How to get the sleep you need
Tossing, turning, twisting in your sheets and your mind: Some nights it seems impossible to fall asleep.
Helping people get better sleep is something Columbia psychologist Jared O'Garro-Moore, PhD, pays special attention to in his practice. Better sleep increases the success of therapy, so he helps his patients recognize factors that negatively affect their sleep and guides them in adopting habits known to improve sleep. “Sleep plays a critical role in most psychiatric problems, yet it’s virtually ignored in most treatments,” he says.
Anyone having trouble with sleep can benefit from O'Garro-Moore's sleep tips, so we spoke with him to learn more.
Know yourself to know your best sleep strategy
To start, knowing and embracing the type of person you are—better in the morning or night—can help improve your sleep.
Are you a night owl or a morning lark?
- Late riser
- Feel productive later in the day
- Feel sleepy later at night
- Early riser
- Most active in the morning
- Feel sleepy in the evening or earlier at night
You don’t have to fit perfectly into either category, but having a sense of your chronotype can help structure your day (e.g., exercise in the morning versus afternoon; when to start your wind-down routine).
“It's extremely validating to understand that one is not simply lazy for having difficulty waking up early,” says O’Garro-Moore. “Limiting self-judgment can often reduce anxiety and pressure.”
What to do every morning to sleep well every night
Get up and get moving when your alarm goes off. Do not snooze or linger in bed. Do not read your emails in bed.
“Snoozing can be detrimental because it does not help you build consistency in your routine. And checking emails or doing any other stimulating activity can affect our association with bed and sleep. We want to essentially condition ourselves to feel sleepy when we get in bed. Wakeful activities in bed can weaken this association," says O’Garro-Moore.
Set your alarm to a time that maximizes the number of hours you are asleep and allows you enough time to get ready for your first activity of the day. Do not change the time you get out of bed (such as 8 a.m. on Tuesday and 10 a.m. on Wednesday). Choose one wake-up time that gives you enough time to get ready every day. And stick with it.
What to do before bedtime
Create a wind-down routine. Make a checklist if that helps, and stick to it.
One hour before bedtime avoid:
Alcohol. It may relax you to start, but it triggers rebound anxiety and dehydration, which promote awakenings.
Big meals. Stop eating before you're full. Big meals increase the risk of heartburn, which promotes awakenings.
Excessive fluids. Stop drinking one hour before bed. Excess fluids increase the urge to urinate throughout the night.
Caffeine and nicotine. Both are stimulants that make it difficult to wind down and get to sleep.
Screen time. Most screens have a blue light that can suppress melatonin production and stimulate wakefulness.
Other stimulating activities to avoid include working out; loud boisterous music, movies, or TV; arguments; and worrying.
"Worrying is a behavior that affects a lot of people and it can affect our ability to initially get to sleep,” O-Garro-Moore says. “However, there are ways that we can practice limiting when and how much we worry."
What to do at bedtime
Get in bed at the same time every night (or day, if your work or life demands), but not before you are sleepy.
Think of it as training, O’Garro-Moore says: “Regularity conditions your brain and body to feel sleepy at the same time every day. Getting in bed when sleepy conditions us to fall asleep when in bed.”
Limit bedroom activities (video games, watching TV, checking email and social media, working, etc.).
What to do if you can’t fall asleep
Avoid checking your clock, especially if that clock is your phone.
After about 15 minutes (it’s okay to guesstimate since you don’t want to look at a clock):
- Get out of bed.
- Go to another room.
- Do a relaxing activity, like reading a boring book or instruction manual. Go back to bed when you feel sleepy.
- Do not panic.
“It's common to feel panicked when you cannot fall asleep,” O’Garro-Moore says “Do not try too hard to sleep. Let sleepiness and then sleep come to you.”
More tips for good sleep
Consistency is key, O’Garro-Moore says. Maintain the same sleep schedule every day, including weekends and days off.
Keep the bedroom quiet, dark, and cool. Light and heat promote wakefulness. If someone is afraid of the dark, a nightlight can be helpful.
If problems falling or staying asleep persist, talk to your doctor.
Jared O'Garro-Moore, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. He specializes in treating adults with mood, anxiety, or personality disorders.