A client of mine recently told his doctor that he had trouble sleeping. No surprise: The doctor gave him yet another prescription. He is already taking pills three times a day! I can tell you what I cannot legally tell him: This is crazy. He may become dependent on the drug–and it will certainly contribute to his health problems.
Insomnia is a real problem, but more drugs are not the answer. Let’s take a fresh look at this issue.
Insomnia is generally the result of conscious and/or subconscious thoughts that are stressful or exciting. These thoughts can involve unsolved problems or just nervous excitement. Other factors may include the effects of medications or drugs (e.g. Coffee too close to bedtime), pain, noise and exercising too close to bedtime.
Address these issues in advance so that your insomnia occurs less frequently. For example, try to resolve family conflicts so that you don’t have to sleep on them. And don’t focus on problems or unpleasant events in the hours before bedtime.
To deal with insomnia without drugs, you need a plan. Here’s my suggestions.
First, address noise issues: If intrusive noise is a problem, you have two options.
Your first option is to purchase noise-canceling headphones or similar devices that eliminate most of the noise. Many of these devices can cancel out noise with or without listening to music. ConsumerReports.org has information and ratings on available products.
Your second option is to purchase a device that emits audible sound that drowns out the noise. According to the September 2008 issue of Consumer Reports, these are the top two items to consider:
1) Sleep Sound Machine from Brookstone – Tranquil Moments – Clinically Proven Acoustic Technology.
2) Marpac SleepMate 980A Electro-Mechanical Sound Conditioner. Some people find these devices helpful even in the absence of noise issues.
Second, select a particular exercise that can be done if you can’t sleep. The exercise should be sufficiently strenuous to dissipate tension. I know I said exercise too close to bedtime is sometimes a problem, but once you can’t sleep, at this point exercise becomes useful. I use push ups. I can’t imagine anything that works better.
Third, always have at least one productive activity planned that can been done if you can’t sleep. This way, you win whether you can sleep or not!
Ideally, this activity should involve concentrated mental effort. Studying any subject not related to psychology or emotional problems will work. Casual reading doesn’t work nearly as well. By forcing your conscious mind to focus, you also prevent your subconscious mind from continuing to dwell on the thoughts that are keeping you awake. This study period should be at least 20 minutes. Usually, you will start to feel tired after 20-30 minutes.
The next best thing would be some type of productive physical labor combined with listening to the radio or a CD (Again, nothing involving psychology or problems). The labor will work off some stress and provide a sense of accomplishment. The radio/CD will keep your mind occupied on something that does not create stress. Both will help with your insomnia .
Now, you need to get a 3×5 card and write down your own personalized insomnia plan. Just make a list of items that will help you get to sleep–in the order that you will try them. You then use as many of these items as necessary.
An example of an Insomnia Plan follows:
- Set timer.
- Study 20 minutes.
Often, only the first three items will be needed. But, if you later find that you need more, just get up again and complete another item on the list. I always set a timer first so that I don’t spend more time awake than I intend to. This prevents unproductive daydreaming–or worse, thinking about problems.
Once you have completed a sufficient number of these items, go back to sleep doing one of the following:
1) Listen to soft, relaxing music. Soft Christmas music, for example, works well.
2) Listen to a non-music CD, audio book or a relaxing radio program. Christians, for example, can listen to an undramatized version of the Bible. The idea is to keep your mind occupied so that you don’t again start focusing on problems. Increase the volume–within reason–as necessary. Many clock/radio/CD players have a jack for an ear bud. This will help if someone is sleeping with you who doesn’t want to be disturbed.
3) For people of faith: Continuous prayer until you fall asleep: This prayer should only involve praise and the giving of thanks. Don’t ask God for anything–doing so will refocus your mind on problems–and you won’t be able to sleep.
I suggest you put a CD player on the headboard above your bed. This way, you can easily adjust the volume. The CD player should be set to turn off after a specified period of time.
Get up as soon as you can, once you realize you can’t sleep. The above program will work much better if you get up right away–rather than after hours of tossing and turning.
Medications or alcohol should be used only on rare occasions for insomnia . These often become habit forming–you soon won’t be able to sleep without them. And there are often side effects. The newer medications pose particular risks. An excellent article entitled “How did you sleep last night” was published in the September 2008 issue of Consumer Reports.
People with a history of drug or alcohol abuse probably should not ever use drugs or alcohol for insomnia .
If you have any concerns about your ability to do strenuous exercise, consult your doctor in advance. Also, have your doctor rule out Sleep Apnea and address other medical conditions that may be related to your insomnia .
So, these are my suggestions. They work for me. And I’m confident they will work for you as well.