When it comes to falling asleep, the single most effective thing you can do is calm your mind.
Sure, that might be easier said than done — especially when it’s the middle of the night and you’re desperately waiting to fall asleep. But there are several not-so-obvious ways to quiet your thoughts and prep the brain and body for sleep.
Instead of taking a hot bath, pouring yourself a night cap or squeezing in a workout before bedtime, here are a few expert-backed ways to dupe your mind into sleep:
One of the most effective ways to trick yourself into falling asleep is to, well, try not to sleep. Trying too hard to sleep never works, and all that worry and anxiety about falling asleep is what actually keeps so many people up at night, said Deirdre Conroy, a sleep psychologist and the clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic at the University of Michigan Health Sleep Disorders Centers.
By doing the opposite and forcing yourself to lie in bed and stay awake all night — a phenomenon called paradoxical intention — you’ll unintentionally doze off at some point. “In your mind, you’re actually trying to stay up but sleep will eventually kick in,” Conroy said.
Focus on your mornings
The key to getting good sleep isn’t all about what you do, and don’t do, at night. In fact, your morning routine can have an even bigger impact on your sleep. According to Cathy Goldstein, a sleep neurologist at University of Michigan Health Sleep Disorders Centers, good sleep starts in the morning.
“Set your alarm and get light first thing — this doesn’t just cue your body when wake time is, but also when sleep onset should occur,” Goldstein said. Waking up when your alarm goes off, at the same time each day, and exposing yourself to daylight sets your internal clock, making it easier to fall asleep at bedtime.
Let yourself worry
Conroy said carving out time to worry earlier in the day can help you fall asleep at bedtime. Instead of dismissing your worries altogether, if you spend time worrying about things a few hours before bed — not right at bedtime — you can sleep better at night.
A quick tip: Take 15 minutes to jot down those concerns in a journal, so you can get them out on paper and leave them there. “That actually can decrease the amount of worry that happens at bedtime,” Conroy said.
Think about nature
Jeffrey Durmer, a board-certified sleep medicine physician and sleep coach to the U.S. Olympic Weightlifting Team, said the sounds and darkness of nature are natural ingredients for inducing sleep. After all, nature is known to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate, and decrease muscle tension.
To get to sleep, Durmer recommended thinking about nature — like the last time you slept in a remote cabin or laid out under the stars. This can even be as simple as starting a fire, lighting a candle or spending “time on a porch, patio, or deck to allow darkness and quiet to reverberate in your mind, rather than light and noise,” Durmer said.
Focus on the sound of your breath
Slow, deep belly breathing — like the 4-7-8 method in which you inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds and exhale for eight seconds ― is known to increase relaxation and bring on sleep.
Furthermore, simply focusing on your breath can take the mind off other concerns and worries and bring you to the present moment. “Taking your focus away from the environment and placing it on something entirely in your control (the breath) helps the mind to settle and become calm,” Durmer said.
Exhaust your mind, not your body
There’s a common misconception that exercising at night can help you sleep easier. But while working out tires your body out, it doesn’t necessarily exhaust your mind.
“After a marathon, your body might be tired but that doesn’t mean your mind will be ready for sleep,” Conroy said. Note: Regular exercise improves sleep, in general, but exercising in order to fall asleep won’t do you much good.
Instead of working out to facilitate sleep, Conroy recommended engaging in activities that can tire you out mentally. “We are social people, our brains love to learn and so if you’re not engaging with the world in the day, it may affect your sleep,” Conroy said.
Read a book, do puzzles — have something that you are really mentally engaged in. “Otherwise, there is no difference between the day and the night for some people,” Conroy said.