Ann Dienes, age 58, had been plagued by insomnia for years. Try as she might, she simply could not get a good night’s sleep. But she recently shifted her attitude and adopted some new sleep strategies, and that’s made a world of difference, she says.
Dienes—who is an English professor at the City University of New York in Manhattan and lives in Great Neck, New York, with her husband, Robert, and their five cats—traces her sleep troubles back to her mid-20s, when she first moved into her own apartment.
“All of a sudden, the challenges of really being independent were a lot for me, and the insomnia showed up,” she says. She was also battling social anxiety, which contributed to her sleep woes.
Dienes tried herbal remedies such as valerian and lavender, relaxation techniques, melatonin, and exercise. Nothing really helped her sleep. “I started doing yoga in my 30s, and I loved it as a form of exercise,” she says. “There are some poses that are supposed to help with sleep, but I can’t say they really helped me.”
The therapist she saw for her mood issues referred her to a doctor who prescribed a low-dose tranquilizer. But she found that to be an unsatisfying solution. “Tranquilizers can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” she says. “If you don’t use them the right way—like taking one in the middle of the night—you could end up having a headache or a hangover feeling the next day.”
Although Dienes felt rewarded by her job teaching composition to first-year university students, many of whom were the first in their family to attend college, the insomnia was always there, sapping her energy. That made it even more difficult to make connections with others, and held her back from doing things she wanted to do, such as pursue career opportunities and engage in an active social life. “It kept me in a rut,” she says.
A Sleep-Habit Shift
About a year ago, Dienes sought the help of a sleep professional and began to realize that the solution didn’t lie just with her insomnia treatments, but with her own habits and attitudes. “When you can’t sleep, it’s easy to start thinking about it too much and spinning out worst-case scenarios,” she says. “But once you start obsessing, it becomes really problematic.”
People with insomnia can start to panic that they’re not going to be able to fall asleep or get enough sleep. “I used to overreact to my insomnia, and that made it worse,” says Dienes.
Here’s what she has done to turn things around—and what might help you to sleep better:
• Set your sleep time in stone. One of the most important things Dienes does is stick to the same sleep schedule, day in and day out. “You need to have a set pattern and not veer from it,” she explains. “You don’t sleep in on the weekends or change your going-to-bed and waking-up times. You try to keep it as consistent as you can.”
Related to this practice is restricting the amount of time spent in bed, no matter what. Allotting too much time for sleep can actually lead to spending more time in bed awake. “And you definitely don’t want to associate the bed with being awake,” Dienes says. For this reason, you should not work, watch TV, eat, or read in bed.
• Make relaxing—not sleep—your goal. “Once you give your mind a job to do, it will keep checking to see if you’ve done it,” Dienes explains. “This works well with other things in life, but it doesn’t work with sleep because you need to take a step away from your mind, but your mind keeps looking over your shoulder and saying, ‘Are you asleep yet?’”
Dienes says she had to learn how to unwind. “I tend to worry and overthink things,” she says. “I’m learning to be more lighthearted and laid back. So relaxing is a priority for me. The more I relax, the better I sleep.”
Dienes also discovered that some yoga poses, such as forward folds and leg lifts, soothe her. In addition, she likes to meditate.
Other calming strategies that Dienes says have been helpful include “being with friends and just relaxing with my husband and our pets. Watching our cats is very relaxing because they’re so good at being lazy and napping. I actually learn a lot from them!”
• Wind down for sleep. In the hour before bed, Dienes starts to set the stage for sleep. “I can’t just be going all day, doing this, doing that, and then expect to instantly fall asleep,” she explains. “My husband can, but I need to really ease into it, so I need to bring myself down, not talk about anything really urgent or worrisome, and just zone out.”
She starts by turning off the TV and other electronic devices. The light they emit interferes with the brain’s ability to shut down. Then she does something restful such as reading. “Of course, as an English professor, I like to read,” Dienes says. “But you have to choose wisely. You don’t want to read something overstimulating that’s going to take your mind a million places.”
• Try a Jedi mind trick. When she’s having trouble falling asleep, Dienes doesn’t attempt to double-down. Instead, she tells herself, “I’m just going to lie here and relax, and see what happens.” The tactic is surprisingly effective.
She also uses this trick if she wakes up in the middle of the night. “It’s very useful,” Dienes says. “It takes away some of the anxiety about sleep.”
• Practice the 30-minute rule. If she has been lying in bed for about a half hour and is still awake, Dienes gets out of bed. “I keep my yoga mats out, and I might go to a mat and do some stretches,” she says. She gets back into bed only when she feels really ready to fall asleep.
A Quality of Life Shift
Dienes’ sleep has improved significantly since she made the changes—and her quality of life has seen a boost. When she and her husband have free time, they enjoy simple pleasures like going to the movies and to concerts of performers they enjoyed in their youth, such as Pat Metheny, the Stylistics, and Steely Dan.
Dienes says she isn’t insomnia-free, but that’s OK. “Everyone’s always going to have a bad night now and then. It’s just part of being human,” she says. “But now I have more tools to cope with it.”