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Illustration for article titled The Night Owls Guide to Slaying Insomnia

I've finally thrown in the towel on a five-year insomnia problem that began developing in high school; I am abandoning my room as a sleeping place. I'm part of a family of five in a very noisy house, so my room is the only place where I can work semi-peacefully. So I'm going an unconventional route and choosing to let my room be for work, not sleep, and instead finding a new place that has literally nothing but a bed to fall asleep on, so that my mind and body have no confusions at all as to what is supposed to happen when I'm there.


I've tried every trick in the book and then some to fix my insomnia, and it unfailingly remains an issue. One thing I've learned is that there is no one cure (that I've come across yet, anyway). There are some things that work for extended periods of time, but eventually, insomnia always creeps back — I have to constantly change my tactics to start falling asleep again. I've also learned that the problem is both physical and mental. You have to be physically tired (and there are different types of physical exhaustion) and mentally in a sleeping mode. I'm usually physically tired at night, but that doesn't lull me to sleep.

I thought I finally had it beat about a week ago when I came back from a 16 hour flight from Europe and jet lag translated to a beautiful, healthy sleep cycle. But every night for the next week, my body took its terrible "natural" course of slowly pushing my sleep clock incrementally forward until I landed back where I started. I'm pretty sure 12am-3am is just my "peak time" for creativity and productivity.


Lifehacker has written up on getting to sleep (and getting sounder sleep), but here is a review as well as many more tips and methods that I've picked up along the way. Sometimes these have worked, often times not, but they are definitely helpful and always worth a shot. Keep in mind that there are a few of these that should be used only occasionally and as a last resort, and are probably not tips that a doctor would suggest — but they have worked for me, and I don't abuse the method.


Here you go, all my tips for beating insomnia. Asterisks are next to the ones that have proven to be most effective for me, whether or not they are the best choice.

