Tired of Counting Sheep? Try Sleep Hygiene

Sleep Hygiene

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Note: This is the fifth post in my stress relief series.  Others cover an overview of the stress response, diaphragmatic breathing, the stress pride epidemic, and progressive muscle relaxation.

Sleep and Stress: A Bad Romance

Stress and sleep are not compatible.

Stress disrupts sleep, leading to a whole host of other problems besides grogginess (and a damn foul mood).

Sleep deprivation:

Sleep Hygiene

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  • Causes accidents and disasters
  • Impairs many important cognitive functions
  • Increases risk of many serious health problems
  • Kills sex drive
  • Contributes to depression
  • Ages skin
  • Makes you forgetful
  • Leads to weight gain
  • Impairs judgment
  • Increases risk of death

All of that leaves us feeling… Stressed.  The cycle gets vicious fast.

It’s a nightmare.

You’ll be much better prepared to address what’s causing you stress (and to do pretty much everything else) if you get a good night’s sleep.

For that, you need sleep hygiene.

Sleep Hygiene to the Rescue

I love the term ‘sleep hygiene.’  It sounds like sleep has gotten as rank as an armpit in desperate need of a shower.  (In some ways, this is accurate.  I’ve had sleep problems on and off for decades.  They make me desperate.  And they stink.)

So what is it, exactly?

Sleep hygiene refers to the physical environment and behavior associated with getting good quality sleep – and being alert and able to function throughout the day.

Better than Drugs

When it comes to treating insomnia, sleep hygiene is actually more effective than medication – without side effects.

Sleep hygiene

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Why not sleep meds?

Sleep drugs make people feel foggy.  They also disrupt the normal sleep cycle, so you get less quality sleep.  They cause sleep rebound effects (i.e., your sleep problems worsen when you stop taking it) and can lead to psychological and physical addiction.  Last, drugs only work as long as you take them.

Sleep hygiene, on the other hand, is safe, can be easily used every single night of your life, isn’t addictive, and enhances both the quality and quantity of your sleep.

If you want feel better fast, ditch the Ambien and clean up your sleep.

Bed = Sleep

Sleep hygiene

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One of the biggest goals of sleep hygiene is to train the brain to associate being in bed with sleep.  The stronger this association, the better your sleep will be.

To accomplish this, the only thing you should do in bed is sleep.  Nothing else (except sex – but if you have sleep problems, strongly consider moving sex to a more exotic locale).  When you can’t fall asleep or back to sleep, get out up.  Otherwise, you’re obsessing about why you can’t sleep.

All other activities and objects are removed from the bed area.  When your sleep and stress level improve, you can go back to TV watching, reading, gymnastics, or whatever else you do in bed.  But for now, they need to happen elsewhere.

Your Day Affects Your Night

What you do during the day has a big effect on your night.

Daytime sleep hygiene recommendations include:

Maintain routine.  Set a standard bedtime and wake-up time, regardless of the day of the week.  Yes, it’s a pain to get up early on the weekend, but when you sleep in on Saturday and Sunday morning, it’s hard to fall asleep Sunday night – and you literally give yourself Monday morning jet lag.  Sleep in for an hour or so, but not much more.

Avoid naps.  This seems brutal, but if you push through fatigue, you’ll be tired at night, when you want to be sleeping.  If you absolutely must nap to function, keep it under an hour, before 2pm.

Sleep hygiene

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Reduce caffeine.  When people are stressed, they often increase their caffeine intake, sleep more poorly, and then have more java to be alert.  Instead, eliminate caffeine entirely or cut down – and never have it after lunchtime.  Reduce gradually to minimize the impact (and avoid the brain-crushing headaches of caffeine withdrawal).

Eat a healthy diet.  Increase your intake of vegetables and lean protein.   Decrease sugar, processed items, and junk food.  Don’t eat a heavy meal within several hours of bedtime.

Exercise early and regularly.  Regular exercise decreases arousal, lowers body temperature (post-workout), and adjusts circadian rhythms.  Because it temporarily increases alertness, however, don’t do it close to bedtime.

Avoid alcohol.  Alcohol shortens sleep cycles and decreases deep, restorative sleep.  Either abstain or make your last call at least 4 hours before going to bed.

How to Prepare the Bedroom

Put on Barry White, smooth your best Egyptian cotton sheets,  don your sexy negligee, light some candles…  Oh, wait.  Wrong post.

You will still focus on the ambiance, but in a slightly different way (plus, you’re having sex somewhere else, remember?)

Keep the room slightly cool.  Room should be between 60 and 68 degrees to cool core body temperature and induce sleepiness.  Ensure blankets are a comfortable weight and warmth. Wear socks if your feet get cold, as this can be a common cause of mid-night awakenings.

Sleep hygiene

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Clear bedside table except for a clock and/or phone.

Switch phone to airplane mode so it doesn’t light up or vibrate.

Hide the clock (and any other digital lights).  These lights are powerfully strong, so  put something over the clock or face it toward the wall.

