Taming The Insomnia Beast
Sleep problems are so ubiquitous that hardly anyone talks about them anymore. Of course, we think, everyone is overworked and over-stimulated; modern life blah blah blah; I would love more and better sleep, but what can you do?
I’ll talk about this attitude more in my next post, The Case Against Vacation. But for here, I’d like to challenge the notion that good sleep is impossible, and offer some tips that go beyond the standard advice.
To review, standard guidelines for good “sleep hygiene” (practices that maximize your chances for high quality and plentiful sleep) include these Dos and Don'ts:
Don’t take stimulants (caffeine, chocolate, Sudafed, or other brain-boosting supplements and herbs) in the second half of day (after the early afternoon).
Don’t do vigorous exercise within 3 hours of bed time. Though exercise is ultimately promotes relaxation and good sleep, it has a temporary stimulus effect and can’t keep you up longer than you’d like if done too soon before bed.
Don’t eat sugary foods before bed, including fruits and fruit juices. Sugars (even natural ones) give us a boost of energy, which we don’t want when we’re trying to fall asleep.
Don’t look at screens (televisions, smartphones, laptops, tablets) during the hour before going to bed. The blue light from these screens is particularly stimulating to our brains, more so than the types of ambient or reading light we use in our homes.
If you can’t fall asleep after 15-30 minutes, get up and do something non-stressful: read, clean, organize, meditate, etc. until you feel tired. Your bed should be a place that your mind associates with being sleepy—not stressed out about not being able to fall asleep. Studies show that people who lay awake in bed trying unsuccessfully to sleep are conditioning themselves to have a harder time in the future.
Likewise, try to minimize activities you do in bed. Most importantly, don’t do work in bed. This creates associations between your bed and the stimulating/stressful world of work and responsibility, which can speed up your thoughts. If you choose to read in bed then read something that is easy and relaxing to you.
Adjust the temperature in your room to be slightly cool – around 65 degrees. For whatever reason, this relaxes our nervous system. (Yes, you can still use blankets.) Though we associate warmth with comfort and relaxation, warm ambient temperatures actually interfere with sleep.
Dim the light in your house in the hour before going to bed; this will help signal to the brain to produce melatonin, a hormone critical for sleep.
Do something to wind down and calm your nervous system: meditation, gentle stretching, sex or masturbation, progressive muscle relaxation, pleasurable reading, etc.
What If None Of That Works?
You have likely encountered some or all of those tips before and, if you’re like me, your track record for actually following them may not be the best . Or perhaps you do everything right, turning going to bed into an elaborate ritual each night, and you still can’t sleep. Now what?
In my experience and observations with clients, one of the biggest causes of not sleeping well is fear of not sleeping well. If you have to be up by a certain time the next morning, which most people do, then it’s likely that every wakeful second that eats into your precious eight-hour window begins to stress you out.
When you feel stressed, your physiology starts running in the opposite direction of sleep. You may double-down at this point and make an extra effort to lose consciousness. But the problem with sleep is that it’s not something you can will your conscious mind to “do.” You have to instead relax your thoughts, letting the associations between them become looser, and letting more and more images replace the words. You have to relax your muscles and try to make your breaths slow and regular. Then you have to surrender.
So if you’re a worrier, something to both distract and focus your mind is essential. Here are some additional sleep hygiene tips:
Don’t look at the clock for an hour (ish) before going to bed. If you’re unsure of the time, you won’t be able to fret about it being too late. Most people are bad judges of time passing, and in this case that can work in your favor. Sometimes ignorance is bliss!
Distract your mind with music, podcasts, or guided meditations. Try something with a story format that doesn’t require any critical thinking or analysis, such as This American Life. There are now several apps on the market now offer guided meditations and music to help relax.
Before fretting, try five solid minutes of deep breathing. Deep breaths signal our bodies to stop producing adrenaline, and this powerful act can propel you dramatically closer to sleepiness.
Practice thought stopping. This is a technique in cognitive behavioral therapy in which you imagine a big red “STOP” sign when you have a thought that isn’t useful or rational. It sounds silly, but with practice it actually can become a useful way to curtail unhelpful thoughts, such as “if I don’t fall asleep soon I’ll be exhausted tomorrow.”
If you’re not confident you will be able to put away all screens in the hour before going to bed, then try using your iPhone’s “night shift” function and a free software application called Flux for your laptop. These shift the colors on the screen to warmer tones, reducing the blue light emitted and thereby minimizing the extra stimulation to the brain.
Try a yoga sandbag to help your nervous system relax. These are used in some yoga classes to put a gentle weight on certain parts of the body. The feeling of weight on your body, the theory goes, tricks your brain into thinking you have a small child or loved one resting on or up against you, and this releases oxytocin, a powerful hormone that promotes social bonding and relaxation. It sounds like a stretch, but try it! You may be surprised at how helpful it is.
Finally, if you know you won’t sleep enough and are starting to dread the next day, keep in mind that nondirective meditation can help the brain recoup some of the rest it didn’t get during the night. You can find ten minutes a few times a day to practice a short meditation, and this will help promote a relaxed wakefulness that might otherwise elude you.
I would love to hear any other tips or tricks you’ve tried!