By Susan Melendez Doak, LPC
I had my first run in with insomnia in my thirties, after my first child started to sleep through the night. I thought I’d be home-free, back to a normal life of sleeping all-night and waking refreshed and ready to start my day.
My body and mind had different plans.
After over a year of chronic sleep loss and an over-active nervous system—a crying baby and full-time job will do this to you—I found myself waking up with a flood of anxiety. Then I’d proceed to problem-solve my way through it for the next few hours, finally drifting back to sleep about ten minutes before my alarm went off. I had no idea how to handle being awake for hours without a baby to take care of. I’d check my phone for calls and texts I might have missed, pace around the house, check social media, and watch TV. The thought of the coming day being ruined was feeding my anxious brain and activating my stress responses. When you don’t sleep at night, the nights feel absolutely endless. I would simultaneously long for the day to come and dread the sun’s signal that my day was starting regardless of how much rest I’d managed to squeeze out of the night. I became obsessed with sleeping. My daydreams did not involve a fancy vacation, a new wardrobe, or winning the lottery. No—I only fantasized about having a restful sleep. In fact, if someone asked me what I wanted for my birthday or Christmas, I usually said I wanted a nap.
Now, after over ten years of living with insomnia, I have learned a few things about how to cope with it on a long-term basis. I have found that the mental game of insomnia is at the heart of making peace with the night. As a professional counselor, I have worked with scores of people with insomnia. They have benefitted from some of these strategies, and I think you will too.
Here are my tips from the dark hours of the night:
(1) Make your bed sacred. You are an adult now, and it’s time to affirm that through one of the best adult investments you can make: in your bed. Get the softest sheets and the coziest blankets you can find. Make it a zone of happiness and comfort. Make it dark, cool, and quiet.
(2) Absolutely no devices. Banish all devices from your bedroom. Now. This cannot be stressed enough. Between the beeps, buzzes, and lights on these things, it’s no wonder we’re all on edge. (Side note: Phones in the bedroom can kill your sex life.) You need space from your phone. I can almost hear you telling me that you use your phone for your alarm clock so you can’t put it outside of your bedroom. Nope. Stop. Go to the store and buy and old-fashioned alarm clock for $10. Charge your phone outside of your bedroom and silence your cell phone at night, including the vibration. You can do this and you know it. Your brain is so attuned to your phone that you will hear it from the next room and will struggle to ignore it. Phones are designed to keep you on the hook, literally.
(3) Don’t look. When you wake up in the night, do not check the clock. Resist the temptation! Cover it if you need to avoid over-focusing on the time. Don’t count the hours until you are supposed to wake up. Time is not your friend at night, ever. Ignore it. Time checking will only lead to more frustration, anxiety, and will continue to keep you awake.
(4) If you break rule #2 above (No devices). Do not use screens during the night, but if you must, keep it light and limit blue light exposure by adjusting your device settings to night settings. Make the things you do on the screen emotionally light. A rerun episode of a sitcom might be okay, but avoid shows and movies about serious topics—this includes the news. Don’t check email or respond to your uncle’s crazy political Facebook post. Avoid buying things online, online dating, and pornography. These things are too stimulating and will not help you to go back to sleep. Remember, going back to sleep is your goal.
(5) Check your diet. Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol are not your friends close to bedtime and they may not be your friends at all, ever. Each of these substances is known to disrupt sleep. Caffeine is the most consumed among them and it seems innocent enough. Many people will say they only have “one cup of coffee in the morning” and “it can’t be affecting my sleep at night.” However, most people underestimate the amount of coffee they are drinking. Your “one cup” might actually be a 16oz mug (i.e., more like two cups). Caffeine has been shown to have effects on sleep even if someone has built a tolerance to it. I’m not anti-coffee or anti-tea. However, it’s worth considering eliminating caffeine or at least significantly reducing your caffeine intake if you have sleep problems. And it’s not just caffeine—overindulging in eating or drinking generally makes sleep worse.
(6) Address your anxiety, depression, and grief. Poor sleep might be a sign that you need to attend to areas of your life you have been ignoring. If you deal with persistent worry or have faced significant loss in your life, your sleep will be affected. You may be successful in compartmentalizing these feelings during the day because you are busy with work, projects, or family. At night, grief and anxiety take on new life, rushing back into the open space they need to be processed. If talking to a friend is not enough, reach out for professional therapy or join a support group. Breathe and practice meditation or prayer. Take up yoga, Tai Chi, dance, or running. Give your body and mind space to process these emotions.
(7) Make a plan. Assume that you will probably be awake in the night. Instead of being surprised and incredulous every time you are having trouble sleeping, see it as routine and predictable. Set aside a magazine or book to read if you wake up in the night. If you find your mind is full of ideas or tasks you need to complete, prepare a journal by the bed to write them down. If you are going to be awake for more than thirty minutes, get up and do some reading or a quiet activity you can do with relatively little light. Make a cup of herbal tea and relax on the couch for a few minutes. See if you can naturally feel sleepy again and then try to go to bed when you’re ready. Sometimes a small reset is all that is needed.
(8) Accept it in the moment. Instead of trying to push away insomnia, work with it. Hormonal changes, aging, and normal stressors all contribute to sleep disturbances. Alas, periods of sleep disturbance seem to be part of the human experience. Reset your expectations to include waking up during the night, rather than desperately wishing the wake-ups would never happen and then allowing the wake-ups to be one more failure that now adds a new kind of stress onto itself.
If you are not sleeping well, you may need to seek help for other challenges that may not seem connected right away. Discuss the issue with your doctor or naturopathic practitioner. Sometimes you can scrape the bottom of the solution barrel and still find yourself having sleepless nights. That’s OK. Accepting your awake state in the middle of the night is not the same as accepting that all nights are doomed to be terrible. You can’t control all the factors, but you have influence over some simple behavioral changes. If you are as desperate to sleep like I was, you’ll give some of these suggestions a try. Trust me, it’s worth it.