Use earplugs.  Foam ones are available everywhere.  If earplugs cause pain, try a smaller size – usually labeled for women) and make sure you’re not pushing them in too far.

Wear an eye mask if your bedroom is bright or it’s summer.

The Bedtime Routine 

It’s important to follow the same routine every night.  When you do, the brain recognizes the sequence as a sleepytime signal.

Wash your face at least an hour before bed.  If you wait until you’re nodding off on the couch to scrub down, you’ll wake yourself up splashing water on your face.

Turn off all screens 30-60 minutes out – all TVs, phones, iPads, etc.  Phone should go to airplane mode.  If you want to read, get actual books.

Lower or turn off lights 30 minutes before bed.  Darkness tells the brain it’s bedtime.

Additional options

(Do these outside the bedroom.  Once your sleep improves, you can go back to your normal, bed-snacking ways.)

Snack.  Have a bedtime snack with protein and/or a warm, decaffeinated beverage such as steamed milk or herbal tea.

Light stretches.  Do some calming yoga poses to release muscle tension.

Sleep hygiene

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Hot bath.  Relieve tension with a hot bath (add lavender essential oil and bath salts), but give your body time to cool off and get to a sleepier temperature.

Read.  Read a good story or non-fiction – save murder mysteries and adventure novels for daytime.

Journal-writing.  Journaling lowers stress by clarifying thoughts and feelings, tidying up the mind.  It’s like putting your thoughts away on shelves and in drawers, rather than having them in front of you on your desk.

Falling Asleep – And Getting Back To Sleep

Start with slow, easy diaphragmatic breathing (see post for a review) – or do a relaxation exercise such as progressive muscle relaxation (get instructions and a free MP3).  Every time you notice your mind wandering, gently return it to the breath, so your brain learns that night is not thinking time.  For most of us, this isn’t easy, so be prepared that this is a process.

Ignore the clock.  One reason to cover the clock is to eliminate bright light.  The other reason: it prevents you from counting the minutes that you’re not sleeping.  Rather, focus (and refocus) on your breathing or relaxation exercise.

Sleep hygiene

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If you’re still awake after about 15 minutes (post-relaxation exercise), get up.  The same is true when you awaken during the night.  If you stay in bed, you become frustrated and anxious and associate that – instead of sleep – with the bed.  No screens, bright lights, or talking. Do calm or boring things only – read work reports or junk mail.

After 10-15 minutes, return to bed and start deep breathing or a relaxation exercise again.  Redirect your wandering mind back to the breath.

If you’re not back to sleep in 15 minutes, get out of bed againRepeat this process as many times as necessary.  Yes, it’s torturous to keep hauling your exhausted self out of bed, but it’s important to make that association strong.  Most people adapt fairly quickly and are able to get back to sleep without having to get out of bed after a few nights.

Sleep hygiene

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Try It for Yourself

If counting sheep isn’t working, give sleep hygiene a try.

For minor sleep problems, try a few of these tips and see if they make a difference.  For major problems or full-blown insomnia, commit to doing all of these for at least a week.  If your sleep doesn’t improve, see a doctor.

Sweet dreams!


What sleep tactics work the best for you?  How does your sleep – or lack thereof – affect your functioning?  If you’ve tried any of these techniques, please share your experience – all in the comments section below.

If you liked this article and/or know someone who’d benefit from it, please share it.  To receive post via email, sign up below.  Thanks!


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14 Responses to “Tired of Counting Sheep? Try Sleep Hygiene”

  1. Cathy November 14, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    Mary Beth – this is fabulous! As a fellow WE Masterminder, I was thrilled to get your post. I run mentor groups for women entrepreneurs and we were just talking about lack of sleep in one of our sessions. I am a good sleeper so I’m always surprised how late other people stay up at night and that they struggle so much with lack of sleep. I posted and shared with all the mentor groups I run so thanks so much.

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 14, 2013 at 4:35 pm #

      Hey, thanks so much, Cathy! I really appreciate your sharing – it made my day! :-)

      As someone who has had sleep problems (and am generally a very light sleeper), I’m always surprised (and jealous) when I run into people who don’t have them. My friends are always teasing me about my ear plugs, eye mask, dark window shades, etc., etc., etc. But they help! :-)

      If you ever want me to talk with your groups about this, stress management, etc., I’d be more than happy to do so. I posted last week on progressive muscle relaxation and recorded an MP3 of the script that you can use. It’s free, so if you or anyone else wants it, you’re more than welcome to it. Thanks again!

  2. Mary McKenna November 15, 2013 at 6:51 am #

    Mary Beth,
    Great article! Like you I’m typically a good sleeper, but have many clients and colleagues who suffer from sleeplessness. Please email it to me so that I can share with others. Thanks!

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 15, 2013 at 9:59 am #

      Thanks so much, Mary – I really appreciate that! Sleep is so important – the more and better sleep we can all get, the better everything will be! :-)

      If you’d like to pass it along, just copy the link and send – it’d be marybethleisen.com/sleep-hygiene/ – and you can put that in an email. You can also use the Share button at the top of the post to share it on Facebook or elsewhere. Thanks for passing it along!

