It’s been a rough couple years, globally and personally. Along with the unemployment rate, stress has increased and so has my anxiety.
To make matters worse, I can’t sleep at night. Sure, I can fall asleep on the couch in the afternoon, but when it’s time to get ready for bed, my mind won’t stop. It just keeps whirring about all the crazy things that have happened in my life and in the world in the last few years. Sometimes my mind offers a selection of memories I wish I could forget:
“Remember that stupid thing you said to that boy 10 years ago?”
“Remember that time you got yelled at by a stranger and didn’t stand up for yourself?”
“Remember when you made an ass of yourself in front of your boss?”
Sometimes my mind likes to provide overwhelming imagery of how some of my worst fears might play out. Once I go down that road, I can’t seem to exit, and sleep becomes impossible, despite being exhausted from no sleep or poor sleep for weeks on end.
I’ve read so many articles about how to get better sleep, and they all say the same thing. Here’s what they generally say and why these suggestions don’t exactly work for me:
- Read a book. I don’t find reading relaxing; if I’m reading a book, it’s one that either requires brain energy to process or is fun and exciting and keeps me awake instead.
- Meditate or do yoga or other light stretching. Sounds great in theory, but I don’t always feel like doing that. Both meditation and yoga are wonderful practices that I hold very dear, but they take energy, concentration, time, and other things that I don’t always have.
- Turn off screens 1-2 hours before bedtime. Again, sounds great in theory, but it’s not always practical. If you’re working a regular 9-5ish job, have family and normal life things to do in the evening, and you want to sleep by 9 or 10pm, turning off devices before bed means you really only get an hour or two of screen time, but watching TV is one of my favorite ways to unwind with my husband.
- Drink calming tea. I can’t drink anything 1 hour before bed, otherwise I will have to pee in the middle of the night. If I drink it 2 hours before bed, does that still calm me before bed?
- Go to bed at the same time every day. Again, easier said than done.
- Make a to-do list before you go to sleep. I am a fan of the brain dump before bed time! It’s a great option, but again, I don’t always feel like doing it. Or even if I do feel like doing it, brain dumping can take a long time and once I get started, I can’t stop in the middle, which means sometimes I have to choose between getting in bed at the right time or brain dumping and then getting to bed late.
Yeah, sure, ok. It might sound like I’m just making excuses, but I have struggled with my sleep for nearly 2 years, I’ve tried all of this and for a long time, nothing worked for me.
Here’s how I finally got better sleep, incorporating some of these tips and some specific tips of my own.
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1. Prioritize sleep
This might seem silly, but even though I was barely functional from lack of sleep, I couldn’t get myself to be serious about getting better sleep for a long time. I wasn’t able to prioritize sleep until I was basically at the end of my rope, but making sleep a priority was the first and most important step to getting better sleep.
Sleep can’t be an afterthought. If you had a broken leg, you wouldn’t procrastinate going to the doctor, right? Sleep should have the same priority.
Other than grief and anxiety, part of why I didn’t get to bed on time was because I didn’t want to. I felt out of control of my life and I wanted to do something that made me feel like I had a choice — even if that choice was sacrificing sleep and making me miserable. This is a phenomenon called revenge procrastination.
I physically couldn’t get better sleep until I acknowledged that it was important for my physical and mental health and made it a priority.
2. Set yourself up for success
If you are uncomfortable on your mattress or your pillow hurts your neck, of course sleeping well will be difficult. I know how painful spending money can be if you don’t have much, but a good sleep setup is an investment in your health and your life. Everyone has a different preference for what kind of bed and pillow they like, but here is the mattress and pillow I like.
The Saatva Classic Mattress is amazing! This is the only bed I’ve ever slept on where I will go to sleep with some kind of body pain and it’s gone when I wake up.
I used to look forward to sleeping in hotel beds, but now I look forward to coming home to my own!
The 2.25″ Bluewave Bedding Hyper Slim Pillow is my favorite for back sleeping. I went through many types of pillows in my search for one that would let me sleep comfortably: buckwheat, foam, cervical molded, combinations of different textures. I even tried sleeping on folded up linens and no pillow at all. Finally, I found this pillow and was able to sleep comfortably. This size is not for side sleeping in my experience, and it stinks if you sleep with your hair wet, but other than that, it’s been great.
