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What Causes ‘Junk Sleep’ — And How To Beat It

Many factors can contribute to junk sleep, some of which are more in our control than others. Here’s what to know and what you can do:

Environmental Factors

Casey listed various noises that could keep you from sleeping deeply throughout the night, such as children waking up, pets, traffic, your partner snoring or your roommate watching television.

Other environmental factors are ones we feel, she said, such as being too hot or too cold, sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress, physical pain, sickness and too much light. 

The “feeling” aspects extend to our emotions, too. “When people are anxious or depressed, they often experience difficulty sleeping,” Eichelberger added. “This can be caused by a number of factors, including poor self-esteem, guilt, anger or a general sense of hopelessness.”

The fix: Adjust what you can. Examples could be buying a soft mattress topper, turning up the air conditioning, installing blackout curtains, taking Tums to settle acid reflux, making sure you eat enough so you don’t wake up hungry, wearing earplugs and putting stressful items — like your work laptop — in another room.

Behavioral Factors

These variables are more in your control, such as scrolling your phone or watching a movie late at night. According to The Sleep Foundation, it’s best to put your phone away an hour before bed. 

“Although scrolling social media or watching television gives you something to do, your brain is responding to the stimuli, regardless of if you’re aware of it or not,” Casey said. “This can cause difficulty falling or staying asleep, in addition to experiencing unrestful sleep.”

Lawlor explained how that works: “Phones disrupt your sleep cycle, because the bright blue light emitted from LED screens on electronic devices is a sleep disruptor that fools your brain into thinking that it’s still daytime, so you won’t feel sleepy when it’s time to shut your eyes,” he said. 

Additionally, substances — such as alcohol, in particular — aren’t a great idea, either, according to Casey. The Sleep Foundation said alcohol can decrease sleep quality between 9 and over 39%, depending on how heavily you drink. Alcohol and drugs can also disrupt your sleep by leading to nightmares.  

The fix: For behavioral causes, we’re looking at some of the same solutions. What are some not-so-great things you’re doing before bed, and what is a better, doable option? Maybe that means drinking decaf coffee, reading in between catching up on a show and sleeping, taking a warm bath or using the bathroom before settling in the sheets.

If you are going to use your phone in bed, Lawlor encouraged putting it on night mode. He said it reduces blue light emissions and turns the brightness down. While not using your phone at all is a better option.

Still feeling rough in the morning? You may want to talk to a professional. “As always, remember to reach out to your doctor if you believe you are experiencing a sleep disorder or insomnia,” Casey said. 

While there is some we can do to address all of this, we can’t cure it all. “Some of these we may not have control over, so be patient with yourself,” Casey added. Validate your frustrations and do what you can — without judgment — to help yourself sleep. While sleep struggles can make you feel hopeless, you’re not completely out of luck.

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