science of us

How to Actually Fall Asleep

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Lately I’ve been feeling isolated not only from other people but also from my old routine, those daily rituals that, apparently, used to help me keep a somewhat-consistent sleep schedule. Given that there seems to be more keeping us up at night than ever, the Cut spoke to three sleep experts about the best strategies for falling asleep (and the biggest mistakes people make when trying to do so). You can’t force yourself into sleep — it’s a state that you come into naturally — but you can position yourself to get there by using the tips below.

1. Keep a consistent schedule.

One of the most important things to know about falling asleep is that you can’t actually make yourself do it, says Dr. Jennifer Martin, a professor at UCLA and clinical psychologist who serves on the board of directors for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The key, she says, is to be in bed at the right time so that your body is likely to fall asleep once you get there. One of the best strategies to help you feel tired around the same time every night is having a consistent schedule — one where you’re not only getting into bed around the same time but getting up around the same time in the morning. Setting an alarm or reminder that it’s time to get ready for bed can help to develop this kind of consistency. “Most people set alarms in the morning, but sometimes people benefit from cues to start shutting down their day as well,” says Martin.

2. Cut out caffeine within ten hours of bedtime.

Sleepiness is a biological process that happens in your brain, and one of the markers of it is a chemical called adenosine. “When adenosine levels are high in your brain, then you fall asleep fast. But if you still have caffeine on board, it will actually block the action of adenosine,” Martin says. “As a result, you don’t feel sleepy. You might be worn out and exhausted, but your brain doesn’t have that sensation of sleepiness.” That’s why Martin says you should avoid caffeine within ten hours of trying to fall asleep. There’s not necessarily a specific time of day to stop drinking it; it just depends what time you plan on going to bed.

3. Do something you find relaxing.

Because your brain won’t let you go to sleep if you’re stressed out or excited, giving yourself a little time — 15 to 20 minutes — to disconnect before bed is crucial to falling asleep quickly. “The trick here, for a lot of people, is that they actually need to do something active for their mind to quiet down,” she says. “If you just sit there and tell yourself not to think about something, it’s extremely difficult not to think about it. But if you replace it with something more neutral or even relaxing, that’s a better strategy.”

Martin encourages people to reflect on the things they find relaxing in general. If you’re someone who likes to clean, spend those last 15 to 20 minutes tidying up. If you’re someone who loves to take a book on vacation, try reading before turning out the light. Use what you know about yourself — what generally tends to make you feel calm — and incorporate that into your wind-down routine. The same goes for what to avoid, Martin says. “It’s individualized, so if you notice something that gets you amped up, don’t try to get into bed right after you do it.” These days in particular, she tells people to avoid watching the news or doom-scrolling through Twitter before bed. “To be simple about it, distract yourself for a bit and let your mind come to a place of rest, and then get in bed.”

4. Or do nothing at all.

For people who feel like they’re carrying a lot of tension and won’t be able to sleep, sometimes a moment of quiet time can help, says Dr. Ana Krieger, medical director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. One way to do this is to sit on a chair in your living room or bedroom, turn off the lights, and close your eyes. “Just be there, allowing that energy and tension to decrease,” says Krieger. This can make people feel a lot more relaxed, which she says will then help ease the transition of trying to fall asleep.

5. Remember that trying to force yourself to sleep might make it worse.

“What I typically tell people is don’t get into bed until you’re sleepy,” says Dr. Aric Prather, a sleep scientist at UCSF. “Sleep is something that people don’t even think about until it stops working, and then they try to force it.” Something he often hears when treating people with insomnia is that they were feeling sleepy before bed, but once they get under the covers, they felt like their brain woke up. “That’s the conditioned response because they spent so much time telling themselves, ‘I have to go to sleep right now.’ That kind of anxiety is really incompatible with sleeping.”

Not only can you not will yourself to sleep, but it might even make things worse. “The biggest misconception is that many people feel that trying to fall asleep will help them fall asleep,” says Krieger. “It doesn’t. It actually ruins your sleep, because it activates your mind.” Krieger says you should be careful not to intentionally force it, because any cognitive activity is going to distance you from the relaxation and disconnection that needs to take place for people to fall asleep. Martin adds that there’s not a lot of magic in falling asleep — again, it’s a biological process. “I always have people who swear by a supplement or a scent or something like that, and most of those I think act by allowing us not to try,” she says, adding that even prescription sleeping pills have a very strong placebo effect. “If you give people placebo who have insomnia, a lot of them actually sleep better because taking the pill allows them to give up.”

6. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed until you’re relaxed enough to try again.

According to Prather, if you’re in bed and 20 minutes have gone by and you’re not feeling sleepy at all, you probably want to get out of bed. “That’s usually the beginning of what can become clinical insomnia because your body gets used to the idea of being all angsty in bed. Then that’s what your body begins to expect.” Instead, go somewhere else and do something relaxing — like sitting and reading in your living room or listening to music — until you feel sleepy enough to get back in bed and try again.

Martin agrees, noting that a bad night of sleep here and there is well within what’s considered normal — but if a person has bad sleep three or more times a week for three months or longer, then it’s a sleep disorder. “We are wired to stay awake under stress, and that’s so we can protect ourselves if there was a threat in our environment,” Martin says. “But what can happen is that sleep problems can become their own threat.” Prather finds that patients with insomnia often talk about how their bed partner falls asleep immediately and how they feel resentful toward them because it seems so unfair. “But oftentimes when people fall asleep that fast, they’re probably pretty sleep-deprived,” Prather tells me. “You don’t want to be that sleep-deprived that you just fall asleep instantaneously. So I try to reframe what that is to people to help them relax about their sleep.”

