How to Reset Your Sleep Cycle When You Live With Insomnia

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on July 14, 2021
5 min read

If you have chronic insomnia, you’ve likely been working with your doctor or a sleep specialist on ways to get more quality sleep. But sometimes, life can thwart the best-laid sleep plans. Travel, a newborn baby, shift work, and other disruptions can get in the way of your insomnia-busting habits.

Interruptions to sleep schedules can be hard on anyone. But when you have chronic insomnia, you’re already behind the curve.

“You don’t have the same sleep reserves built up,” says Tracy Chisholm, PsyD, a behavioral sleep medicine psychologist at the Portland VA Medical Center. “You’re likely to have an even harder time recovering from additional sleep disruptions because you were already struggling to operate on less than a full tank.”

You’re also more likely to dwell on the sleep you’re losing, which can trigger a negative feedback loop. “In other words, you worry about it more,” says Chisholm. “And guess what definitely does not help improve your sleep? Worry. This can become a vicious cycle.”

There are practical steps you can take to help prevent or cope with sleep loss in situations that are out of your control. You can also try adjusting your mindset.

“Many times, people go into scenarios like travel assuming they’ll have difficulties with their sleep, but sometimes a change in environment can actually help you sleep better,” says Ina Djonlagic, MD, a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Bottom line: Don’t expect the worst, but practice good habits to prepare in case things go awry.

Here’s how to get back on track when certain situations mess with your sleep schedule.

Different time zones, strange beds in strange rooms, environments that aren’t comfortable -- there are a host of ways travel can keep you from getting your ZZZs. Try these tips before your trip:

Head off jet lag. Slowly adjust your sleep schedule at home before you leave.

“About a week or two before you depart, start shifting your bedtime and wake time in small increments, to more closely match your destination time zone,” says Chisholm.

If you’re going somewhere very far away, wait until you get there and then start by following local mealtimes and sleep times, says Chisholm. Go to bed when night comes, and get up when it’s light.

Try temporary aids. Some people find low-dose melatonin or timed exposure to light to be helpful when they travel. “Correctly timing these interventions is key for effectiveness,” Chisholm says. “Consult with a sleep specialist if you’re interested in either of these approaches.”

Babies spare no one from sleep disruption. You’re at the mercy of your newborn’s sleep-wake cycle, which won’t be the same as yours. “Babies have much shorter sleep cycles than adults -- 50 to 60 minutes, as opposed to our 90- to 110-minute cycles,” says Chisholm. Babies also need to eat every 2 to 3 hours.

The key is to get good sleep when you can and know things will gradually get better. You can try to:

  • Sleep when your baby sleeps.
  • Build up breast milk reserves by pumping between feedings, and ask a partner, friend, or family member to take over feedings when you sleep.

The term “shift work” can include evening, graveyard, or early morning shifts, as well as fixed or rotating schedules. Rotating schedules that change from one day to the next tend to be the worst for sleep. Flip-flopping your days and nights can take a toll on your health.

“Unregulated schedules are so hard that my best advice is to try to see if you can work a different schedule that better fits healthy sleep patterns,” says Djonlagic. If that’s just not possible, you can try to:

  • Keep the same bedtime, wake time, and mealtimes every day of the week, even on your days off. This helps keep your internal clock set around your work schedule.
  • Allow yourself enough time to wind down after work before trying to fall asleep. Don’t just come home and crash.
  • Use ear plugs or white noise to help you fall asleep and stay asleep without interruption if you sleep during the day. You can also wear an eye mask and use blackout curtains.
  • Stay ahead of your brain. “If your commute home happens as the sun is rising, consider wearing blue light-blocking glasses so your brain doesn’t think that you’re about to start a whole new day,” says Chisholm.

Stress turns on your fight-or-flight response, which isn’t restful at all. In fact, it prevents sleep.

“From your body’s perspective, it’s like you’re trying to sleep while a saber-toothed tiger is lurking right outside your cave,” says Chisholm. She recommends these tips:

  • Create a relaxing sleep routine that you follow every night. Make sure the final steps in this routine involve a non-stimulating activity that you enjoy. “I often recommend those with insomnia read, listen to audiobooks or calming music, or practice relaxation techniques,” says Chisholm.
  • Avoid watching the news or discussing intense topics right before bed. Doing those things can keep your mind and body from feeling relaxed.
  • Exercise regularly, but make sure you finish at least a few hours before bedtime.
  • If you have a lot on your mind, write it down, at least an hour or so before bed, to help your brain “let it go” just for the rest of the night. You can always come back to your notes in the morning.
  • Consider seeking support from family, friends, or professionals to help you manage stress.

“The most important thing to keep in mind is that if you already have chronic insomnia, don’t wait to get treatment -- especially if you anticipate even more sleep disruptions,” says Chisholm. “Addressing chronic insomnia first can help you better cope when these common sleep disruptors occur.”