Struggling to sleep? Five tips for insomniacs

On World Mental Health Day, our panel of experts discuss techniques that can help poor sleepers catch some extra Zzzs and be productive at work

Build your own bedtime routine

In the same way routines like bath, book and bedtime can help children get to sleep, night-time rituals can help adults nod off, too. Clinical psychologist Dr Courtney Bancroft suggests creating a buffer zone for bedtime. Get your head and body in a space where the brain is signalling its OK to go to sleep and rest, she says.

Dr Annemarie Luik, a researcher at the University of Oxford, specialising in solutions for insomnia, agrees that it helps to wind down at least an hour before bed, doing relaxing activities like reading, knitting or listening to music. Exercise and screens before bed should be avoided as they wake you up, she says.

While it may seem counterintuitive, insomniacs should try going to bed a bit later, says cognitive neuroscientist Dr Simon Durrant. In the first part of the night you get most of your deepest sleep and once youve had sufficient deep sleep, you are much more likely to wake up, he says.

Keep your room dark and cool, invest in a good-quality mattress and pillows and avoid eating and diuretic drinks such as coffee, tea and alcohol before bed. While a night cap might help you nod off it is almost guaranteed to wake you up in the small hours, he adds.

Dont try to sleep on your worries

Worrying about failing to fall asleep makes it even harder to nod off. Sleep is a natural biological process that cant be controlled and battling against it could be likened to an endless game of tug of war, which only wakes you up more, says Dr Guy Meadows, founder of the Sleep School.

There are various techniques for getting any worries, stresses and anxieties that hamper sleep under control. Bancroft tells his patients to write a worry log and schedule a time to deal with them. We are much better equipped to problem solve during the day when our minds are at peak performance than in the middle of the night when our brains are sleepy. Reminding yourself of this can be extremely helpful and can put your mind at ease, he says.

Luik recommends keeping a pen and notebook next to the bed to write down any worries. Say to yourself you can deal with it tomorrow. One bonus of writing it down is that you cant forget it anymore either, it is on your list, she says.

Try mindfulness techniques

Simple mindfulness exercises, like focusing on breathing can help with insomnia, says Kat Dunn, a writer and editor at Mind. Keep your focus on the present moment and relax ready to sleep again in the night, she says.

Meadows agrees: Noticing things objectively and without judgment in the present moment like the touch of your duvet on your toes or the gentle movement of air in and out your nose can actually promote sleep, he says.

Rest is the best bridge to sleep, so meditation, which helps the body rest, is worth trying, says Charlie Morley, Hay House author and teacher of mindfulness meditation. He recommends the 4-7-8 Breath technique, which involves inhaling through the nose for the count of four, holding your breath for seven seconds and exhaling through the mouth for eight seconds.

Get out of bed

Contrary to popular belief, lying in bed is not always conducive to sleeping. Most insomniacs arent resting. They are lying there in total torture or mental agitation, says Morley. When this happens, get out of bed and cool down your mind, he suggests.

Luik recommends the 15-min rule. This involves getting out of bed if you have been awake for about 15 minutes and doing something relaxing in dimmed light in a different room. Just guess the 15 minutes, dont start looking at the clock, she adds.

However, Meadows says staying in bed is fine if you practise a bit of mindfulness. Giving yourself permission to be awake allows natural sleep to emerge.

Seek professional help

If you are experiencing severe sleep problems for a long time do seek treatment, says Luik. Since the effects of medication are often temporary, cognitive behavioural therapy is the recommended treatment for insomnia. A GP may be able to recommend a local therapist, but there are limited numbers in the UK, she adds.

Professionals can also help with tackling the route causes of insomnia, says Dunn. If worrying and anxiety is getting in the way of you living life as youd like, you can always talk to your doctor about what support and treatment might be available, she says.

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