7. Rewatch The Office (or something else you’ve seen a million times).

“We do know that engaging with technology right before you go to sleep makes it harder to fall asleep,” Martin says. But what if getting into bed and watching a TV show is part of my nightly routine? “This is where it becomes very individualized,” she says, as some people might find this activity very relaxing and others may say it keeps them up at night. Prather tells me when he’s treating people who’ve been awake for hours, he tells them that they can watch TV, but don’t turn on all the lights. “Most people benefit if they watch things that they’ve seen before that don’t give your brain extra work,” he says, adding that he can’t even count how many times himself he’s rewatched The Office. “It’s funny, but there’s also nothing that’s going to jump out that you haven’t seen before. It’s calming in that way.”

8. Use your TV’s sleep timer to avoid getting sucked into the next episode.

Most of the streaming platforms we use are designed to keep our eyes on the screen as long as possible, Martin says. “Netflix will automatically go to the next episode, which is a big sleep thief for a lot of people.” You may intend to only watch one episode, but next thing you know, an hour and a half has gone by and you’re still awake. Try your TV’s sleep timer option; it’s the kind of external tool you can use to help reinforce the right habits.

9. Go to bed a little later.

This might sound counterintuitive, but remember that chemical, adenosine? You don’t start accumulating it until you wake up in the morning. “So the longer you’re awake, the higher your adenosine levels are,” Martin says. Most people need about seven hours of sleep or more, but the best way to know whether you’re getting enough sleep is to judge how you feel during the day. You know you’re getting enough sleep if you don’t feel tired, even if you’re only sleeping six and a half hours. It varies from person to person. “What I usually tell people is to go to bed at a reasonable hour and sleep until you naturally wake up; the amount of sleep you get on the third night that you do that is about the right amount of sleep for you,” Martin says. “A lot of us walk around with a little bit of sleep debt, and after a couple of nights you can get past it.”

10. Try an imagery exercise.

Another technique that lends itself to personalization is an imagery exercise, where you close your eyes in bed and picture yourself doing something you find relaxing — walking on the beach, sitting in a park, whatever. (I like to think of those “satisfying paint mixing” videos you see on Instagram.) This is a strategy Martin uses to make people less anxious in general, and she says it can be a really useful way to fall asleep.

11. Practice diaphragmatic breathing.

One way to relax your mind is to first relax your body, which you can do through diaphragmatic breathing. Sitting on a chair or lying on your back, place one hand on your upper chest and the other right above your belly button. Breathe in through your nose, feeling your stomach move out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible. Think of your stomach like a balloon you’re filling up, taking in as much air as possible until exhaling through your mouth with pursed lips. Again, the hand on your chest should remain still.

Do this exercise for five to ten minutes. If you do yoga, you’re probably familiar with this kind of belly breathing. But if you’re trying it for the first time, Martin suggests practicing it during the day, as opposed to trying to learn it at bedtime. “Sometimes that’s too much effort.”

12. Relax your body.

If you’re in bed, Prather says to integrate your deep breathing with a body scan, noticing the sensations from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. Sometimes people also like to integrate progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing a group of muscles as you inhale and releasing them as you exhale. Prather says that focusing on different muscle groups helps your body feel physically relaxed. “This is a way of letting the tension of the day wash off of you, which is a serene visualization to help dip into sleep.”

13. If you’re highly anxious, don’t get in bed.

“It’s a recipe for frustration, and if you do that over and over again, you can make your sleep worse, not better,” says Martin. If you’re having a hard time calming yourself down, Martin suggests sitting quietly somewhere and doing some diaphragmatic breathing.

14. Worry the right way.

Prather says you want to let that anxiety play out outside of the bed, and one way to get a hold of this feeling is through a constructive worry exercise. Typically, he’ll have people do this before their wind down. He says you identify the top three things that you’re worried about and then outline the first few steps you want to take to deal with those things on a piece of paper. “It’s ritualistic. You fold it up and place it by your bedside, and you say something like, ‘Okay, I’ve already thought about these things and there’s no real reason for me to keep using my energy to focus on this,’” Prather says. “The fact of the matter is that when you’re trying to fall asleep or when you’re awake in the middle of the night, you’re cognitively not in the right space to be tackling these anxieties anyway.”

15. Use 4-7-8 breathing as a distraction technique.

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise promotes relaxation while also serving as a distraction technique. Ideally, Krieger says people should be in bed when they start doing the exercise. To do 4-7-8 (which is sometimes called “triangle breathing”), breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and then exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. Do this for three or four cycles. “I typically tell people don’t count in your head because you want to deactivate the mind,” says Krieger.

Instead, she tells people to tap their fingers as they count (four on one hand, four on the other, three in one, and so forth) until they get the pacing of the breathing. Krieger says that doing 4-7-8 gives people an activity to focus on, which then allows more natural processes of sleep to come in. According to Prather, this breathing technique will help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, a component of the nervous system that regulates bodily functions (such as blood pressure, heart rate, and breath) in the resting state.

16. Thoughtfully arrange your sleep environment.

You want your bedroom to be dark, quiet, and cool, Prather tells me. In instances when the bedroom isn’t as quiet as you’d like, white noise (or some other frequency of noise) can be helpful. Krieger recommends taking a look at the components of your bedroom to try to figure out what you can do to improve your environment, whether that means asking yourself if your covers are too heavy and trapping your heat while you sleep or making sure too much light isn’t entering the space.

How to Actually Fall Asleep