It is nighttime, but sleep won’t come. You turn over. You turn the pillow over, the cold side. One leg out of the bed, one leg in. Perhaps a different position will turn down the volume on my overthinking. Or maybe the other side was better after all. Frustration sets in. Tomorrow’s to-do list flashes before your eyes. Deadline dates. You play back your day. You play back an argument you had ages ago. You win it this time. You begin to existentially ponder the big stuff: What am I doing? Where am I going?

Not being able to sleep is hell.

Many of us share in this. Over 2000 people responded to our recent survey we carried out on sleep. We found that:

  • 87% still felt tired when they woke up in the morning
  • 64% had regular awakenings during the night
  • 55% struggled getting to sleep at night
  • 59% were bothered by waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep

It doesn’t have to always be this way. Whether you’re reading this in the harsh light of day, or in the lonely dead of night —we can be lonely together as we search for a balm for those nocturnal niggles.

Sleep like a baby

Take a moment to reflect on how much care and attention parents of young children put into their child’s sleep routines. It’s a sweet science and an art. The blackout blinds, the white noise machine, the monitoring of the room temperature, plenty of naps during the day and early nights are a must. They don’t do this because they want to be A* parents, they do this because an overtired child is an absolute nightmare to look after. Tired children just do not cope. And we, as adults, share in a child’s sensitivity to a shortfall of sleep.

So, start by approaching your sleep like a responsible parent and take from the wisdom of your younger self. Know that you need sleep. Know that nothing good comes from depriving ourselves of it.

Bed is for sleep – and sex – only

Sleep hygiene consists of behavioural interventions that we can focus on to lay ourselves a clear pathway to the Land of the Nod. Know the following (and return to them anytime you need to):

  • Good sleep loves routine. So start getting up at the same time every day, resisting the temptation to ‘catch up’ on sleep on your days off.
  • Avoid the daytime nap. Napping in the day is often at the expense of a proper full night’s sleep.
  • If you wake in the night, don’t look at the time. Waking once or twice in the night is perfectly normal. But concrete knowledge of the exact time will often cause anxiety, making it harder to get back to sleep.
  • Bed should be for sleep and for sex. That is it. This means no doom-scrolling and no Netflix, the blue light from our screen is the enemy of our circadian rhythms. If you’re wide awake and sleep seems miles away, it is usually better to get up rather than stay lying around in bed.
  • Often a good night’s sleep requires discipline, cutting back on caffeine, nicotine and alcohol helps. But it doesn’t all have to be so reductive, taking a hot bath or shower, a dark and cool (in temperature) room and a comfy mattress are gifts to your sleeping self.

What’s keeping you up at night?

During the day, other people require our attention. At night, whether we like it or not, our attention unavoidably returns to ourselves.

Here, as we lay with the window open, we are in touch with the boundless and limitless reality of our existence. Unrestricted by the little rectangle frames that squish us in during our daily video meetings – big questions and existential thinking takes over: What am I doing? Where is my life going? Is this it, or is there more in store for me? Is my job secure? How can I be more successful? How can I have more balance? How can I make more money? Do I want to be in this relationship? How do I get into a relationship? What do I think about family? What would it be like to live somewhere else? How do I make a difference?

These thoughts are very rarely meaningless and are always grist for the mill. So first listen, don’t try and hush them prematurely — there may be wisdom there. But if you become plagued by a busy mind or anxious thoughts to the point of it costing you your sanity, keep a notebook and pen next to the bed. If a thought won’t stop swirling around, get up, turn on the light and write a note to yourself to deal with the issue in the morning. Then let go of the thought and go back to sleep. No big decisions should be made after 8:00pm.

In for 4 out for 6

Remember you have a body. Remember you have breath. Remember you have lungs and an expanding ribcage. As we spend more and more time hunched over on our laptops, the more forget these things.

Although there are a number of breathing exercises you can try to relax and fall asleep, a few basic principles apply to all of them. It’s always a good idea to close your eyes. Focus on breathing from your belly, not your chest. And repeat them regularly for the best results.

There are lots to draw from, but keep it simple. Here’s a diaphragmatic breathing exercise you can take to bed tonight:

  • Lie on your back and bend your knees over a pillow.
  • Place one hand flat against your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Take slow, deep breaths through your nose, keeping the hand on your chest still as the hand on your stomach rises and falls with your breaths.
  • Next, breathe slowly through pursed lips.
  • Feel the weight of your muscles, your bones, visualise sinking into a giant marshmallow.

Don’t go it alone

So, you have tightened up on your sleep hygiene, confronted the things that have kept you up and made you feel anxious, and learned to breathe like a yogi. These things normally go a long way in improving sleep.

If you find yourself trying these things and they don’t work, of course, you can try learning to meditate, studying Buddhism, trying hypnosis, drinking camomile tea, rubbing balm into your temples, burning candles, taking lavender baths, buying air purifiers, eating more kale — but if still, your sleep has not improved: it is time take your pillowcase and hoist it like a white flag, it is time to get some support.

Seeing your GP about sleep: they will ask you about your sleep patterns and how lack of sleep might be impacting your life. They may also examine you to look for any signs of a physical condition that could affect your sleep. Most of the time, your GP will be able to tell if you’re having sleep problems and what might be causing them just from talking to you. If there doesn’t seem to be an obvious cause for your insomnia, you may be asked to keep a record. They may also refer you to a therapist.

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Written by

Chance Marshall


Chance is Founding Partner at Self Space and Head of Written and Digital Content. He has a grounded, creative and empathetic approach in working with clients towards self-awareness and real, lasting personal and interpersonal change.