My husband kept stealing mine, though he mentioned it was a bit low for him, so I bought him the tallest 3.25″ height version of this pillow, which he uses for back and side sleeping.
These are just the options I use, but what you like will depend a lot on your sleep style, body type, preferences, and more. Look around for the best mattress and pillow that work for your body and budget.
Get the Bluewave Bedding Hyper Slim Pillow on Amazon
For partnered sleep, separate your bedding
If you sleep with a partner, they are affecting your sleep! I can’t sleep well without my partner next to me, generally, but we’ve both gotten so much better sleep when we bought a split king mattress (two twins pushed together, basically) instead of having one mattress for the two of us.
This was a major help in sleep for multiple reasons. My partner and I have about a 1-foot difference in height, which comes with a proportionate disparity in weight. We need different types of mattress. With certain mattresses, I can feel every move he makes, but he can’t necessarily feel mine.
Not everyone has the space for two twin beds, and if that’s the case, at least separate your bedding. How many times have you been woken up because you didn’t have enough blanket or because your partner yanked the blanket back? Or maybe you and your partner don’t go to bed at the same time, but they wake you up when they lift the covers to get in bed. Avoid this sleep disturbance by getting two twin covers. Yes, it looks awkward when the bed is made, but for us it was worth sacrificing the aesthetics since it resulted in much better sleep for both of us.
For twin bedding, here’s what we have:
This All-Year Down Alternative Comforter by Saatva has been a wonderful addition to our bedding. It is cruelty-free since it is made without down, which was my number one requirement for a duvet.
This duvet is warm enough for our mild California winters and not too heavy in the summer. It has loops on each corner for duvet ties and is machine washable and can go in the dryer too.
This 100% cotton duvet cover (no insert included) is awesome. The colors are subtle and it has withstood our kneading cats’ claws surprisingly well. The zipper closure streamlines the cumbersome process of changing out the duvet covers. The interior ties are pretty flimsy and one of them tore after a couple washes, but so far we haven’t had any issues with bunching from that.
3. Cuddle with something that comforts you
If you’re like me and have anxiety, a weighted blanket or plushie might help soothe you.
Most sources say to buy a blanket that is about 10% of your body weight, but I found that to be a bit too heavy for me in a blanket. It’s a very personal choice, so if you can try it out first, that would be ideal. Weighted plushies don’t have a formula like blankets do, so it might take a bit of trial and error.
This weighted blanket from Nest Bedding helped me fall asleep so fast! I unfortunately couldn’t keep using it because it worsened my sleep apnea, but it was well made, and I had a great experience with their customer service team.
This weighted lap blanket is an awesome little blanket if you want just a little weight on your chest or lap instead of having your entire body weighed down.
I’ve found this smaller and lighter size works much better for me. It’s only 5lbs and is just big enough to cover my torso when I lie down. It’s small enough to travel with or fold up when not in use.
And best of all: It’s machine washable. Most weighted blankets are spot-clean only, but this one is easy to clean.
One thing that almost guarantees I will fall asleep quickly is holding something in my hand. I discovered this trick when one of my cats would sleep on or next to me and let me hold their tail. This doesn’t happen consistently, so I found a plush to hold at night instead. My theory is that it activates the sensors in the hand that are comforting, like holding another person’s hand.
I found this carrot plush at a local Therapy Store, and it fits in my hand perfectly. Whenever I hold it, I fall asleep quickly. It’s super soft and feels great in the hand, and if it ends up underneath me in the middle of the night, it’s soft and small enough that it doesn’t cause a huge issue.
Not shown is the group of tags on the side. I ripped them out, which of course tore the seam open, so I had to sew that back up, but now it’s good as new and works like a charm!
This is the shape that works best for me, but try a few and see what works for you.
You can cuddle with a pet, plushie, or anything else that brings you comfort at night. As long as it relaxes you, go for it!
