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Guide to Better Sleep When You're Stressed

by Eva Holland Dec 31, 2008
Having problems sleeping? Then check out these tips and get some rest.

ACCORDING TO THE NATIONAL SLEEP FOUNDATION, tens of millions of Americans are “members of the walking tired.” Sleep may sometimes seem beyond our control — especially when we’re desperately in need of it. But we have more control, at least over the factors that contribute to a good night’s sleep, than we realize.

Here are 7 tips and tricks that have worked for me, and a couple of faux-pas, too.


1. Turn off the TV.

Or better yet, keep it out of your bedroom/sleeping space entirely. People tend to lie in bed and channel surf when they can’t sleep, but it really doesn’t help. I mean, let’s be honest: you don’t actually find A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, or Law and Order: Special Victims Unit relaxing, do you?

2. Create a clutter-free sleeping space.

That goes for physical and mental clutter. The more you can do to separate the complications of your waking life from the peace of your sleeping one, the better. This can be hard for students and travelers who tend to have more confined living spaces, but try to keep computer, notebooks, and any other physical manifestations of work/school/responsibilities off your bed.

In college, my computer was less than three feet from my bed — but I did my best to maintain at least that tiny distance. If I had to study, and had nowhere to go but my room, I sat on the floor.

3. End on a positive note.

When I’m working at night, I try to keep one simple, straightforward task for the end. This allows me to check something off my “To Do” list right before heading to sleep, meaning (in theory) that I’m worrying less about everything else on that list.

This applies equally to freelance writing, household chores, catching up your Facebook correspondence, or whatever else it is that occupies your time (and your restless mind).

4. Mind what you eat — and drink.

No caffeine: seems obvious, right? But that doesn’t stop people from going for that social latte after dinner, and even for seasoned coffee addicts, it makes a difference. Caffeine is a powerful drug; sensitivity varies, but I try not to drink any caffeinated tea or coffee after 4 PM if I want to sleep well that night. (Bear in mind that your oh-so-trendy green tea has some caffeine in it, too!)

Add sugary foods to the list of no-nos, as well. In fact, despite that old saw about not going to sleep on an empty stomach, I find an earlier dinner helps me sleep more soundly. Oh, and contrary to popular belief, alcohol won’t necessarily help you sleep, either. In fact, it can do just the opposite.

5. Be calm. Or at least, calmer.

If you’re like me, your sleeplessness has more to do with what you’re thinking about than what you ate for dinner. You need to find a way to stop (or at least, slow) those racing thoughts and worries and reminders.

This is where the old “counting sheep” trick comes in. I try to consciously control my breathing, slow down, and clear my thoughts. This is where breathing exercises can be particularly effective.

If I can’t clear my thoughts entirely, I try to replace them with something: a rhyme, a mantra, a nonsense phrase. Take your pick.There might also be something external (a song, or a poem?) that helps calm you. I used to swear by The Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, played very quietly on my iPod, to ease me closer to sleep.

6. Find the sound of silence.

Alright, so you can’t stop your upstairs neighbor from blasting Dr. Dre, or your fridge from making that odd squealing noise. But you can put in earplugs, right? Do what you can to control the noise in your sleeping space. I’ve never been a big fan of white noise tapes (or Amazon rainforest sounds, or whale songs, or those drippy-noise fountains), but they work for some people. Earplugs work for me.

7. Opt for a change of scenery.

Not everyone has a couch to sleep on. But if you do, in a worst-case scenario try hopping out of bed, grabbing a blanket, and flopping in the living room.I’ve found that sometimes a change of scenery is just what I need to escape whatever’s keeping me awake.



Happy thoughts can be just as hard to shove aside as stressful or anxiety-producing ones. So don’t get your mind revved up thinking about that trip to West Africa that you’ve always wanted to take, or making mental lists of the DVDs/books/pairs of shoes you’re going to buy with that unexpected cheque you just got in the mail.

Calm is the key word here. (See #5)


Resist the urge to pop a couple of Benadryls and say good-night courtesy of Big Pharma. More often than not, sleep meds only create dependence and an unhealthy cycle, making it harder for you to take back the night (as it were) on your own terms.

Note: All of the above is for occasional bouts of sleeplessness. Chronic insomnia should be treated by a doctor, counselor, sleep therapist, homeopath, or other clinical care provider.

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