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How to get better sleep

Aging Well | Wellness | September 1, 2020
woman sleeping in bed as morning dawns
Here’s the most important tip…stop trying so hard.

With everything going on in the world and our lives, there’s no question many of us experience restless or sleepless nights.

As a sleep physician at PeaceHealth, Daniel Erichsen, MD, gets his share of questions about sleep — even beyond his office in Springfield, Oregon.

Sometimes friends or acquaintances ask specific questions such as…Does melatonin work? How long before going to bed should I stop drinking coffee?

Invariably someone asks, “How can I get better sleep?”

Essential truth about sleep

From years of practice, Dr. Erichsen has learned an essential truth about sleep: the more you try, the less you get.

man making bed in bedroom“This may sound counterintuitive and not very helpful,” he says, “But I assure you this insight is refreshingly logical with lots of practical applications.”

He starts by considering people who sleep amazingly well.  “You know…those friends or loved ones who are asleep before their head hits the pillow. If you ask them what they do to make themselves sleep, you just get a confused look. They have no clue what you’re talking about!”

The mere thought of having to do something to sleep seems odd to them, he says. They just sleep. Their lack of effort is complete. Their belief in their own ability to sleep, their sleep confidence, is solid.

That’s where YOU want to be, says Dr. Erichsen.

Two important steps

And here are some steps to get there:

First, remember that sleep is a passive process.

It happens when you’re sleepy and nothing keeps you from sleeping. In fact, when those two conditions are present ― you need to sleep and you’re not preoccupied ― sleep becomes inevitable.

Second, whenever you do something to try to make yourself sleep, you’re tinkering with a system that doesn’t work if tinkered with. Anything you do to produce sleep is called a sleep effort. Sleep efforts always produce insomnia, says Dr. Erichsen.woman stretching as she wakes up

For example, if you decide to take some valerian root extract, it will lead to one of two outcomes.

“One, it doesn’t work; it doesn’t make you sleep more, leading to frustration. You feel things are hopeless, which makes you have more trouble sleeping.”

“Or two, it SEEMS to work; you think it made you sleep more. But really what you’ve done is started transferring confidence from within to the outside,” he notes.

Build your sleep confidence

The next time you can’t sleep, you’re going to feel that the valerian root stopped working and look for another outside remedy. Your sleep confidence has taken a hit, which makes you have more trouble sleeping.

So what should you do? Dr. Erichsen’s advice is to “set it and forget it.”

Spend no more than seven to eight hours in bed to make sure you’re ready to sleep at bedtime. Get up at the same time every morning. Set it.

Next, give sleep less attention. When you’re sleepy at bedtime and no preoccupation about sleep keeps you awake, amazing sleep will happen.

“Getting past insomnia isn’t easy, but every patient I’ve seen in clinic who commits to education and habit change has gone on to sleep much better,” he says. No question.

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