What to do if you can’t sleep and don’t want to take drugs

Q:  I’ve had problems sleeping for close to 4 years now.  I have been diagnosed with a stress disorder, and am getting treatment for that.  I don’t want to take sleeping pills or other drugs, so what can I do to help myself sleep?

A:  Rest assured there are a number of effective methods you can employ to help yourself sleep better naturally without using drugs.

What works for many is deep diaphragmatic breathing combined with progressive muscle relaxation.  The idea here is not to force sleep — that is usually counterproductive — but to enable it.

Although the process of sleep cannot be forced, what this method does is mimic a sleep-like state characterized by slow deep breathing and relaxed muscles.  Many people find this combination very effective to help them drift off.

There are many other methods people use besides this, so it’s also a matter of personal preference.

Counting sheep is the age-old method of distraction from occupying thoughts that keep you awake.  The twin practices of mindfulness and acceptance counsel that it’s OK to lie in bed in a relaxed state, even if not actually sleeping, and whatever sleep you do manage to get is OK and you will still function reasonably well the next day.  Guided imagery, in which a beautiful relaxing scene is imagined, is yet another method people use in bed.  There are many more.

However, whatever you do will be much more effective if it is framed within an overall lifestyle supportive of good sleep.  Taking a comprehensive approach is the most effective way to deal with insomnia.

With insomnia, sleep is not the real issue.  Sleep is only the symptom.  Something else is invariably going on deeper causing the problem.  In your case, you’ve identified at least one underlying cause for insomnia — stress.  So it’s important for you to continue to treat that root cause, and your sleep stands to improve as you learn to better manage excessive stress.

It’s also important to consider other nonmedical issues that may be contributing to insomnia as well.  Pills will not address any of these.

These may include such overall lifestyle choices such as keeping a consistent sleep schedule.  Especially important is a consistent wake time, which has the profound effect of both regulating your circadian rhythm and synchronizing it with your homeostatic sleep drive.  These are the two most important internal regulatory mechanisms controlling sleep.

Another lifestyle choice supportive of better sleep is getting sufficient exercise most every day.  The body tends to compensate for intense physical exercise by increasing the amount of deep sleep, the most restorative kind.

Exposing yourself to bright light first thing upon awakening is another key.  Light helps start you up in subtle but profound ways, and that’s especially important during the short days and long nights of winter.

Other good ways to help counter insomnia include limiting caffeine (in any form including chocolate and colas) after about mid-day, avoiding alcohol or nicotine close to bedtime, and using a relaxing pre-bed routine to help transition to a drowsy state conducive to sleep.

How you think about sleep — what you believe to be true about insomnia — actually is a key part of the solution.  Negative sleep thoughts are a potent fuel the prolongs and perpetuates insomnia.  Fortunately, there are good proven methods to both identify and then learn to let these negative thoughts go.  Sleep tends to improve as a result.

Many insomniacs are so desperate for sleep they search for that magic pill that will somehow make it all better.  But no such thing exists.  We often hear horror stories about unintended negative consequences from various sleeping pills, including habituation.  So you are wise to look for better alternatives that aren’t habit-forming, and treat the true root of the problem.

After all, why should we need to take drugs, supplements, or any artificial substance to sleep?  In reality, sleep is as natural, normal, healthy, and necessary as eating or breathing.  And we don’t need to take drugs to do those things.

The real answer is to address the true underlying issues, and then your sleep stands to improve naturally and permanently.

Explore posts in the same categories: Insomnia, sleep, stress

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