  3. erica lawrence: naturopath - body ecologist. November 19, 2013 at 6:14 am #

    Hello again Mary Beth, you’ve done it again, great post!
    I use the term sleep hygiene with my clients all the time (they often give me a strange look at first), but once you understand the fundamentals of sleep, the term is so appropriate!

    I was never a good sleeper… my nervous system was always buzzing… every night I’d spend tossing and turning or staring at the ceiling for hours, battling with my monkey-mind. It wasn’t until I started developing relaxation techniques and appropriate sleep hygiene that I started to embrace my hours of slumber. I now happily receive 8 hours of restorative sleep most nights and feel so much better for it!

    And isn’t it ironic how when we are stressed our sleep quality depreciates, we wake up feeling like garbage (or stinky armpits) and reach for multiple hits of caffeine throughout the day, which inevitably causes our cortisol to bounce all over the place and prevents us from sleeping that night (only to be repeated again and again)! Some cycles are just so darn vicious.

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 19, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

      Thanks, Erica! It’s so true about the vicious cycle. I’ve been in it many times. As someone who cycles through periods of insomnia, it can be hard for me to always remember early in the process to use these techniques. It’s always that practice of returning the mind to my breathing, rather than letting the monkey jump all over in my head. When I do, it makes a huge difference in both my ability to fall asleep and to have good quality sleep.

      Bouncing cortisol sucks. I’m trying to stay away from that… :-)

  4. Elleyess November 19, 2013 at 6:42 am #

    This is uncanny; I was just sharing with friends that my sleep hygiene is terrible and that I needed to find a solution! I’ve been wired for weeks now and this article has definitely pointed me in the right direction… I will try these tips and tricks (instead of the sleeping pills I’ve been relying on) tonight!

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 19, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

      Fantastic! I love that kind of serendipity when you get what you need at the perfect moment – glad to play a small role in that!

      Yes, definitely get off the sleeping pills. It may be hard the first few nights (part of that is the sleep rebound effects), but if you follow the other tips, it’ll help a lot. Let me know if you’d like a copy of the progressive muscle relaxation MP3 – I’m happy to get that to you if you want to use that as well. Good luck – and if you think of it, let me know how it’s going!

  5. Martin Labud November 19, 2013 at 7:53 pm #

    Mary Beth, you don’t understand how timely this article is for me. And reading the other comments, sounds like the same for many people! I’ve had trouble falling asleep at the “right” times and instead falling asleep at the “wrong” times (i.e. unwanted daytime naps.) Reading this post, I’ve had a bunch of AH-HA moments. I am literally doing many of the things you said NOT to do- including watching videos while in bed, staying in the bed all night even when not sleepy, not wearing socks, watching the clock… the list goes on. But just reading this post made me feel alot sleepier, and I’ve bookmarked this because it’s very relevant to me. Thank you!

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 19, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

      I’m glad, Martin! I know lots of people who do all kinds of things from eat to work to pay bills to watch TV in bed – I think that’s one of the biggest culprits. Also, lying awake and stewing in bed about why you’re not sleeping is another. Then you just associate bed with being awake! Once you’ve tried some of these, let me know how it goes. Good luck! :-)

  6. Kendra November 22, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    What a great post! I have been practicing Sleep Hygiene for years and have tried to explain it to some other friends – who for some reason still don’t get it. You do have some suggestions here that I had not heard or thought of that I will start including in my routine. Thanks again for a great post!

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 22, 2013 at 10:38 am #

      Hi there, Kendra – and thanks so much! I’m glad you found some extra suggestions, as some seem to resonate more with one person than another. For me, the most important thing is to be mindful and focus on my breath so that my brain doesn’t crawl into its little hamster wheel and run (and run and run and run…). I also wake up when I wash my face, so I finally got myself in the habit of washing up earlier – I’d get very tired reading or watching TV and feel myself dozing off – and then splash myself wide awake. Sometimes I take a long time to learn something… :-) Good luck!

  7. Connie November 24, 2013 at 11:56 pm #

    Great Post! I can definitely adopt some of these ideas into my life. The hardest one for me is turning the iPhone off as it is my kindle reader. After moving a number of times, I said, forget the books! I’m done. Having 1000 books in one place is so much nicer. I did notice that when I began to journal just before sleep, that really helped to relax me. Thanks for your great post! I am sure this will help many.

    • Mary Beth Leisen, Ph.D. November 26, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

      Thanks so much, Connie – I really appreciate this!

      Oh, I hear you on the books. After my last move, I told my friends to stage an intervention if they saw any books enter my home (but I’ve purchased since – oops…). I found my library card and have been borrowing from friends as well. Journaling is so helpful. For some reason, I got out of the habit earlier this year and recently got back to it. It makes a huge difference for me! Good luck with your sleep! :-)

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