There are plenty of articles that are terrific (and will list a few below) about insomnia.
This piece is not to talk about good sleep hygiene, sleep culture in the US, or to go over what professionals are already saying. Rather, it’s my story, and how, after reading articles and listening to podcasts, I put together pieces of a puzzle to find a solution for me.
I love to sleep. And for a long time (and still do) I slept hard. And I used to sleep well. I slept through tornadoes, big storms, a roommate burning her hand and screaming at the top of her lungs, parties in my house in college (I was a real live wire! In my defense, it was one time and I was really tired after the party had been going on a long while!), and more.
But somewhere…around 2009 or so (at least per Facebook) I “took a wrong turn at Albuquerque”, so to speak. And suddenly I could fall
asleep, but staying asleep was a whole other matter. I would wake at midnight, 2, 3, 3:30, and then just lie quietly waiting for my alarm.
Why? What happened? I have my theories, but the long and the short is…my anxiety took hold. It took a long time, but about 2.5 years ago, I started winning my battle with insomnia and anxiety. Do the math and that’s 4 years at least. Kinda crazy if you think about it.
So the question is, how did I start taking my life back? It took patience and looking at things. It took me that long to accept and admit (that’s the hard part here) it was anxiety. My sleep hygiene was pretty good: no electronics (TV, smart phone, etc) in the bedroom, no caffeine in the afternoon, limited caffeine regardless, a sleep routine, a white noise machine (invaluable by the way), and about 1 year ago we started turning the thermostat down even more after 10 pm. Apparently, like many, I sleep better in a cold room. But, it can’t be cold to start with!
Once I hit the standard recommendations, I started looking deeper. And here is what has helped me.
1) When I do wake up in the middle of the night I try very hard to think of nothing. Because
if I do, that will keep me from falling back asleep. Sometimes I draw the alphabet in my mind to keep thoughts at bay. Or go through an alphabetical list (such as cities in a state, or East/West of the Mississippi, or fruits and vegetables. Sadly, I also realize I have a lot to learn!)
2) I keep a notepad and pen by my bed. When I wake in the middle of the night thinking of something I have to do the next day I write it down. That way I won’t forget, or worry about forgetting, and lie awake worrying. It’s written down. I took this tip at first from authors about writing story ideas, but have seen it on insomnia guides lately as well
3) I go for a short walk when I wake up in the middle of the night. Very short: 5-6 minutes. And I started falling asleep . I have t done this as much lately because cold. Although sometimes a quick step outside when it’s cold has helped me lower my body temperature and I fall asleep quickly after. Rainy nights taught me the next trick, but I use this if the next trick doesn’t work.
4) I stretch. Not long. Maybe 3-4 minutes. I move my hips, stretch my legs, and move around a bit. For some reason I get really stiff when I sleep. And stretching helps things
loosen up so that I can fall asleep. Plus, I don’t have to worry about rain or putting on a jacket if it’s cold.
5) I allowed my iPhone in my room, but with rules. I use it only for the alarm. This is HUGE, and one of the biggest wins for me against my insomnia. I realized I was worried my alarm would fail to go off (power outage. We get them often – short – but long enough to disturb clocks). For races I use my iPhone, so why not in daily life? I know that, if the electricity fails, my iPhone will be ok and still go off. I know it doesn’t need electricity all the time the way an alarm does. And it’s very easy to have multiple alarms so I can easily pick the time I want to wake up without going through the arduous process of setting an alarm!
Now…to have my phone in my room goes against everything sleep professionals say. But as I alluded to…I have rules. My phone is on do not disturb from 9 pm until 6 am. That means it doesn’t light up, ring, beep, bing, or in any way alert me to social media, news alerts, phone calls, or text message between 9 and 6. My phone is quiet and face down. And once I go to bed I cannot turn it over. That’s my rule. My phone in my room is an alarm that I trust. And that is the ONLY reason.
6) And last but a biggie: find a buddy.
Someone who will support you to get enough sleep, not work 12 hours a day, not be everybody’s everything, and keep you honest. Like a work out buddy, but better! I never thought of this until Brent Pease, at a training camp, told me he remembered me talking about how I addressed my insomnia at a previous camp (the steps I outlined above). Suddenly we were talking. When we spot an article we share it. And chat. If I falter in my rules, I tell him. And straighten back up. Perhaps sleep habits are too intimate for some to share with others. But it helps. Suddenly I wasn’t alone. Suddenly I could talk with someone, and compare strategies, and make changes. Suddenly I had an ally against a culture that lauds sleep deprivation and over-working (see podcasts below).
I don’t sleep to my alarm every day, but I do sleep to it. Which is new. And if I do wake up early, it’s 5-10 minutes early. 80% or more of the time, when I wake up in the middle of the night I can fall back asleep within 10 minutes or so. Which, for me, is fantastic. And I can sleep longer intervals (at least 2 hours).
For me, it worked to start with the known basics, and proceed, based on my case, from there. You need to find your own way. But it is there.
Articles and Podcasts: