We’ve all been there at least a few times in our lives: you’ve lain in bed for what feels like an hour trying your best to fall asleep, but get trapped drifting back and forth between what feels like a frustrating semiconscious state and blissful restful sleep. You wonder with anxiety if you’ve suddenly lost the ability to fall asleep.
Luckily, it’s actually pretty easy to determine whether or not your issues go beyond what’s normal.
Before freaking out, run a few basic questions by your body, says Sanjeev Kothare, MD, professor of neurology at the NYU Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center—Sleep Center.
- Are you having aches and pains?
- Are you dealing with anxiety?
- Have you been taking more daytime naps than usual?
If your answer is “yes” to one of those questions, your main problem isn’t how long you take to fall asleep. More likely, your work or travel schedule are the ones getting you down – jet lag and irregular working shifts can mess with your circadian rhythm. Your sleep problem could also be a side effect of significant change or stress in your personal life.
If you answer is “no” to all 3 questions, however, this could be indicative of a medical problem. Adults between the ages of 18 and 58 typically take 30 minutes to fall asleep. If you’re still awake after being in bed — with the lights off and screens away — for a half hour every night, you may be dealing with sleep onset insomnia.
Sleep onset insomnia causes you to have a hard time falling properly asleep, which could lead to a multitude of health and relationship problems. It is possible to fall asleep eventually with sleep onset insomnia, it just takes a while longer than normal.
As far as treatment goes, Dr. Kothare and the Journal of Sleep Medicine both recommend cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTi), which usually focuses on solving sleep problems by adjusting how you perceive those problems. Instead of forcing sleep using pills and medication, CBTi reframes how you view your problems with sleep, helping you avoid insomnia-related anxiety that can exacerbate your sleep problems.
A component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is Restrictive Sleep Therapy, which conditions your body to enter a state of sleep as long as you are in bed. This is done by initially restricting the number of hours you can spend in bed to the average hours of actual sleep you get each night, training your body to make the most of your bedtime.
Other tips for falling asleep:
- Don’t answer emails or use your mobile phone in bed.
- If you’re still wide awake after 30 minutes, actually get out of bed
Of course, you could fall asleep within the 30-minute limit and still feel like you need a little nudge to get to Dreamland — in that case, we recommend trying one or more of these tricks to fall asleep.