What To Do When You Can’t Fall Asleep

What To Do When You Can’t Fall Asleep

Sometimes it’s the to-do list. Or you get up to go to the bathroom, trying to maintain that sleepy Zen vibe, only to find that when you crawl back into bed, you’re bugging out about tomorrow. Tossing and turning, you just can’t fall back asleep. You’ve probably awakened the Dark Lord of Too Much Cortisol. Now what?

Here are three easy, all-natural tips that can help you get back to sleep in no time:

1. Bring attention back to your breathing.

Think of breathing as an exercise. When you perform a breathing exercise, it brings your attention to the activity of inhaling and exhaling, and away from obsessive thoughts. Instead of getting caught in the undertow of worry, find the wave of breath and ride your way back to sleep!

Alternate nostril breathing can be a quick portal to restoring your nervous system, and reclaiming your dreams.

I demonstrate an abbreviated version of nostril breathing that takes just a couple of minutes. Really. Two minutes. According to ancient yogic teachings, the left nostril is connected to a subtle energetic pathway, which travels alongside the spine, and is cooling, restorative, and feminine in nature. Keep this one in your toolbox!

Dr. Andrew Weil offers another breathing exercise, called the 4-7-8. This one requires you to deeply inhale through your nose (both nostrils!) for four seconds and hold the breath for seven seconds, and then audibly exhale out of your mouth for eight seconds. You can repeat this sequence as many as four times, up to three times a day. This is another back-pocket tool.

2. Put off until tomorrow what can’t be done today, and get comfy. 

Sometimes the main obstacle to getting back to sleep is that we can’t let go of ruminative thoughts, and need a cognitive technique to supplement the breath.

Roger Cole Ph.D., psychobiologist and yoga teacher, is a consultant in sleep research and biological rhythms at the University of California, San Diego. In addition to breathing exercises as a means to address waking up from work problems or interpersonal conflicts, he suggests that you say to yourself, “I’m going to think about that problem at 9:00 tomorrow morning.”

You have the tools to accomplish tasks during the day, so employ them for this deeply valuable activity. Set an intention and repeat it with as much compassion as you can muster, without force of will. You’re not trying to do a push-up. Nourish yourself with your own wisdom to fall back asleep gracefully.

What do you need next? Pillow. Check. Blanket. Check. More pillows. Checketty check check. Go totally Baroque on yourself and use as many pillows as necessary to support your knees, hips, and grab a hugger while you’re at it. Get downright cozy and sink in.

We typically have a way in which we fall asleep — on the side, on the back, or on the stomach. The goal for healthy sleep is to maintain the natural curves in your body — one in the lower back, one in the middle of your back, and one near the neck. Side sleeping is the healthiest because it complements the natural curvature of the spine. Put a pillow between your knees to reduce stress on hips and add comfort.

An eye pillow can be another useful sleeping aid to have at your bedside. It puts pressure on the optic nerve and quiets the fluttering eyelids of the anxious mind.

3. Use guided imagery. 

How many times have you been snapped out of slumber by the screams of your child having a nightmare? You jump out of bed to comfort her with a hug and soothing voice. She feels safe now and can let go of her fear while you softly tell her everything will be all right, and maybe you remind her of a soothing place, like the couch at Granny’s.

You may consider this an average nurturing moment, but you’re actually using guided imagery, something you can utilize yourself at any time of day. Guided imagery is a form of meditation where you visualize a specific scene that is associated with a calm and relaxed state . It’s part of a proven program that resets cortisol, the main stress hormone that’s often responsible for difficulty going back to sleep, among patients with breast or gynecological cancer. Overall, guided imagery improves sleep quality, and time to sleep, or latency.

How to do it:

  • You typically begin with a simple relaxation procedure, such as deep breathing, to become relaxed. Take a 5-count inhale and a 5-count exhale, or try the 4-7-8 breath, described previously.
  • Imagine a specific scene to deepen the relaxation.
  • Once you’ve practiced this relaxation exercise sufficiently, the relaxation becomes paired with the visual imagery.
  • Then you can induce a relaxed state quickly by closing your eyes and focusing on the visual imagery.
 Dr. Sara Gottfried MD is a board-certified gynecologist and New York Times bestselling author of The Hormone Cure & The Hormone Reset Diet.