These 11 Bad Habits Are Causing Your Insomnia

Some of the steps you think will make for a better night’s sleep may actually contribute to your insomnia.

By Lauren Gelman
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    You keep a different sleep schedule on the weekends.

    “If I had one sleep tip, it would be to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day,” says sleep medicine doctor and psychologist Michael Breus, PhD, who runs the website thesleepdoctor.com. “Your body craves this consistency.” If you go to sleep and wake up later on the weekends, don’t expect to be able to fall asleep at your weekday bedtime Sunday night, he says. Experts have named this habit “social jet lag,” as you’re effectively forcing your body to toggle between two different time zones every week.

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    You go to sleep too early.

    Ninety percent of insomniacs hit the hay too soon, estimates Breus. It sounds counterintuitive, but staying up later signals to your body’s homeostatic system that you need more sleep, so when you do finally go to bed, you’ll conk out sooner. In cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), sleep doctors often start with your wakeup time, then count backward about six to seven hours. A 6:30 a.m. wakeup, for example, might mean bed at midnight instead 10:30 p.m. Restricting your time in bed sends a message to your body that you are more active and need the sleep when you try for it, says Colleen Carney, PhD, director of the Sleep and Depression Laboratory at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada and author of Goodnight Mind: Turn Off Your Noisy Thoughts and Get a Good Night’s Sleep.

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    You have no set bedtime.

    It may be decades since you had a stories-and-warm-milk routine, but “we never really outgrow a wind-down period,” says Carney. Breus has long recommended patients start a “power-down hour”: Set an alarm for 60 minutes before you plan to go to sleep. Spend the first 20 minutes finishing up any must-dos (walking the dog, firing off a few last emails) and the next 20 minutes on sleep hygiene (showering, brushing teeth, pajamas). For the final 20 minutes, do something relaxing like meditation, gentle yoga, or reading a book. Then lights out.

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    You underestimate how much caffeine you're getting.

    It’s no secret that caffeine can keep you awake, but many people mistakenly think the stimulant drug has no effect on them, says Breus. In fact, caffeine has a half-life of eight to 10 hours (meaning that eight hours after your last grande latte, half of the caffeine is still in your system), so drinking too much too late in the day may inadvertently be arresting your sleep. What’s more, caffeine metabolism slows as we get older. Your body can’t process caffeine as efficiently in your forties as it did in your twenties, so the same amount that didn’t bother you then could have an effect now.

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    Your approach to insomnia is all wrong.

    Breus says a big part of insomnia rehab is coaching patients to reframe negative or incorrect perceptions of sleep. “Addressing this catastrophic thinking can help relieve anxiety so sleep becomes just a physical act, not an emotional one,” he says. Plus, believing you slept well—even if you didn’t—may improve brain function the next day, according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. 
Researchers asked 164 participants how they’d slept the previous night, then hooked them up to a sham machine that purportedly revealed to scientists their REM sleep. People who were told they had above-average REM sleep performed better on cognitive and attention tasks than those who were told their REM sleep was below average, regardless of how they’d actually slept.

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    You get out of bed in the middle of the night.

    Even sleep experts debate whether you should get out or stay in bed when you can’t sleep. Breus makes this helpful distinction: “Don’t worry about the difference between resting and sleeping.” If you’re awake in bed, but feel relaxed and peaceful, it’s perfectly fine to lie there and wait to fall back asleep. He recommends counting backward from 300 by 3s to bring on drowsiness. This may be better than automatically jumping out of bed the minute you find yourself awake, which only arouses you more.

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    You overstimulate in the middle of the night.

    If you’re in bed, anxious, and your mind is running a million miles a minute, you’re better off getting out of bed. But what you do next is key to ultimately falling back asleep. Stay away from anything too stimulating, like checking email or social media, says Carney. Pick an activity you look forward to—like knitting, or reading a novel you’re into—to help minimize the anxiety that many people feel during episodes of insomnia.

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    You use your device before bed.

    Not all electronics before bed are bad, says Breus, who acknowledges that some of his patients fare better when they can wind down with some TV before they go to sleep. But activities that are highly interactive—answering emails, texting, posting on Facebook or Tweeting—prevent your brain from shutting down and can promote insomnia.

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    You watch the clock.

    “The worst thing you can do when you can’t sleep is to look at the clock,” says Breus. “You immediately start doing the mental math of how many hours you have left until you wake up, which makes you feel more anxious. This elevates adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that make you feel alert and further disrupt sleep.” Try to move (or remove) your physical clocks if this is a problem.

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    You think you need 8 hours.

    “Most adults don’t get and don’t need precisely eight hours of sleep every night,” says Carney. “Some people are nine-hour sleepers, but don’t get that amount because they feel lazy. Some people are six-hour sleepers, but fret that it’s not enough.” If you can wake up without an alarm clock and usually don’t feel tired during the day, you’re probably getting the right amount of sleep for you.

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    You drink to nod off.

    Yes, a big glass of Pinot can make you drowsy initially. But as your body metabolizes the alcohol while you sleep, a drink or two before bed can actually wake up later in the night and prevent your body from entering deeper, more restorative phases of sleep.

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