Imagine this. Its 2am in the morning. You have been tossing and turning in bed for the past 3 hours, trying hard to fall asleep, but your mind just refuses to shut off. You find yourself increasingly frustrated. You check your watch – its 2.30am. You think to yourself “this is messed up. Tomorrow will be ruined”. You continue to fuss in bed. You shut your eyes and it feels like eternity. You lie motionless in bed, but you know your mind is active – actively trying to fall asleep. The next time you check the time, its 5am. You give up and decide to start your day. Another dreadful start to an unproductive day.

Most of us would have experienced the above scenario at some point in our lives. This usually occurs when we are preoccupied with a certain worrying thought, or are adjusting to certain life transitions. The insomnia is usually short-lived and resolves over a few days or short weeks. However, when insomnia persists for more than 3 months, it could be a sign of a psychological disorder and seeking professional help will be useful.

Here are 5 tips which has been scientifically proven to improve our sleep. Although they can be immediately implemented by simply modifying our bedtime behaviors, they will take some time to work if you are already struggling from insomnia.

  1. Establish a bedtime routine

This helps to prepare our minds and body for sleep. The routine should be 30 to 60 minutes in duration, and may involve relaxing activities such as stretching, listening to music, reading, taking a light snack, an evening stroll or having a warm bath. Play around with the sequence and type of activities, and then stick with the same routine every night just before bedtime. Refrain from over-stimulating or stressful activities – No checking work emails, reading horror stories or intense interval training! These are sure to keep you awake!

  1. Condition your brain to associate the bed with sleep

We may not realize it, but most learning in the human brain occurs at an unconscious level. Chronic insomniacs have inadvertently “trained” their brains to associate the bed with stress and wakefulness. They do this by toss and turning in bed, worried about insomnia, ruminating about life stresses, for hours every night. To recover from chronic insomnia, this vicious cycle must be broken. We can break the cycle by getting out of bed if we are unable to fall asleep after 20 minutes in bed. Engage in relaxing activities outside of the bedroom, or simply repeat the bedtime routine. Only return to bed when you find yourself tired, sleepy and yawning.

Ironically, a mind which is fussing and stressed over insomnia will not be able to fall asleep. Obsessing over insomnia only serves to worsen it. Sleep (like happiness?) comes to us naturally when we finally learn that it cannot be forced. Only a relaxed mind can fall asleep.

  1. Stop “Clock-watching

Consider the scenario described at the start of this article. The very act of checking the time in the middle of the night can induce stress and anxiety in the sleepless individual. It is best to Keep your clocks and watches out of the bedroom. Instead, allow time to pass and trust your natural ability to fall asleep. Resist your instincts the check the time. Engage in relaxation exercises or get in touch with your senses. Focus on the sounds of the aircon, fan, traffic outside of your home. Allow your mind to slowly drift into sleep.

  1. Learn relaxation exercises

Learning to relax is a crucial skill to facilitate good sleep. Instead of fussing over insomnia, we have to learn to distract the mind and direct it towards a relaxing, peaceful state. Instead of tossing and turning in bed, we need to learn to relax our bodies and savour the softness of the bed, the darkness of the night, the coolness of the bedroom.

There are many types of relaxation exercises, such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Mindfulness practice. Try listening to one of these videos ____ (PS videos for relaxation on YouTube

  1. Keep all devices out of the bedroom

In many ways, insomnia is a modern day affliction contributed by use of modern day devices. Artificial lights interfere with our body clocks. Emails and WhatsApp messages intrude into our bedtimes. Handphone apps, computer games, social media, online shopping … the list goes on. It just seems like there is so much going on in our lives, so much to do, that it is worthwhile compromising sleep for. When we bring modern day devices into our beds, we are allowing them to wreck havoc to our sleep. Both the mental stimulation from using these devices, and the blue light which they emit, can inhibit our sleep drive and body clock.

Dr. Tay Kai Hong
Psychiatrist, Medical Doctor
Private Space Medical