What I learned from a decade of insomnia
Few things are as frustrating as being wide awake when you’re craving a good night’s sleep. Research shows an alarming list of ways we are hurting ourselves by not sleeping. Lack of sleep is related to everything from depression to heart disease, which is enough to work any insomniac into a frenzy. Which really stinks, because anxiety is a major reason a lot of us can’t sleep, and advice like “don’t worry about it, and you’ll sleep better” can be totally infuriating.
Other reasons we’re awake in the wee hours? Work, family, travel, schedule, health conditions (quite the chicken-or-the-egg situation), stress, age, too much food, too little food, too little exercise, too much exercise, snoring...need I go on?
I remember my first long stretches of sleeplessness starting in high school, still revved up and staring at the clock at 3am, and tearful mornings desperately wishing I had more than 2 hours of sleep to get me through the day. During months where I was only sleeping a couple of hours a night, my waking hours were pretty bizarre.
There’s a scene in the movie Fight Club, where Edward Norton’s character isn’t sleeping. He sees lights flickering, sensing things that may or may not be there. I sometimes felt like I was in a surreal state during the day, too, without the added perk of seeing Brad Pitt.
Like many who get too little sleep most nights (1 in 4 Americans, in fact*), I tried a multitude of strategies to get some shut-eye. Over the years I stopped napping, avoided caffeine all day, and simple sugars near bedtime. I tried herbal supplements, and explored vitamin deficiencies and possible underlying health conditions. I shut off my phone and other electronics at 8pm, and reserved that evening time for gentle yoga and other mindful practices.
Suffice it to say, getting more and better sleep was and remains an urgent priority for my entire wellbeing, and it was a long journey of trial and error to find what works for me.
In recent years I’ve slept much more soundly. My getting ready for bed routine starts first thing in the morning with lifestyle choices like getting sunshine and finding time to be active. The rest of my personal recipe for sleep still includes mindful practices like yoga and breathing techniques, a medication that fits me, and more. I still have occasional bouts of sleeplessness, but they aren't dramatic anymore. I just keep coming back to my tried and true routine and trust that my body will fall back into step.
Next time you’re feeling disheartened, remember that it can take time to really see results from a new pro-sleep routine, and to find the combination of habits and tools that work well in your life.
Just as our lifestyles, challenges, and experiences vary widely, so can what works for each of us. If you are reading this at work over your 5th cup of coffee because Netflix was autoplaying Orange is the New Black and you just couldn’t stop that train, your needs may differ from someone who just started a medication that interferes with their natural sleep cycle.
With that in mind, here are some techniques that may help you on your personal journey to better sleep:
Cool down. Turn down the thermostat or open a window to keep your bedroom comfortably cool. A mild drop in body temperature can help you fall sleep, and prevents the discomfort of sweating through your sheets.
Drown out noise. If your neighbor’s dog won’t stop barking or your partner snores, grab some earplugs, turn on a fan for some white noise, or invest in sleep headphones. SleepPhones plus a white noise app on my iPod have made a big difference for me. I pull them forward to cover my eyes so they cut back on light, too.
Journal. Write about your day, things you’re grateful for, and any worries that tend to bubble to the top when you’re trying to drift off. Write in a paper notebook if you can, so that when you close it you’re physically shutting the door to those thoughts.
Let your body rest. Often when your body relaxes, your mind can’t help but follow. To release physical tension, grab 2 blankets (or towels) and try the brief, gentle Yoga for Sleep practice at the top of this post. Tomorrow night you may know it well enough to practice with the computer or tablet screen facing away from you, so the light doesn’t disrupt your rest.
Savor the process of treating yourself with kindness, without pressure. Sleep will come when it comes. In the meantime, enjoy this self care. Sweet dreams.