Don't panic: If you can't fall asleep right away, do something relaxing.
| Credit: (VEER)

Don't panic: If you can't fall asleep right away, do something relaxing.(VEER)

Most sleep problems are treatable. By identifying the cause of your disturbance, a specialist can usually help you find relief—whether it's a breathing machine for obstructive sleep apnea or prescription pills to help get you through a stressful time in your life.

Finding a cure for chronic insomnia, on the other hand, can be a long, bumpy road: Drugs probably won't work forever, and cognitive-behavioral therapy—in which a doctor helps you change your habits and understand your sleep issues—takes practice and patience.

In the meantime, or when other options fail, patients sometimes find that the best thing they can do is to just accept their sleep problems, move on, and learn to live with what they can get.

Drugs, therapy—and finally, making peace with less sleep
After a difficult family conflict in 2003, Jo Dickison started losing sleep. For three years she tried meditation, relaxation, aromatherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and medication. Nothing has brought her significantly more rest—and ultimately she has found the greatest relief in giving up the fight.

"The most helpful thing I've done is come to the realization that it probably can't be fixed," says Dickison, 38. "So I'm just trying to cope with it without getting freaked out. I'm trying to reduce my stress."

When she's up for hours during the night, Dickison, an executive assistant in Washington, D.C., doesn't get upset about it like she used to. "I make sure I have a good book to read or a fun project. I've spent some restless nights reading Harry Potter books and have been fairly content."

The fact that Dickison can manage reasonably well with less sleep is more important than the amount of sleep she actually gets, according to Ralph Downey III, PhD, director of the Loma Linda University Sleep Disorders Center in California.

"The number of hours that is enough is the number of hours that makes you feel rested to a point that you are not sleepy in situations that require alertness, such as driving or talking with a friend," says Downey, "and that staying awake is not such a struggle that it impairs your quality of life."

Daytime strategies: keeping busy, taking time to relax
Dickison remains tired but functioning during the day. "I make lists and check my calendar daily, to make sure I'm not missing anything," says Dickison. The urgent requests she gets from members of her 200-person department—everything from setting up large meetings to getting foreign visas—require fast turnarounds, so she doesn't have the chance to feel her exhaustion. Being busy is key to keeping her energy up and stress down, she says.

Dickison stopped drinking caffeine as soon as her insomnia began because she knew it would only make her sleep problems worse. Though she's usually exhausted when she leaves work, Dickison tries to do yoga or swim before she heads home; she knows that daytime exercise will increase her chances of sleep at night.

"I've also cut myself more slack, and luckily my boss understands," she explains. "If I finally fall asleep at 6 a.m., I'll sleep in an extra hour. I'm thankful to get sleep whenever it finally comes."