10 Tips to Fall Asleep (or Back Asleep)

Sleep is important.

It’s so important, we made an entire podcast episode about it, and that episode is the second longest we’ve recorded (the only longer episode was “How to Rage” — VERY important), and still that episode contained only a fraction of what we wanted to say about how to sleep. Sleep is THAT important.

And of course we got questions about some of the topics we didn’t discuss in the episode. One of them was “how to fall asleep.”

Insomnia — difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep — is the most common sleep disorder, and its most common cause is worry about sleep. I created this list of tips for falling (back) asleep, so that you don’t panic when you can’t fall asleep. This is not a to-do list; it’s a shopping list. I want you to have options to do whatever’s going to work for you at any given bedtime.

If you struggle to fall asleep in less than half an hour — or if you wake in the middle of the night and toss and turn, unable to get back to sleep — try any of the following strategies to fall asleep:

1. Take a hot shower. This artificially raises your core body temperature; when you get out of the shower and go back to bed, your body temperature will gradually decrease, which is a physiological trigger for sleep.

2. Progressive muscle relaxation. Beginning with your feet and working your way up your body, tense each muscle group for a slow count of ten, then release and breathe comfortably for a slow count of twenty. From feet to calves, to thighs, to pelvis and bum, to abdomen, to hands and arms, to shoulders, to neck and scalp, to face.

3. Counting sheep (or similar). There’s a reason this is an old classic. The gentle, more or less arbitrary task gives you something neutral and calm to focus your attention on, so that your attention isn’t on anything that might cause Noisy-brain.

4. Mindfulness. It’s not a self-help/healthy-living guide without mindfulness, right? The purpose of mindfulness meditation for falling asleep is to step to one side of Noisy-brain and witness it without directly participating in it. Like sitting on a river bank and watching the river flow past you, you just watch all the thoughts go by, not judging, just noticing. There are lots of great mindfulness resources available, including apps with meditations specifically for helping you sleep.

5. Write a list. If your difficulty is that you’re lying there, worried about all the things you need to do tomorrow and you’re worried you might forget something, turn on a small light and write down the list of all those those things. That way the piece of paper can hold the list and your brain doesn’t have to. It can let go and transition into Quiet-brain.

6. Read. A couple caveats to go with this one: If you’re the kind of person who, once you’ve started reading you can’t stop until you finish the book (a trait called “persistence”), do not pick up a new book! Reread a chapter from an old favorite, or just read a short story or magazine article.

7. Listen to Something. An audiobook, a piece of music, something that your brain receives as calm and emotionally neutral to positive. Remember, the goal is to shift from Noisy-brain into Quiet-brain. What audio does that for you?

8. Watch TV. This one is not ideal, since the light from a TV screen messes with your melatonin levels, but the right TV show can be incredibly soothing. I had an intern for whom a single 22-minute episode of Friends was better than a narcotic for putting her to sleep. Choose something that shifts you into a neutral to neutral-positive mental and emotional state.

9. Orgasm. This doesn’t work for everyone, every time, but the process of getting to orgasm parallels remarkably with the process of going to sleep: You have to relax your chattery brain.

10. Try Not to Fall Asleep. I learned this clever trick from a student. She said if she was struggling to fall asleep, she would remember, as vividly as she could, what it felt like to be nodding off in class earlier that day. She would try to feel the sensation of fighting off that drowsiness, the weight of her head, the stubborn drift of her eyelids, and her valiant struggle to keep taking notes. Like Mary Poppins singing an ironic lullaby, she would lie in bed and tell herself, “No matter how sleepy you are, stay awake.”

BONUS: Drugs. Lots of people occasionally use medication or recreational drugs to fall asleep and that’s fine, if it really is occasional. Marijuana, a single glass of wine, antihistamines, melatonin, whatever. Note: If you find yourself using any substance to fall asleep more than once or twice a month, that’s a sign that there’s something more complicated going on and you should take to a medical provider. Seriously.

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