You should spend that time doing something pleasant and soothing, like listening to a favorite podcast, chatting on the couch with your partner or watching TV. Dr. Prather offers his patients what he calls a menu of options for that power-down period — they can take a luxurious bath, write in a gratitude journal or even sit outside, weather permitting, and look at the stars. The goal is to find “low arousal” activities that you enjoy, he said.
Rewatch your favorite show.
Many clinicians caution against screen time before bed, but Dr. Prather said he pays more attention to the content of what people consume as they settle down for the night, rather than whether they’re looking at a laptop, a paperback or their phone. A thriller — whether it’s a novel or a movie — can prompt you to stay awake a bit longer or to mull over the answer to a mystery as you’re trying to fall asleep. Instead, he recommended watching something calming, and ideally, a show you’ve seen before. Dr. Prather turns to “The Office,” which he said he’s rewatched more times than he can count, because he already knows what happens next.
If you’re struggling to stay asleep in the night
If you can’t sleep, move.
As people age, especially in their fifties, sixties and seventies, sleep can become more fragmented, Dr. Prather said. People may need to urinate in the night more frequently, or pain might keep them awake. But it’s essential that older adults get sufficient rest — a recent study found that adults over 50 who slept for five hours or less each night had a greater risk of developing chronic diseases than those who slept for at least seven hours.
In general, if you are struggling to fall or stay asleep you should get out of bed, Dr. Prather said. Give yourself 20 minutes or so to try to sleep, but if you’re still wired, head to the couch or living room and do something quiet, Dr. Prather advised, like knitting or meditating. You only want to associate the position you sleep in with actually falling asleep; if your body gets used to staying awake, and struggling to sleep, in that position, you’ll have a harder time conditioning yourself to sleep through the night.
If you don’t want to move, or are unable to, even sitting up in the bed can help rewire your brain or flipping over and placing your head where your feet typically lay. While in that new position, you can read, listen to soft, gentle music or put on a soothing podcast — any activity that winds you down, until you feel sleepy again and are ready to get back into your sleeping position.
Don’t beat yourself up about one night of bad sleep (or several).
When people are in the throes of a sleepless night, they often stress about how the lack of sleep will clobber them the next day, Dr. Prather said. But one, or even a few, nights of little rest won’t ruin the way you sleep long-term, Dr. Prather said. “Any parent of small kids can tell you that you can survive on less sleep,” he said. “You can have these off nights. Your body is resilient.”
If you consistently find yourself unable to sleep, you might want to seek out a therapist or clinician trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, which Dr. Prather uses to treat insomnia. Even in chronic cases, he said, poor sleep is curable. A sleep specialist may also prescribe medication in extreme cases or treat underlying conditions that can lead to poor sleep, like sleep apnea.
“When people have insomnia, because it’s so distressing, they’re trying to figure out all the things they can do to allow sleep to work again, like, ‘What can I fix?’ And that kind of effort is actually incompatible with sleeping,” he said. “Sleeping’s about letting go.”