4. Check your sleep environment
Our environment — temperature, light, sound, moisture — can have an affect on our sleep. Here are some factors to consider if you’re trying to get better sleep.
Again, sleep and comfort are extremely personal, so you may need to experiment to figure out what works for you.
For me, I need my room to be warm when I fall asleep — I can’t sleep if my face is cold — then cool slightly so I don’t get hot and wake up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. Most sleep experts recommend sleeping in a room that’s around 65°F.
If you have a lot of electronic devices that make light or curtains that allow light in, make sure to block as much light as you can. Ambient light can disrupt sleep and exacerbate symptoms of dry eye and eye fatigue.
Gaffers tape is perfect for taping over the lights on devices. We use this on the lights on our TV, charging stations, and more. It does not leave a residue and is easy to tear with your fingers (no scissors needed). When we travel, we roll a bit of it around a pen to tape over lights in our hotel room.
(Companies do make stickers specifically for this purpose, but I haven’t tried them, so I’m recommending gaffers tape for now.)
Blackout curtains are a must for me. Our bedroom window faces the parking lot of our apartment complex, which has super bright lights that shine all night long.
I have dry eye and can’t sleep if the room is too dry. If you live in a humid environment, this might never been an issue for you, but in drier places, it’s tricky to get the right amount of moisture in the air. I tried multiple different humidifiers but they all required too much maintenance, costly filters, and cleaning — not to mention all the lights on them.
I thought about just boiling a pot of water, but that wouldn’t happen in the bedroom, and I was a little nervous to boil a pot of water on the stove for long periods of time. You also run the risk of ruining your pot (ask me how I know). I tried to set pots of hot water in the room, but once they cooled off, it didn’t seem like they did much of anything.
I did some research and found a site that suggested using a slow cooker to humidify a room. They are inexpensive, readily available, easy to clean, can be high capacity, and they’re meant to be turned on for long periods of time. Brilliant!
The Hamilton Beach 10 qt Slow Cooker fit the bill perfectly. It was inexpensive ($40 when I bought it), operates with just a knob on the front — no lights! — and a large capacity so I wouldn’t have to constantly refill it or worry about it drying out.
It’s a great option for the winter when we don’t mind the extra heat. Not so great in the summer, but dryness isn’t as bad in the summer, so we usually just do without it rather than adding more heat to our place.
The crock and lid are dishwasher safe, too, so no complicated cleaning process. I always use distilled water to avoid evaporating any chemicals from the tap water into the air, but this may or may not be necessary depending on where you live. Using distilled water prevents the white build-up from forming on the crock like it does around our faucet heads, but it can be a bit of a pain remembering to buy more and adds plastic waste, so that is one of the trade-offs for not having any filters.
The other down side to using a simple slow cooker as a humidifier is that you can’t set it to stop at a certain humidity level, so this might make the room too humid for you. We sometimes wake up with the windows totally fogged over, so we have to remember to wipe that down so it doesn’t ruin our window sills. If you get a fancier slow cooker than I did, you can set a timer for it to turn off after a certain number of hours, or if yours has a mechanical knob like mine, you can use a smart plug to turn it off at the outlet.
Hamilton Beach 10 qt Slow Cooker from Amazon
Buy Hamilton Beach 10qt Slow Cooker from Walmart
5. Address the roots
Like I said, I’ve had a stressful 2 years. I knew exactly what was causing my sleep disturbance, so another important thing I did to get better sleep was to address what was causing the sleep disturbance. I have been in therapy for the anxiety and stress, not only to discuss the causes and help work through it, but also to get personalized, professional advice on how to manage and reduce the symptoms.
Consider what might be causing the stress disturbance. Sometimes it’s outside factors like too much noise at home or other members of the household, which we may or may not be able to reduce. But if something is stressing you out, get support from a therapist, counselor, spiritual leader, or other healer to help you reduce the stress as much as possible as well as manage your reaction to stress.
Sleep is crucial to our health and wellness. We need sleep to function and be well. With our busy lives and busy minds, it can be difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Getting better sleep is worth the effort, and I started feeling so much better when I made these changes and started getting enough quality sleep.