5 Insights into Insomnia That Will Improve Your Sleep

Going to Bed Sleepy, Avoiding Naps, and Treating Apnea Help

A woman notes the passage of time.

If you think back to the last bad night of sleep that you had, you probably will recall how hard it was to function the next day. With clouded thinking, concentration problems, low energy, and irritability, you no doubt struggled to get through your day. It is no surprise that poor sleep severely undermines our thinking and mood, daytime function, and productivity. You may even decide to do things that, when well rested, you’d immediately recognize are a big mistake.

Therefore, check out 5 insights that you might recognize as errors that have perpetuated your insomnia and might make you say “Duh!”

1. Go to bed when you are sleepy.

It is surprising how often this simple advice is overlooked. Too frequently people with insomnia go to bed far earlier than they should as they attempt to “catch up” on sleep. It is best to get up at the same time every day, no matter how good or bad the night was, and to go to bed feeling sleepy. Sleepiness and fatigue are not the same thing. Go to bed when you are feeling the warm, delicious feeling of sleepiness creep over you: your eyelids are getting heavy, your vision is blurring as you lose focus, and you are feeling completely relaxed. Don’t choose to crawl into bed arbitrarily based on what the clock tells you. Listen to your body. If you go to bed feeling extra sleepy (think 1 or 2 hours after your normal bedtime), you will fall asleep much faster due to a strengthened desire for sleep.

2. Get up if you aren’t sleeping.

Perhaps you jumped the gun and went to bed before you were feeling adequately sleepy. Now, lying awake, you are back in the throes of the struggle of insomnia. You start to think about how much time you have to fall asleep. You begin to worry about how you will function the next day.

Your mind spins out of control with anxiety and racing thoughts. The more you try to sleep, the less you are able to do so. Staying in bed awake trains you to be awake in the bed. Instead, after 15 to 20 minutes of lying awake, get up and leave your bedroom. Go do something relaxing: read a book, listen to some music, pray or meditate, or even watch an old TV show or movie. Pick something boring that is relaxing to you and that, at a moment’s notice of feeling sleepy, you can set aside. Leaving the bed if you are awake is called stimulus control. It helps to condition you to sleep in bed, rather than lying awake. Leaving the warmth of the bed when all you want is sleep is the hardest thing to do, but it will reward you with improved sleep quality when you return later.

3. Don’t take naps or drink caffeine late.

Many people with insomnia are unable to take naps. They are “tired but wired.” This means that they feel absolutely exhausted and complain of fatigue, but they are not necessarily sleepy and usually cannot fall asleep if given the opportunity to take a nap.

They are more awake at night, complaining of light and restless sleep, and more awake during the day, with an inability to nap. If they try, they will lie awake with their eyes closed. This tendency is likely due to an increased arousal level that exists due to the chemistry within the brain.

If you can take naps and suffer from insomnia, you absolutely should not. Think about naps as being like a sleep snack. Would you show up to a feast at your favorite buffet not feeling hungry? Of course not! You’d want to arrive starved, and maybe you’d even skip your last meal to come with an extra strong appetite. Similarly, if you struggle to sleep through the night and aren’t getting enough sleep, don’t catch up with naps. These can seriously undermine your next night of sleep and this perpetuates the problem.

Caffeine decreases sleepiness by blocking the signal for sleep called adenosine. This can undermine sleep at night, especially when consumed late. If you are sensitive, you may need to avoid it after noon or even forgo it altogether.

4. Maybe it's sleep apnea.

This might be the insight that is the least expected of all: you might have insomnia because you have sleep apnea. If you have light sleep, frequently wake at night, and complain of difficulty getting back to sleep more than initially getting to sleep, this could explain your problem. Sleep apnea is associated with snoring, daytime sleepiness, getting up to pee at night, and teeth grinding. There are other symptoms associated as well. It more often occurs with REM sleep, which predominates in the last few hours of sleep (leading to early morning awakenings). It can be very subtle, especially when mild, in those of normal body weight, or in women before the age of menopause. Treatment of sleep apnea may provide deeper, high quality sleep and end insomnia.

5. Move beyond sleeping pills and get help from a specialist.

Sleeping pills, both those available over-the-counter and prescription medications, are not meant to be used long term. In fact, they may increase the risk of developing memory problems like dementia and lead to an overall increased risk of death. You don’t take a medication to feel hungry, so why do you need to take a medication to feel sleepy? The answer is that you don’t. Your body will naturally provide you with the sleep that you need if you optimize the conditions and relieve some of the problems associated with insomnia. This can be accomplished with cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI). This structured program teaches a set of skills that will enhance your sleep quality and resolve difficulty sleeping over about 6 weeks. It doesn’t matter if you have had insomnia for decades and are on multiple sleeping pills, these drugs can be tapered and sleep improvements can be realized relatively quickly.

If you need help, speak with a sleep specialist and explore resources that can finally end your insomnia.


Kryger, M.H. et al. “Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine.” ExpertConsult, 5th edition, 2011.

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