  • As stated above, keep your work space and your sleeping space separate, if you can. I'm a college student living at home, and my room is where my desk is. A semi-solution for that was to set up my room so that my bed's headboard is not against the wall but facing my desk, separating my sleeping space from my work space (and most of my room). Heck, maybe even try a four-poster bed with curtains. That's pretty enclosed.
  • *Learn to relax properly. Concentrate on every area of your body, one at a time, from head to toe, and focus on relaxing and completely letting go of each one along the way.
  • On that topic, try some hypnotherapy. I went to a hypnotherapist for a bit and got an eternally useful mp3 track that walks me through the whole relaxing every part of my body thing and going to another place in my head. I swear that track cures headaches, too.
  • Learn to clear your mind. Mind racing is one of the biggest reasons I can't rest, and it's almost impossible to shut it off sometimes, because the night time is when my brain finally has a chance to breath and let loose on some deep thinking.
  • *Get some paper and a pencil and write down what you are thinking. I like doing it in lists. (method to clear your mind)
  • Relaxed concentration on clearing your mind
  • *Did I mention writing down your thoughts?
  • On that topic, try counting and picturing the numbers in your head. Concentrate on the numbers and relax.
  • Also on that topic, listen to music. Whatever you are currently jamming to will do. Sometimes I fall asleep to harder alternative rock music because it's what I'm really into at the moment, sometimes it's film music, etc. (For some, this has the opposite effect of relaxation, so figure out if this helps or hinders you from sleeping)
  • Upgrade your mattress. Waterbeds must be witchcraft because I think they are made of pure magic. I've heard great things about tempurpedic/memory foam mattresses, too.
  • Pray
  • Exercise during the day (serious, physically exhausting exercise). This one helps, but it doesn't change the fact that my mind starts seriously waking up at night, unless I have seriously physically exhausted myself all day.
  • Wake up earlier in the mornings (more on this at the end).
  • Take Melatonin 30 minutes before getting into bed.
  • *Give up and take Tylenol PM and do something while you let it put you asleep for you. Reader Lizaveta commented that you can buy just the sedating ingredient in Tylenol PM, called diphenhydramine, to avoid unnecessary other ingredients.
  • Drink some herbal tea before bed. Sleepytime and Vanilla Chamomile are my favorites.
  • For some more insight into sleep aids that you intake, reader FocusPocus shined some light on the different types and their effects. Of course, if you're going to put something in your body to help you sleep, know what you are intaking and always be extremely careful never to abuse a drug — it can wind up damaging your sleep and health instead of helping it.
  • Just get up and do something instead of laying there for a million hours, and after an hour, try again.
  • Pull an all-nighter and force yourself to stay up the full next day to give your body a good reset for a beautiful night's sleep the next night. Tip: in my experience, you probably are not going to make it unless you drink a lot of coffee that day and always stay active throughout the day — and it does not feel good. This has been a last resort for me after failing to fall asleep until at least 6am, at which point I would just sleep the day away otherwise.
  • *Have someone give you a back rub and talk with you to sleep.
  • Sometimes it's hard to be comfortable in bed because it's a cycle of being either too hot or too cool with the blankets. Lh has written about staying cool while you sleep — I haven't tried it yet, but check out some cooling pillows.
  • On the topic of staying comfortable under the covers, keep the room cool. Use a fan, turn on your AC, anything that will keep the room cool. I especially enjoy opening the window during winter nights, which makes getting underneath the covers super comfortable and relaxing. The only downside here is waking up in the morning, being forced out of your bed into the miserable cold air.
  • Make your bed every morning. Getting into a nice cool, crisp bed with the sheets and covers tucked into the sides perfectly is like getting into a cloud and its amazing.
  • Take a shower before bed instead of in the morning. Very relaxing, and the best is when you have the combination of crawling into a cool, perfectly made bed with freshly washed sheets and blankets right after a hot shower. In fact, I think I've fallen right asleep almost every time that occasion has happened.
  • *Get the heck away from your screens at least an hour before you get into bed. This one feels almost impossible for me sometimes, but I think it really is the difference between being miserable the next day after a night of insomnia, and actually falling asleep. When you're in bed, force your hand away from your smartphone when you get the urge.
  • On that topic, try f.lux (this one actually wound up being too annoying for me to keep at first, but I'm giving it another shot, as I often have work that needs to be done on a computer in the evening).
  • Get good light in the morning
  • While you're busy not falling asleep, set up your morning any way you can. eg. Lay out your outfit for tomorrow, write up a short todo list for the day that you can complete first thing, etc. It makes for a happier morning.
  • Generally those night time hours are already the only truly silent hours we get, but if there is some annoying bird outside chirping away all night, someone having a party, or other source of noise, get some Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones for noise canceling. They're awesome, especially in a situation like that where they probably will block out the sound darn near 100%.
  • Try a soundscape app that plays nature sounds or white noise.
  • When you are laying in bed for hours on end without the ability to fall asleep, you're at a point where you need to make sure you have the will to fall asleep. I have found that one of the components of my insomnia is my lack of will to get to sleep. It is easier and certainly more interesting to let things happen to keep you up, like thinking, letting your mind race, doing something with your phone, doing some work on your computer until you are ready to get into bed, etc.
  • Read a book. This one doesn't usually help me, but I know it helps some. If a book doesn't really capture me, I usually get stuck on rereading the same sentences repeatedly and not taking them in, which doesn't make me tired, it just makes me more bored than laying there and thinking. And if a book really captures me, I'm too into it to fall asleep.
  • Draw. I love to draw, and it really clears my mind when I'm into it and concentrated. It is an activity though, so it's more of a meditative thing to do before bed (or after temporarily getting up for awhile) than something to try to fall asleep to.
  • Eat before bed if you're hungry. It's obviously not the healthiest thing in the world, but I've often started getting hungry late at night, and going to sleep on an empty stomach sucks. Eating something small actually helps me relax in that situation. Just don't make it a habit.
  • Go for a walk (unless you live in a shady area). It gives you some time to let your brain think, takes you out of the diluted, terrible setting of insomnia, exercises you, the wind calms you, and crawling into a nice warm bed afterwards feels great.
  • Fold some origami. Also clears the mind, when you're into it and concentrated.
  • Clean your room. Similarly, this can be pretty mind clearing. And it's nice to have a clean room afterward.
  • Reader FrankReality mentioned another helpful technique: set the atmosphere of the room 1-2 hours before bedtime. If you have dimmable lights, utilize them to get your mind in a relaxed mode. Try setting up dim light sources like candles or christmas lights. Candles with a scent you enjoy are also relaxing. When you're trying to fall asleep, complete darkness might be better, but try this to help you relax ahead of time.
  • A couple of readers mentioned something called ASMR, or "Autonomous sensory meridian response," which is a unique concept for relaxing that is brought on by various auditory triggers.
  • Reader STIKleinWagon suggested to make sure you are hydrated. Of course, you don't want to be getting up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, but as long as you go just before you get into bed, staying hydrated does help.
  • As reader Jamie White put it, be prepared to fail. There are steps to take to help fight insomnia, but everyone is different and these methods work differently for everyone. There is no one perfect solution, so be patient and observant as to what your personal biggest block is, and take steps to get past it.

When all else fails, start sleeping somewhere else, even if your room isn't your workspace. If you have chronic insomnia, then a part of the problem is that your body is associating your regular sleep space with awake time and activity. Starting over in an "unfamiliar" space to fall asleep in is a great first step in starting from scratch. Maybe you'll find it to be even more comfortable.


As for waking up in the morning, my solution that has worked almost without fail is setting up my alarm away from my bed, on my desk, so that I have to get out of bed to turn it off. My body just instinctively gets out of bed now at the sound (ie. it's not a struggle), and once you're standing, you just throw on your clothes and you are up and ready pretty painlessly.

Comment below with your tips for getting to sleep.

Image by Claudiu Popescu

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