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Can't Sleep? 7 Drug-Free Strategies to Try

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So many of us struggle with the issue of not getting enough sleep, and it can be one of the most frustrating problems to experience. I get it. For many years, I was an insomniac. Then, I spent a decade working 18 hours a day and giving up my sleep as a ticket to greater productivity. Burnout was my prize for that choice.

And now, even though I have implemented the strategies I outline below and am a great sleeper, I still have those nights, mostly when I have too much work on, when I either can't get to sleep, or I wake at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. and have no chance of getting back to dream land. It is more rare these days, but it still can happen.

So what do I know works? From all of my research through wellness studies, performance management, and experience myself and with my coaching clients, here are some strategies that I recommend. Have a play with them, mix them up, and see what works for you. Then let us know how you go.

1. Tune in to your needs. The research is fairly irrefutable on how much sleep the average person needs each night to be productive and healthy -- it's between seven and nine hours and changes over our life cycle. But the most important thing here is to tune in to what your body really needs. You might thrive on nine hours but can get by on eight. You may know that if you only get six hours for three nights in a row you will hit the wall. Or you may honestly thrive on 7.5 hours. Tune in to your body over the period of a month of decent sleep and see how you feel. Find your optimal sleep level and try and build that into your lifestyle.

2. Beware the new normal. Many people get five hours a night and think they are fine. They have been doing this for years, they tell you, and have no issues. If you are in this category, you may be experiencing what I call the new normal. You really aren't fine, you are actually chronically sleep deprived, but your body has adjusted to this. You only realize how exhausted you are after being on holiday and actually having a week of decent sleep (like eight hours) and wake up to how tired your body actually was. So be honest with yourself, feel into your body and acknowledge where you are at.

3. Create a bedtime ritual. One of the greatest tools to changing sleep patterns is to create a bedtime ritual. Many people switch off their computers or get off a late night conference call, fall into bed exhausted and expect to be asleep within five minutes. For most of us, that just isn't possible. Setting up the right environment for sleep is critical. Work out what will really slow you down. Of course, devices off is a good place to start. I suggest to my clients some mixture of the following: 30 to 60 minutes before sleep time, start to wind it down with some gentle stretching or restorative yoga, five to 10 minutes of meditation, a cup of relaxing herbal tea and some light reading that will calm you not stimulate you. A few drops of lavender oil on the pillow, a warm bath with candles and music, anything that will help you chill out and calm down will help. Doing this consistently lets your body know it's time for sleep, helps optimize your melatonin levels (our sleep hormone) and lets your brain know it's time to turn off. Try it over time. It works better than anything else I know.

4. Try a gratitude journal. Research from the field of positive psychology has shown that keeping a gratitude journal daily and writing down three specific things each night before sleep that you are particularly grateful for that day, has been shown to decrease levels of insomnia. You need to be specific, e.g., don't write, "I'm grateful for my job" but instead write, "Today I was grateful for the experience of working with John on the strategy project because I learnt how to do the new network analysis." Specificity is important here. Buy a small notebook, keep it by your bed and try this for four weeks and see what impact it has.

5. Work out your stressors. We know that two of the main inhibitors to restful sleep are busy schedules and long work hours. For many of us, where working from home is part of the routine after dinner, this extension of the working day into the night only inflates the issue. Working out how to de-stress and switch off is critical. If you are particularly worked up at the end of the day and cant switch off, try writing a list as you log off for the task list for the next day. This can help you to not ruminate about it.

6. Don't log back on. One of the worst things you can do if you can't sleep or wake up during the night is to reengage your brain. Whether that's checking the iPhone, logging on to social media, or actually getting up and sitting at your computer, these are pretty much guaranteed ways to ensure you won't be getting back to sleep anytime soon. If you can't sleep, then try to relax instead. Lie in your bed and meditate, or listen to a guided visualization. Write quietly in a journal under a soft light. Or have pleasant thoughts about your next holiday or massage you have planned for the weekend. Staying in a relatively dark and quiet environment is often the best way to lull yourself back to sleep.

7. Keep a schedule and a journal: Our bodies like rhythm and routine. Getting in tune with your circadian rhythm by going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day, will help your body know when it is actually time to go to sleep. And we know that the hours before midnight are the most effective sleep wise, so try being in bed for sleep around 10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m., and waking at 6 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. Keep track of how you go, what is working in terms of rituals, how you feel on waking, and any thoughts that may have kept you awake during the night. By starting to track your patterns you can amplify what works, and develop counter strategies for what doesn't.

One of the most important things in creating sleep habits that work, is not to panic. We can get ourselves into a terrible state when we become so stressed about getting a good nights sleep that we are too strung out to sleep a wink. Try these strategies, see what works, and then readjust as you need to.

Sleep needs and abilities change over time. Work out what you need and how you can get it. And if you are really still struggling with lack of sleep or it turns into insomnia, then consider seeing someone about it like a cognitive behavioral therapist to look at underlying behavioral patterns. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Connect with Megan at www.megandallacamina.com.

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