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Hush the brains: Five steps to help when you can’t fall asleep

Between meditation and other mind tricks, here are some simple techniques to help get some shut eye.

A recent study from Leger Marketing fielded in Quebec found 89 per cent of Canadians experienced “racing thoughts” that prevented them from getting a good night’s sleep.

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A recent study from Leger Marketing fielded in Quebec found 89 per cent of Canadians experienced “racing thoughts” that prevented them from getting a good night’s sleep.

Calgary-based Paula McPhee, 54, used to believe she had insomnia. She’s rarely sleep through the night, and never felt rested.

Whether it’s work-related stress, an ill-conceived late-night coffee run or just a bout of insomnia, most people will struggle to fall asleep once in a while. A recent study from Leger Marketing fielded in Quebec found 89 per cent of Canadians experienced “racing thoughts” that prevented them from getting a good night’s sleep. Like many Canadians, McPhee would lie awake for hours, her mind active.

Then she discovered the podcast Sleep With Me. Created and narrated by Drew Ackerman, the free-to-download podcast lulls listeners with a slow, melodic and boring story. The tales – like what happened to Cinderella after her happy ending or detailed descriptions of what’s on a shelf – are just engaging enough to keep listeners’ minds focused, but so dull they can’t help but drift off. McPhee has never made it through an entire story – she can’t even remember making it past the five-minute mark. In fact, she hasn’t struggled with sleep since she discovered the podcast two years ago.  

For those looking to hush their brains, here are some other simple techniques to help get some shut eye.  

1. Meditation can be a useful trick to falling asleep, particularly if there are stressful thoughts roaming around in your head, says Reut Gruber, director of McGill University’s Attention Deficit and Sleep Lab. Try systematically relaxing different body parts, starting at your toes and working your way up to your heels, ankles, calves, etc. Similarly, dull or meditative podcasts, like Sleep With Me, distract your brain just enough to quiet your racing thoughts.

2. The trick is to keep your mind focused enough on a task so that your mind doesn’t start to wander towards stressful thoughts again. Recent research from Simon Frasier University in B.C. suggests instead of counting sheep, people should instead pick a simple word with no repeating letters (e.g. bark, laugh, mask). Beginning with the first letter of the word, list off as many other words you can think of that also begin with that letter. When you can’t think of any other options, shift to the second letter, and so on.

3. If something is stressing you out, try the “Thought-Stopping” technique from the University of South Carolina. When a stressful thought or memory creeps into your mind, think in capital letters STOP. If the thought comes up again, repeat the command.  

4. While it might seem counter-intuitive, if you’ve been in bed for more than 15 minutes and aren’t getting sleepy, get out of bed, says Gruber. The bed should be restricted for sleep and sex and lying awake stressing over your inability to fall asleep only trains your brain to associate your bed with anxiety.

5. Once out of bed, do something “boring,” Gruber adds. While a good book might be tempting, it’s more effective to read a math textbook that always put you to sleep in class or the classic novel you never managed to get through. 

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