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Can’t sleep? Read this (but not in bed on your phone)

Published: Apr 27, 2017

By Wendy Malloy


The posts pop up on Facebook every night, beginning around 2 a.m.: “Why can’t I sleep? Ugh.” “Insomnia. Help.” Americans aren’t getting enough rest.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, almost 70% of adults experience some form of sleep disorder. And the consequences are far more serious than the occasional cranky complaint on social media. Among them: One million car crashes. A sharp uptick in workplace accidents. Increased susceptibility to disease and injury. 

Insomnia is a public health problem. 

The good news? Relief is possible, said Dr. Jaclyn Lewis-Crosswell, director of sleep disorder therapy at Tampa General Hospital. She treats chronic sufferers in group sessions and individual therapy at TGH. 

“Generally, we begin to see positive changes within two weeks,” she said.

For people with occasional sleeplessness, relatively simple behavioral changes can help retrain the body and mind to get a healthy amount of shut-eye.

“Stress is the No. 1 reason for insomnia,” Dr. Lewis-Crosswell said. “We all have it. You can't avoid it, but as a society we need to learn to be able to manage it effectively. We aren't born learning to turn off our stress response; a lot of people don't learn how to do that until after stress has taken somewhat of a toll.”

Deep abdominal breathing is step one. “Fill your lungs and belly full of air, like you’re blowing up a balloon,” said Dr. Lewis-Crosswell. “This is one of the best mechanisms for the body to stop the stress response.”

Another technique: autogenic training - a complicated name for “targeted muscular relaxation.” Focus on a single part of the body - your jaw, for instance - as you breathe deeply, tensing for a few moments and then fully relaxing that body part as you exhale. Start at the top of your head and work downward. By the time you reach your toes, you’ll be ready for dreamland.

A few more suggestions from Dr. Lewis-Crosswell:

Wake up at the same time every day - even on weekends. “This is the No. 1 way to reset your circadian rhythm,” said Dr. Lewis-Crosswell, referring to the natural body clock that regulates sleeping and wakefulness. “Regardless of the quality of sleep you had the night before, set your alarm and get out of bed - even if you’ve been out dancing into the wee hours.” 

Otherwise, you risk setting up an unhealthy cycle. For instance, you have a late date Friday night and sleep in on Saturday. Then you stay up to watch “SNL” and sleep in even later on Sunday. You toss and turn at bedtime Sunday night, anxious about an important early Monday meeting - but unable to fall asleep. 

The consequences can last into the work week: You’re unproductive and cranky Monday at the office, you hit the couch for a nap when you get home, and then you can’t fall asleep at bedtime. The cycle continues.

If you’re having trouble falling asleep, get out of bed. Tossing and turning further delays relaxation and creates more anxiety - and the more you worry about not being able to sleep, the less likely you are to sleep.

What to do? Get up and go to another room. Try something mindless and repetitive in a semi-dark environment, like folding towels or petting your dog. Only when you feel tired again should you go back to bed.

Use your bed only for sleeping or sex. Do not watch TV or work on your laptop in bed. And the cardinal sin: picking up your cell phone in the middle of the night? Don’t do it. 

The light emitted from the phone sends your optic nerve the message that it’s time to wake up. And don’t be fooled by the “nightshade” option on your iPhone. “A recent study showed that even though nightshade phones don’t emit the blue-spectrum light, they really don’t affect the amount of time it takes people to fall back to sleep,” said Dr. Lewis-Crosswell. “That’s because you’re still behaviorally active. Get off of Facebook, Twitter, and Candy Crush in bed.”

Prioritize sleep. Recognize that sleeplessness affects your health in serious ways, and make it a priority - just like exercising and eating well. Create an environment conducive to good sleeping, with comfortable sheets, soft lighting, and a temperature that works for you. White-noise machines can be useful, along with aromatherapy. 

“Your bedroom should be calm and peaceful,” said Dr. Lewis-Crosswell. “You’ll begin the journey to a good night’s rest when you view your bed as a place only for pleasantries of mind and body.”