What Can I Do to Sleep?

Insomnia Treatments Include Behavioral Changes, Sleeping Pills

There may not be much in life that is more frustrating than difficulty falling or staying asleep. These symptoms, which are characteristic of insomnia, can be unnerving. When you lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, it may seem that sleep will never come. The harder you try to doze off, the more it escapes your grasp. You may even ultimately find yourself seeking information online, trying to answer that persistent question: What can I do to sleep?

After carefully considering the underlying cause, you might wish to learn ways to improve your sleep, including home interventions, over-the-counter medications, prescription sleeping pills, and alternative treatments.

Insomnia: Acute vs. Chronic

Nearly everyone has difficulty falling or staying asleep at some point in life. Stress is perhaps the most common underlying cause. A restless night before an important examination in school or a major presentation at work should not be surprising. When the event passes, the ability to sleep quickly returns. However, sometimes the stress of life persists. An appropriate response to the death of a loved one, a lost job, a divorce, or any number of stressors might provoke a more sustained insomnia. Transient or acute insomnia may thus become a more enduring problem.

Chronic insomnia is defined as lasting more than three months. Stress may also underlie the problem, but there are other factors that might be at play.

Some of the more common causes of chronic insomnia include:

  • Travel (jet lag)
  • Noise
  • Family responsibilities (including infant care)
  • Pain
  • Medications
  • Nocturia (needing to pee at night)
  • Poor sleep habits
  • Caffeine or stimulant use
  • Drug abuse
  • Other medical or psychiatric conditions (such as depression)
  • Unknown causes

When you have difficulty sleeping, the first step may be to consider the underlying cause. If this can be addressed, you might find that your insomnia relents. If your insomnia persists, however, you may be seeking solutions to help you sleep. Simple behavioral interventions are often recommended.

Better Sleep Guidelines

There are a handful of guidelines that are meant to improve sleep. These simple interventions seem like common sense, but they can really make a difference. Some address the need to keep a regular sleep schedule. Get up and go to bed at the same time every day. This reinforces your body’s natural circadian rhythm. It will keep you awake during the day, but it will also help you to sleep at night. As part of this, it is important to consolidate your sleep to nighttime: No naps should be taken at other times.

In addition, your bedroom should be preserved as a space for sleep. Keep it quiet, dimly lit, cool, and comfortable. All electronics should be removed, from your television to your cell phone.

If possible, you should even ditch your alarm clock. Find a new place for the pets to sleep. Don’t use the bedroom to eat meals, pay the monthly bills, or surf the internet. These stimulating activities will train you to be awake in your bedroom, rather than transitioning to sleep.

Certain activities just prior to bedtime may help you ease into a restful night’s sleep. These sleep rituals prepare your mind and body to sleep. Some people enjoy reading a few pages in a book, listening to relaxing music, taking a bath, praying or meditating. Choose something that calms you and even makes you feel a little sleepy.

On the other hand, there are also certain things that you should avoid in the hours before bedtime. Vigorous exercise is discouraged. The use of stimulants, including caffeine and nicotine, should be avoided. Alcohol also disrupts your ability to get a good night’s sleep. In addition, there are other recognized things that ruin your sleep.

Finally, some people with insomnia benefit from a therapy called stimulus control. Stimulus control attempts to overcome the negative thinking that so often occurs with chronic insomnia. When you lie there, struggling to sleep, anxiety builds. You become convinced that you will never be able to sleep. You wonder how you are going to function the next day. This distress feeds on itself and your ability to fall asleep suffers.

Stimulus control attempts to break this cycle by removing yourself from the situation. If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, you leave the bed and occupy yourself with quiet activities until you become sleepy. Then, you return to bed and attempt to sleep again. With this technique, it is hoped that you minimize the association of the inability to sleep and your bed. Therefore, you again learn that the bed is a place that you can sleep, not a place where you worry about not being able to sleep.

Turning to Sleeping Pills

Sometimes simple behavioral changes are not enough. Despite your best efforts, insomnia may persist. You might wonder what to take when you can’t sleep. There are many sleeping pills, some available over-the-counter and others requiring a prescription.

Melatonin is commonly used as a natural sleep aid. It is a hormone sold as a supplement. It can be very helpful for circadian rhythm disorders that cause insomnia, such as delayed sleep phase syndrome. Melatonin should be taken at specific times to be effective.

Many over-the-counter sleeping pills contain medication that causes sleepiness as a side effect. One of the most common medicines added to “PM” medications is Benadryl. Benadryl, or diphenhydramine, relieves allergy symptoms and the anti-histamine effects also cause drowsiness. It is not favorable as a long-term sleep aid, as it may become habit-forming, and it should not be used chronically.

There are a number of prescription sleeping pills available. Some of the options that you might discuss with your physician include:

Each prescription sleep aid has its own potential benefits and risk of side effects, so you should carefully discuss your options with your doctor.

Seeking Alternative Treatments for Insomnia

Some insomniacs are hesitant to use sleeping pills. Fortunately, beyond the behavioral changes outlined above, there are other options available as well. You might try something as simple as aromatherapy. Relaxation techniques can also be quite helpful to ease into sleep. You may also find it beneficial to learn biofeedback techniques. Biofeedback often uses monitors that track your heart rate or other measures. This can add an element of awareness of your body and can facilitate relaxation techniques. If you are interested in learning about using relaxation to relieve your insomnia, you might refer to a guidebook, take a yoga class, or visit with a trained psychologist.

When to Seek Help

Ultimately, insomnia is not a challenge that you have to face alone. If the problem persists, you may wish to speak to your primary care physician or be referred to a sleep specialist. This may be especially important if your difficulty sleeping compromises your ability to function during the day. There are many treatment options available to you and there is no shame in getting the assistance that you need. Fortunately, as you can see, there is a lot you can do to sleep.

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