Can’t sleep? Get up and do stuff!

Can’t sleep? Get up and do stuff!

So, what do you do when sleep just doesn’t come? Well, the one thing you shouldn’t do is to continue to lie there, not sleeping. If you can’t sleep, you should get out of bed. There are two different reasons for this. Firstly, like the other sleep hygiene rules, every minute that you lie in bed, wide awake, reinforces the connection between bed and anxiety, and weakens the connection between bed and sleep. But secondly, the fact is, you are more likely to fall asleep very shortly after getting into bed, when the ‘sleepy feeling’ appears. If you lie awake once that feeling has come and gone, it can take a very long time lying there for it to return. In some cases it simply will not return until you get up and change your surroundings.

If you are not asleep within 20, or in some cases, 15 minutes, you should get out of bed and do something boring until you feel ready to fall asleep. This is an effective rule, but in most cases, the rule does not need to be so strict. I don’t now, and never did, even as a child, fall asleep within 20 minutes. Perhaps this is another example of a rule being written by someone who has never missed a night’s sleep in their lives. If you have lain comfortably in bed for 20 minutes but still feel drowsy and sleepy, there is often a very good chance that you will still fall asleep quite soon.

So, don’t be too concerned with the actual number of minutes that you have lain awake. It’s better to get up and do something when you can’t sleep.

So what exactly does this mean? Well, if you are like most insomniacs, then a bad night goes something like this – You close your eyes and begin to become sleepy and drowsy and less aware of your surroundings, just like any normal sleeper. You may be on the verge of sleep when, suddenly, you awake with a jolt. Or, you may just slowly become aware of the fact that you have been in bed for some time but aren‘t asleep. At this point you probably start to become more awake and the ‘sleepy feeling’ begins to diminish. You are waking up, not getting sleepier. When it is unmistakeable to you that this is happening, this is the time to get out of bed. This may be after five minutes or an hour, it doesn’t much matter.

But what to do when you do get up? Many experts advise you to do something boring when you get up, like reading the phone book. You can do something boring if it helps; any change in focus is usually enough, whether it’s having a hot bath or shower, doing some housework or taking the dog out for a walk. But what is very important is that you have worked out what you will do should you wake up before you lie down to sleep. This will make it much easier to drag yourself out of the warmth and comfort of your bed. Have a jigsaw puzzle ready on the table, have in mind to clean the skirting boards, or a particular bit of studying to do. Many great writers were night owls, writing some of their best work in the small hours when the rest of the world was asleep. So perhaps have a piece of creative writing in mind. As long as the activity is not extremely stimulating, such as vigorous activity which can make it difficult to fall asleep quickly afterwards, it doesn’t much matter what it is. Most people complain of not having enough time in the day to get everything done. If you are an insomniac, don’t ever let this be the case. Fill those night-time waking hours with meaningful activity and feel the satisfaction at having got so much more done. Going to bed with a plan for what you will do if you need to get up can also lessen your anxieties because the pressure to sleep is less: if you sleep –- great! If you don’t -– you’ll do the ironing. Simple as that. Some examples of ideal things to do are:

- Jigsaws
- Cleaning out the fridge
- Cleaning out kitchen cupboards
- Having a hot bath or shower
- Doing a crossword or Sudoku
- Performing some of these relaxation techniques

If you really cannot summon the willpower to get out of bed and undertake some activity in the middle of the night, then there is a compromise move you can try, although it is probably not a good idea if you are elderly or have circulation problems. Instead of carrying out an activity, get out of bed and lie on the cold hard floor in your bedroom or in another room. Do not snuggle up with a blanket. The idea is not to be comfortable enough to fall asleep. Lie there for at least 20 minutes and then go back to bed. Try counting to 60 on each finger, twice. This is particularly effective if you have an electric blanket to return to when your bed will seem so warm and inviting. Sleep will be much easier to find.

The other important thing about any night-time activity is that whatever you decide to do, it should be a job which can be finished in between 30 minutes to an hour. If you get up and just ‘do some cleaning’ with no thought of what you might do, you may find yourself idly dusting until it feels like about 30 minutes has gone by. The idea is that your focus is taken away from clock-watching, away from the fact that you are not asleep. It could have a negative effect if you are constantly focussed on the fact that you are doing an ‘insomnia activity’. So don’t get up and ‘do some cleaning’, get up and clean out the fridge or dust every skirting board in the house. In this way, your focus is on the activity, not on whether it has been 30 minutes since you got up. It needs to be just long enough so that when you get back into bed, it feels relaxing and fresh, and that you can start the ‘falling asleep’ process all over again. Then the sleepy feeling will come over you anew, and you will have a much better chance of falling asleep this time.

Do not give up on this method of relieving insomnia just because it doesn’t work the first few times you try it. In the early days, doing this is likely to interfere with your sleep and you may have a few sleepless nights because of it. But I recommend that you persevere. This guideline is designed to break a negative association; it is not an insomnia cure in itself.

If you are in bed, you should be asleep. If not, get up.