed with a lack of sleep.

What to Do When You Can’t Sleep

Instead of sticking to our bed when insomnia strikes, Dr. Rångtell says, “It’s best to get up and do a calming activity.” She lists examples like writing down your thoughts, reading a relaxing book, stretching, or meditating. “These activities can help take your mind off the stress of not being able to fall asleep.”

Mike Dow, PsyD, PhD, and author of The Brain Fog Fix (Buy on Amazon, $15.99) shares similar advice. “Remember, the brain is an association machine so you don’t want it to pair your bed with being awake,” he says.

Here are some of Dr. Dow’s tips for those nights when we just can’t sleep:

  • Read a quiet book under dim lighting (no crime or pageturners, please).
  • Do some light cleaning, a tidy room actually helps the brain to relax!
  • Light prep for the day ahead, like setting out clothes, will allow the future-oriented part of your brain to relax.
  • Journal or write down the thoughts or tasks that are keeping you up. 
  • Turn down the thermostat — your body temp dips when you’re falling asleep, so cooling the room can boost the process.
  • Turn your clock around so you can’t see it. Looking at it after bedtime makes falling asleep harder. If you’re anxious about waking up, set two alarms to ease your mind.

“I also suggest that people add melatonin supplements if they’re experiencing occasional sleep troubles,” Dow says. “It will make all the aforementioned tips work more effectively and set you up for long-term sleep success.” He recommends the Natrol melatonin products, like their quick-dissolving tablets (Buy on Amazon, $11.49), time-released tablets (Buy on Amazon, $10.31) or 3 am formula (Buy on Amazon, $7.96), which is specifically made to help for those times you wake up in the middle of the night. 

Dow adds that we can get creative with a calming nighttime routine, like turning on an oil diffuser with a soothing lavender aroma each night. He also reminds us not to rush ourselves. “Even successful treatment of insomnia often means people will need 30 minutes to fall asleep,” he tells us. “Have realistic expectations since a gentle attitude helps relax the brain. Take it as it comes.”

Another helpful tip from Rångtell: Getting a little sunlight during the day will help with catching zzzs later at night by setting our circadian rhythm in motion. And if you find yourself getting slightly less sleep some nights than others, Dow says not to worry. For example, he says getting six hours one night and eight hours the next is totally fine. In fact, he explains that balancing sleep time out like this is often used as a tool in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. “[It’s] called sleep compression and one of the most effective ways to help reprogram your natural sleep rhythms.”

So, the next time you find yourself struggling to fall asleep, get out of bed and try one of the calming activities suggested by these experts instead of adding extra stress to the situation.

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