“I’m awake. Why am I awake? I fell asleep on the couch thirty minutes ago.”

This is me more evenings than I’d like. Then my brain goes into overdrive. I get anxious about scenarios that haven’t happened, replay things that happened years ago, or think about how I really need to clean out my closet. For anyone who remembers the Shel Silverstein ‘What If’ poem, that’s basically my brain at night.

I am not very good at sleeping and it’s not for lack of trying.

I do breathing exercises. I do NOT doom scroll in bed. I keep my room free of clutter and at a cool temperature. But alas, the scenario above is very common for me.

Psst…You can skip ahead to tips for better sleep here

Sleep is hard 

Those of us who struggle with sleep are not alone. According to the American Sleep Association, 50-70 million adults in the U.S. are affected by some kind of sleep disorder. Another fun fact: 30-40% of adults report symptoms of insomnia at some point every year.

The CDC recommends adults aged 18-64 get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. For some, this isn’t possible. For others, they seem to function perfectly fine with fewer than seven hours per night. One of the most difficult things about sleep is it’s not one size fits all. The trick is finding out what works best for you.

Sleep deprivation negatively affects working memory, long-term memory, decision-making abilities, and attention.

Medical professionals will often suggest that you track your general activities and patterns to determine what leads to good or bad sleep. Did you work out? What did you eat? What kind of activities did you engage in during the day? It doesn’t mean that you must recreate the exact same experiences to sleep well, but it’s worth keeping track of.

For example, I slept really well after a nine-mile hike in Arizona. Unfortunately, I don’t live in Arizona nor can I do a nine-mile hike every day. What I can deduce is that exercise and time in nature might be great for me personally for sleep.

A pug sleeps happily in a human's bed with its paw over the sheet and its tongue hanging out.
Most dogs sleep between 12-14 hours per day. The CDC recommends that adult humans get between 7-9.

How sleep affects our brains

People often underestimate how impactful sleep is on your physical and mental wellbeing. Any new parent can tell you that sleep deprivation makes you a little crazy. But why?

Sleep deprivation (often referred to as SD) describes both a total lack of sleep (a period of extended wakefulness) and partial sleep restriction. It’s like the difference between pulling an all-nighter (no naps) and waking up every few hours during a normal sleep time.

Studies have consistently shown the negative effects of sleep deprivation. It affects working memory, long-term memory, decision-making abilities, and attention. All of these functions take a hit when you are sleep-deprived.

Have you ever been super tired and just phased out for a moment? This is so common, there’s actually a term for that: microsleep. When someone experiences a microsleep, it presents as a sleep-like EEG activity on a brain scan. When these microsleep lapses happen, our cognitive functioning and processing ability takes a dip.

Sleep and learning 

For all the reasons mentioned above, proper sleep is incredibly important for learning and studying. When you experience SD, you cannot focus. When you cannot focus, you cannot learn efficiently.

Different stages of sleep affect how our brain processes and consolidates information we learn. For example, during REM sleep our brains process procedural memories which are the memories of ‘how’ we do something (ride a bike, insert an IV line, etc). If you’re not reaching the REM cycle of sleep, your brain will have trouble processing procedural information.

Bottom line

Our neurons don’t fire as efficiently when we’re tired. In essence, your brain simply won’t work as efficiently or effectively unless it gets rest.

4 Tips to improve your sleep

Since sleep ability is personal, some of these tips will work better than others. It’s worth exploring options until you find something that’s helpful for you.

1. Schedule time for worry

Worry time has become a popular idea. The idea behind scheduling and time-boxing worry to 15-30 minutes is that if you dedicate space for worrying, your worries will be less likely to creep into your brain later.

You can write it down or just think about it. You don’t have to try to solve or fix your worries – just take note of them. The plan is doing this during the day will make those worries less likely to creep into your nighttime ruminations.

2. Explore a caffeine alternative

Many of us (myself included) will reach for a caffeine boost post-lunch. Since caffeine can mess with our circadian rhythm when we have it late in the day, the freezer could be your new best friend.

Dr. Prather, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco and author of “The Sleep Prescription,” recommends sticking your head in the freezer for ten seconds. It’s a fast way to kickstart your brain’s arousal system in a way that won’t have long-lasting effects like caffeine.

For something a little less intense, Dr. Prather recommends spending ten minutes focusing on a non-work task to help re-energise your brain.

3.Create a transition period

Our brains don’t have an off switch. Building in time to transition from wakefulness to sleep can make a big difference. Ideally, you’d spend about two hours doing something that’s low impact on your cognitive processes – watching a show, talking to a friend, writing, or reading*.

There are many times when this isn’t possible due to work, school, or other commitments. In those instances, even if you can get in ten minutes of something super mellow and pleasant, it’s worth doing.

*Note: If you are consuming a form of media, the trick is keeping the content low-key. No zombie shoes or murder mystery books right before you plan to zonk out.

4. Get out of bed when you can’t sleep

This sounded super counterintuitive to me, but the idea is that you want your brain to associate laying in bed with sleeping – not stressing out about being awake. It’s fine to try for about twenty minutes, but after that Dr. Prather suggests you remove yourself from the non-sleepy sleep environment and do something calming and quiet until you feel tired somewhere else.

But, not everyone can just pop out of bed at 2am and relocate. In those cases, sitting up in bed or flipping your position might be enough to jog your brain and reset your ability to get sleepy.

Goodnight Moon

Stress, health, and psychology are other huge factors for sleep. Remember that it’s okay to have bouts of bad sleep here and there. If your sleep remains poor for extended periods of time, it might be worth working with a mental health practitioner or other medical professional to get to your root sleep problems and treat them.

Good luck, sleep tight, and don’t stress about bed bugs.