The other night I drifted in and out of sleep for about four or five hours before finally getting some deep sleep. It is not the first night I have had a horrible night’s sleep – in fact, it’s been some years since I asked my husband to please stop asking me how I slept, because instead of me thinking “what a nice husband I have, he really cares how I slept last night!” (which really is the case), I would just get irritated because the answer was almost always the same: I slept terrible. Despite my sleep troubles, my insomnia is really “no big deal” compared to what some of my clients experience.
It’s not just coincidence that most of the clients that come in to see me also deal with insomnia. Poor sleep can lead to anxiety and depression, and exacerbate symptoms of pretty much any other mental or emotional problem. Poor sleep can also be a symptom of some disorders, such as anxiety and depression (yes, it’s a chicken and egg scenario).
Having dealt with poor sleep for many years, I understand what a challenge it can be to try to figure out what works out of the many different good sleep tips. Standard “sleep hygiene” tips include:
- Avoiding naps (um, yeah…)
- No screen time right before bed (apparently this messes with your melatonin production)
- Having a bedtime routine
- No alcohol right before bed… or coffee, nicotine… probably big meals, lots of water, or chocolate
- Having a specific place to sleep
- Getting regular exercise (once you have enough energy to get that started…)
- Getting sunlight
- Bedtime stories (not just for kids – stories help us regulate emotionally – they take our minds off our own problems and help us calm down)
You may have already seen this list. You may have it memorized… you may have tried all of these together and still wind up tossing and turning, with ongoing sleep deprivation as a result. There are others who suffer with disturbing nightmares, having trouble shaking the emotional effects off once they wake up. Here are a few more tips that I have found to be helpful to some people.
If you are having a hard time getting to sleep because of racing thoughts
You might be worried about tasks that need to be completed in the near future. Focusing specifically on the things you have control over (you might need to write two separate lists – things I have control over, and things outside my control) and writing down a list of tasks and a timeline can be helpful. Sometimes it can help to visualize putting things away before going to bed – you can put things into boxes with labels like “to do tomorrow”, “to do later”, or “someone else will do this/no control”.
After getting these things written down, it may still be hard to let go of thoughts. Try focusing specifically on your breath. You can do this one of two ways: you can deliberately slow your breathing down, focusing your body’s movement to the abdomen with slow controlled breathing. You can also have an “open awareness” of your breath, noticing any or all of the physical sensations that come with the breath – air going in and out of your nose, moving through your trachea, the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen, how other areas of your body move as well with your breath.
Another technique that can be helpful is to notice other physical sensations. How does it feel to be lying on your back? (side, stomach?) How are your knees, elbows bent? Where does your body connect (legs crossed, hands and arms)? What does it feel like to be covered with a blanket or sheet? How does it feel to have gravity pulling you down, and the mattress supporting you?
With the breath and body awareness, your mind may wander again – in fact, it probably will wander a lot. That is totally fine. Just notice that your mind has wandered off, and bring your attention back to your breath or body. These are mindfulness techniques that many people have found to be helpful in getting to sleep, or getting back to sleep after they wake during the night.
Some people also have found that doing stretches or a relaxing yoga routine before bed can help to calm the mind and relax the body as well.
Dealing with nightmares
Some nightmares can be truly disturbing, with emotional experiences that are very real. If you experience dreams like this, it can be helpful to know how to calm yourself – the mindful techniques of breath and body awareness listed above can be helpful. In addition, you might notice the emotions you are experiencing, and the physical sensations that come with them. If these become too intense, take your awareness back to your breath, or your connection with the ground, and keep your focus there. It can be helpful to remind yourself that “I’m safe here. That was only a dream. I’m safe now.”
There might be other things that can help you feel comforted as well. Taking a hot bath before bed, using the smell of lavender, or finding physical comfort through a warm blanket may work as well. There may be other routines that help you as well – songs or relaxing music, prayer, journaling, or imagining a loved one holding you in their arms may help.
Insomnia can be extremely frustrating. It can affect your functioning during the day, and as much effort as you put into it, you may still find yourself tossing and turning, only to be “awake” but drowsy and even mentally dull the next day as a result.
Getting frustrated can add to the distress related to sleep deprivation. It’s hard to sleep when you’re angry, irritated, disappointed, etc.
It can be helpful to approach things with an attitude of curiosity. I’ve given some suggestions on this page of things that could be helpful to you – look at it as valuable suggestions that may or may not help you. Do an experiment and see if it helps. If it doesn’t, try it again, or try something else – either a new combination, or something completely different. Be kind to yourself. Keep your sense of humor. If something doesn’t work that I’ve labeled as “helpful to a lot of people”, consider yourself special! Focus on getting the most relaxation from your time in bed, whether asleep or awake. Have the goal of being able to cope with whatever comes your way the next day, regardless of how you slept.
It’s okay to have crappy sleep. Give yourself permission to have a lousy night’s rest. Know that there are many others who understand what you are going through, and sometimes this is what we get to experience as human beings.
Having said that, it’s also okay to seek live help from a professional if you feel your poor sleep is affecting your ability to function, or you are finding you are unusually emotional or overwhelmed. Learning how to seek and accept help when you need it is also a part of being human!
(And before you resign yourself to a life of sleepy wakefulness, it may be good to check in with your physician to rule out any physical causes for your insomnia.)