A very common cause of difficulty sleeping relates to stress and the intrusion of stimulating substances and activities. You may have trouble falling asleep the night before a big test or presentation. In periods of emotional stress, such as after the death of a loved one, you may also have trouble sleeping. This is called acute insomnia. It usually passes when these stressors resolve. Similarly, stimulants such as caffeine and even nicotine can disrupt your sleep.
Research published earlier this year in the journal Scientific Reports found that listening to sounds from nature, like a rainforest soundscape or a babbling brook, can trigger a relaxation response in the brain. Soothing background sounds can also cover up manmade sounds like voices or traffic, which were shown in the study to have the opposite effect.
IT'S 4 A.M. THE CLOCK ticks, the moon glows, the dog snores and you just stare. Perhaps you stare into the blackish red of the inside of your eyelids as you lie still and fetal, thinking if you pretend to be sleeping, the real thing will surely come. Or maybe you stare at the paint chips in the ceiling, then the laundry on the floor, then the glowing 4:01 a.m. time, as you turn and shift and stare some more. And you know you shouldn't be staring – you should be sleeping! You should be logging those crucial seven-plus hours of quality sleep each night, and the frustration that you cannot will yourself to achieve that makes this 4:02 a.m. stare session all the more infuriating. And it's hard to fall asleep when you're infuriated.
Your need for sleep and your sleep patterns change as you age, but this varies significantly across individuals of the same age. There is no magic “number of sleep hours” that works for everybody of the same age. Babies initially sleep as much as 16 to 18 hours per day, which may boost growth and development (especially of the brain). School-age children and teens on average need about 9.5 hours of sleep per night. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night, but after age 60, nighttime sleep tends to be shorter, lighter, and interrupted by multiple awakenings. Elderly people are also more likely to take medications that interfere with sleep.
Now that you know how much sleep you need—and if you've allowed your body to pay back your sleep debt and "find" its natural sleep patterns and duration—you are probably also feeling a lot better, sharper, happier, and healthier. This is how it feels to be well rested. The next step is to make sure that you continue to make sleep a priority and find ways to protect your sleep time.
The more overstimulated your brain becomes during the day, the harder it can be slow down and unwind at night. During the day, many of us overstress our brains by constantly interrupting tasks to check our phones, emails, or social media. Try to set aside specific times for these things, and focus on one task at a time. When it comes to getting to sleep at night, your brain won’t be accustomed to seeking fresh stimulation and you’ll be better able to unwind.
On the other hand, if you find you're waking up too early in the morning or have advanced sleep-phase syndrome, you may need more light late afternoon and could try taking a walk outdoors or light therapy for two to three hours in the evening. Home light therapy units are available and may be recommended by your doctor or sleep specialist to use in conjunction with your sleep therapy.
You’ve got an early day tomorrow, and you know you should be asleep — but instead you’re just lying there, wide awake, watching the minutes tick by on the clock. It’s called sleep-onset insomnia, and the irony is, the more you worry about falling asleep, the less likely you’ll be able to. But there are some easy things you can do to break the cycle. Below we discuss simple changes to your lifestyle and your sleep environment that can help you fall asleep faster and get a more restful night’s sleep.