Sleep disturbances are common. While they can sometimes indicate issues consistent with anxiety, depression or another underlying health issue, this is not always the case. Sleep issues do not always indicate a major problem is at hand. In fact, getting your sleeping schedule back on track is possible with a few insights and behavioral changes.
Our sleep patterns can change for a multitude of different reasons. Sometimes we just start to go to bed at inconsistent hours or change our routines slightly and this sets off a runaway train effect. Who thought sneaking in an extra hour of tv at night or that extra cup of coffee to keep up with the kids’ homework could cause a disruption that lasts for weeks?
It is possible. As a therapist in Rockland County, NY, I work with many clients whose sleep is off track for one reason or another. Generalized anxiety symptoms such as frequent worrying and muscle tension can influence sleep difficulties. When sleep gets off track for many days or weeks, it can begin to show up in the way you feel. Inconsistent sleep patterns can influence and create a shift in our energy levels, mood, motivation, and overall concentration and performance during the day.
Sluggishness, irritability, headaches, frequent yawning and yearning for a nap during the day are signs that you are in need of a sleep routine reboot.
The good news is that there are several things you can do starting today to get your sleeping schedule back on track.
Tips to Get Your Sleeping Schedule Back on Track
Start a Nightly Relaxation Routine
It is fairly easy to underestimate the process of going to sleep. We usually put our heads down on the pillow, close our eyes and voila! Sleep takes over…well only if you fall asleep fairly quickly. In fact, the process of going to sleep is much longer and actually starts way before bedtime.
Picture yourself trying to go to sleep after a long day. Putting your head down on the pillow may help you begin to rest, but if you have been struggling to fall asleep lately, this may not be enough.
A good rule of thumb is to allow one hour of relaxation prior to your desired bedtime. Choose a relaxing and quiet activity that helps you feel calm and rested. Consider light reading, taking a shower or bath, petting your beloved pet, or anything else that will lend to relaxing.
Then make a plan for when you would like to fall asleep. If you would like to fall asleep by 10pm, start your relaxation routine by 9pm. This will cue the body and mind that it is time to unwind from the day and prepare for sleep. It also keeps your mind off of trying to problem solve non-urgent tasks that can wait until tomorrow.
Set a Specific Time to Fall Asleep and Wake Up
When you go to bed and wake up at around the same time each day, your body begins to get used to this time. You begin to feel tired at bedtime and energized around the time you need to wake up. This is ideal and can occur after several weeks of consistency with sticking to your chosen time.
It takes some time for your body to adjust to this new routine. Try not to feel discouraged if you can’t do this consistently right away. For example, if your ideal bedtime is 9pm but you have been off by a few hours and going to bed at 12:30am, first try setting your bedtime to 12:00am rather than forcing yourself to sleep at 9:00pm. Making gradual changes is a lot less jarring to the system. Getting a momentum going makes it more likely you will find success and feel positive about your efforts. After a period of incremental adjustments, you can be ready to fall asleep at your ideal time.
Limit Late Night Eating
A heavy meal prior to your bedtime can delay your sleep as your body is busy digesting. Plan to eat your last meal of the day at least two to three hours prior to going to bed. This will reduce the chance of you feeling overly full or hungry and reduce waking up in the night for biological breaks.
Limit Caffeine Intake
Caffeine prior to bed can negatively influence your sleep behaviors. Drinking beverages such as coffee, teas, sodas or other energy drinks before bed can impact your ability to fall asleep. Consider reducing your overall caffeine intake throughout the day. If you are used to three cups of coffee a day, try scaling back to two and see how that makes you feel at night. Stick to a time when you agree to be done with caffeinated beverage for the day.
For example, stopping all caffeine by early afternoon rather than late in the evening can help. This can be challenging especially if you are often tired during the day and are drinking a high amount or quantity of caffeinated beverages to stay awake. However, remember that caffeine can have a counterproductive effect on your ability to fall asleep at night when you want to.
Turn Off Access to Electronics
Many people feel strange to be fully unplugged or disconnected from their phones and other electronic devices. You may be tempted to first try every other method to get your sleeping schedule back on track before you consider leaving the phone behind. I get it. The truth is, the more screen time you have before bed, the likelier it is that you will struggle with quieting your brain to fall asleep. The light of the cell phone may be enough to scare away your sleep.
To get started with reducing screen time, you may practice putting your phone away in small increments. For example, if you are accustomed to using your phone before bed, you may practice ending cell phone use 10-15 minutes sooner than usual. The key is to replace the electronics with another soothing and relaxing activity that will set the stage for better sleep.
Create an Environment For Sleep
Take inventory of your bedroom environment. Is it conducive for sleep? Is there too much light entering the room? If so, you may consider darkening your space by adding blackout curtains or use of a sleeping eye mask. If the temperature is too warm, consider changing the thermostat to a suitable temperature. Many people find that a cooler room temperature will help induce sleep better than a warm one. Wear comfortable and breathable sleepwear. Additionally, ensure you have a comfortable mattress and pillow that will support your sleep. These changes may appear simple or small at first but can have a great positive impact on your sleep.
Keep a Sleep Diary or Journal
Documenting your progress as you get your sleeping schedule back on track is helpful. Our memory is not always reliable in assessing how much sleep we get. It is not uncommon for people to underestimate the amount of sleep they get as the focus is usually on how many hours of sleep we don’t get. In keeping a sleep diary, you may notice specific patterns or difficulties that arise, including perhaps some of the reasons or activities that disrupted your sleep in the first place.
The sleep diary may alert you to cues your body and mind are giving you. For example, if it is hard to shut off your mind and relax at night, keep track of worries or negative thoughts. This can shed some light on an important area of your life that needs attention. As you notice helpful and unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, you can make adjustments until you find what works best for you.
Barriers to Getting Your Sleeping Schedule Back on Track
The most common barriers people face are with consistency and frequency. It can be challenging to follow a new sleep schedule daily. There may be days when you are successful in implementing a change but then the next day get sidetracked by an unexpected event. Or, you may simply be too used to the old sleep patterns that you struggle with creating new habits.
The best thing to keep in mind is that new habits take awhile to form. Practicing a nonjudgmental attitude with yourself can help alleviate any frustrations as you get into the swing of the new routine.
Another thing to try is to remind yourself of the reason why you want to get your sleeping schedule back on track. Are you tired of being tired? Is your partner complaining about your irritability? Have you been more forgetful due to poor concentration? Ask yourself what you have to gain from a healthy and consistent sleep schedule. How will you and your health be better for it?
If you try the above and believe you may indeed have an underlying health issue or problem that is interfering with your sleep, seek an appointment with your primary care doctor. They may be able to work with you to find other techniques that work for your specific concern.