“There’s this expectation that we should just go to sleep and stay sleeping for seven to eight hours,” says Roxanne Prichard, a neuroscientist at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota.
“That’s just not biologically supported with how humans sleep.”
It’s very uncommon for people to be able to just transition from being awake and active to falling asleep right away,” says Kim Hutchison, a sleep medicine specialist at Oregon Health & Science University.
Falling asleep is a big shift for your brain. When conditions are good, hitting the sack allows your brain activity to slow down and become more orderly, and your brain waves synchronize. This switch is governed in part by environmental cues, such as light or temperature. A hot summer night or a bright streetlamp seeping through the window can interfere. The process of nodding off can also be affected by your emotions.
“You need to feel both physically and psychologically safe to sleep,” Prichard says. “If there’s something that you are really worried about, if you are sleeping next to someone you don’t trust, if you’re worried that the newborn that you’re caring for might stop breathing, it’s going to be hard to fall asleep.”
That’s why anxiety and stress are key culprits when people are unable to fall and stay asleep—and why relaxation is a crucial tool for easing into slumber. Hutchison and Prichard both say that the key, whether you’re struggling to sleep just as you’re heading to bed or after waking up in the middle of the night, is to limit the amount of time you spend lying awake fretting about not being asleep.
“If you’re unable to fall asleep in what seems like or feels like 20 minutes or so, or you feel your body getting more amped up because you’re getting anxious that you’re not falling asleep, then I would recommend getting out of bed and sitting somewhere quietly with dim light and just relaxing, doing something boring,” Hutchison says.
Sleep aids and supplements, such as melatonin, are commonly used to fall asleep, but Prichard likes to advise people to use relaxation practices instead. “I want people to learn sleep skills, not pills,” she says.
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