Wide Awake at 3 A.M.? Readers Offer Advice on Insomnia

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine maintains a directory of sleep centers on its website, which can help you find a local clinic if you suspect you have a sleep disorder.

For many people who wrestle with occasional insomnia, the cause of their sleep woes is often psychological: They wake up at night and their minds start racing. They look at the clock and worry that they won’t fall back to sleep. Or they start thinking about work, relationships, their finances or other things that cause them anxiety. This activates the body’s fight-or-flight response, causing a surge of adrenaline that prevents them from becoming relaxed enough to fall back to sleep.

Not surprisingly, the strategies people use to quash their insomnia often work by shifting their attention from stressful thoughts to pleasant ones. Hilary Collins in Philadelphia told us that she alleviates her insomnia by reminiscing about her childhood, which focuses her mind on soothing memories. “In my mind, I take a tour of my childhood home and I quickly fall asleep,” she said. Others told us they conjure up similarly nostalgic memories: They picture themselves in a former school or library they used to frequent and visualize small details such as the wallpaper, a stack of books or a collection of framed photographs.

If you find yourself routinely kept awake by anxiety, one potential solution is cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of treatment that helps address the underlying thoughts and behaviors that can cause insomnia. Any sleep clinic can connect you to a cognitive behavioral therapist. You can also download a free app developed by the federal government, called CBT-i Coach, that will teach you psychological strategies to alleviate your insomnia. “Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia helped me immensely,” said a reader named Matteo in Chicago.

Others told us that they make themselves sleepy by listening to audiobooks, Gregorian chants, BBC Radio, sleep apps like Calm, or the tranquil, underwater sounds of whales. “Whales talking at low volume seems to do the trick for me,” one reader told us. Another said he prefers classical music. “If I lay awake, at least I get a little taste of culture,” he said.

You can also try breathing exercises to help you get relaxed. One popular exercise is the 3-4-5 technique. It involves breathing in for three seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, and then slowly exhaling to the count of five.