11 ‘Harmless’ Habits That Actually Are Causing Your Insomnia
Some of the things you think will make for a better night’s sleep may actually contribute to your insomnia.
Sleeping well at night is a good setup for a successful day. If you struggle with insomnia, you should try to avoid the common mistakes people make before sleep. Here’s why experts want you to avoid these “harmless” nighttime habits.
You keep a different sleep schedule on the weekends
“If I had one sleep tip, it would be to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day,” says sleep medicine doctor and psychologist Michael Breus, PhD, who runs the website thesleepdoctor.com. “Your body craves this consistency.” If you go to sleep and wake up later on the weekends, don’t expect to be able to fall asleep at your weekday bedtime on Sunday night, he says. Experts have named this insomnia cause “social jet lag,” as you’re effectively forcing your body to toggle between two different time zones every week. (Here are some secrets to sleep better, straight from sleep doctors.)
You go to sleep too early
Ninety percent of insomniacs hit the hay too soon, estimates Breus. It sounds counterintuitive, which is the main reason this is one of the most common insomnia causes. But despite what your intuition might tell you, staying up later signals to your body’s homeostatic system that you need more sleep, so when you do finally go to bed, you’ll conk out sooner. In cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), sleep doctors often start with your wake-up time, then count backward about six to seven hours. A 6:30 a.m. wake up, for example, might mean bed at midnight instead 10:30 p.m. Restricting your time in bed sends a message to your body that you are more active and need the sleep when you try for it, says Colleen Carney, PhD, director of the Sleep and Depression Laboratory at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada and author of Goodnight Mind: Turn Off Your Noisy Thoughts and Get a Good Night’s Sleep.
You have no set bedtime
It may be decades since you had a stories-and-warm-milk routine, but “we never really outgrow a wind-down period,” says Carney. Breus has long recommended patients start a “power-down hour”: Set an alarm for 60 minutes before you plan to go to sleep. Spend the first 20 minutes finishing up any must-dos (walking the dog, firing off a few last emails) and the next 20 minutes on sleep hygiene (showering, brushing teeth, pajamas). For the final 20 minutes, do something relaxing like meditation, gentle yoga, or reading a book. Then lights out. (Don’t ignore these signs you’re headed for a rough night’s sleep.)
You underestimate how much caffeine you consume
It’s no secret that caffeine can keep you awake, but many people mistakenly think the stimulant drug has no effect on them, says Breus. In fact, caffeine has a half-life of eight to 10 hours (meaning that eight hours after your last grande latte, half of the caffeine is still in your system), so drinking too much too late in the day may inadvertently be arresting your sleep. What’s more, caffeine metabolism slows as we get older. Your body can’t process caffeine as efficiently in your forties as it did in your twenties, so the same amount that didn’t bother you then could have an effect now. (Here are other surprising ways caffeine affects your health.)
Your approach to insomnia is all wrong
Breus says a big part of insomnia rehab is coaching patients to reframe negative or incorrect perceptions of sleep. “Addressing this catastrophic thinking can help relieve anxiety so sleep becomes just a physical act, not an emotional one,” he says. Plus, believing you slept well—even if you didn’t—may improve brain function the next day, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Researchers asked 164 participants how they’d slept the previous night, then hooked them up to a sham machine that purportedly revealed to scientists their REM sleep. People who were told they had above-average REM sleep performed better on cognitive and attention tasks than those who were told their REM sleep was below average, regardless of how they’d actually slept.
You get out of bed in the middle of the night
Even sleep experts debate whether you should get out or stay in bed when you can’t sleep. Breus makes this helpful distinction: “Don’t worry about the difference between resting and sleeping.” If you’re awake in bed, but feel relaxed and peaceful, it’s perfectly fine to lie there and wait to fall back asleep. He recommends counting backward from 300 by 3s to bring on drowsiness. This may be better than automatically jumping out of bed the minute you find yourself awake, which only arouses you more. (Check out these other techniques that help you fall back asleep when you wake up in the middle of the night.)
However, if you have longstanding chronic insomnia and are in bed for more than 20 minutes not sleeping, it is a good idea to get out of bed and do something boring, calming, or relaxing in another room so the brain doesn’t associate lying in bed with lying awake.
You overstimulate in the middle of the night
If you’re in bed, anxious, and your mind is running a million miles a minute, you’re better off getting out of bed. But what you do next is key to ultimately falling back asleep. Stay away from anything too stimulating, like checking email or social media, which can be bad insomnia causes, says Carney. Pick an activity you look forward to—like knitting or reading a novel—to help minimize the anxiety that many people feel during episodes of insomnia. (Can’t shake that nervous feeling? Consider one of these drug-free sleep aids.)
You use your device before bed
Not all electronics before bed are bad, says Breus, who acknowledges that some of his patients fare better when they can wind down with some TV before they go to sleep. But activities that are highly interactive—answering emails, texting, posting on Facebook, or tweeting—prevent your brain from shutting down and can promote insomnia. Try leaving your phone in another room so you’re not tempted to reach for it in the middle of the night.
You watch the clock
“The worst thing you can do when you can’t sleep is to look at the clock,” says Breus. “You immediately start doing the mental math of how many hours you have left until you wake up, which makes you feel more anxious. This elevates adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that make you feel alert and further disrupt sleep.” Try to move (or remove) your physical clocks if these insomnia causes are a problem for you. (Try these other weird sleep tricks instead.)
You think you need 8 hours
“Most adults don’t get and don’t need precisely eight hours of sleep every night,” says Carney. “Some people are nine-hour sleepers, but don’t get that amount because they feel lazy. Some people are six-hour sleepers, but fret that it’s not enough.” If you can wake up without an alarm clock and usually don’t feel tired during the day, you’re probably getting the right amount of sleep for you. (Here’s the science behind why you’re waking up before your alarm.)
You drink to nod off
Yes, a big glass of wine can make you drowsy initially. But as your body metabolizes the alcohol while you sleep, a drink or two before bed can actually wake you up later in the night and prevent your body from entering deeper, more restorative phases of sleep. Learn more sleeping mistakes you’re making that could be causing your insomnia.
- Michael Breus, PhD, who runs the website thesleepdoctor.com
- Colleen Carney, PhD, director of the Sleep and Depression Laboratory at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada and author of Goodnight Mind: Turn Off Your Noisy Thoughts and Get a Good Night’s Sleep
- Journal of Experimental Psychology: "Placebo Sleep Affects Cognitive Functioning"