A Few Tips for Overcoming Insomnia
Day #19 in my "Hub a Day" Challenge!
Let me begin by saying that I am by no means an expert on the topic of insomnia. I have not had any medical training and I have not spent a lot of time researching the problem. However, I have been living with insomnia for most of my adult life. So, my knowledge of the condition comes from first hand experience.
Supposedly, insomnia is pretty common. Don't believe me? Try bringing up the topic around the watercooler or in the break room at work (or, if you don't work, try a coffee shop or some other popular hang out spot). I can pretty much guarantee that about half the people you talk to will admit to suffering from insomnia. However, most people are fortunate enough that they only have occasional problems with the condition.
Me, I fall into the other camp. I have trouble sleeping more often than not. For me, it's a combination of two problems: 1. Falling asleep in the first place and then 2. Staying asleep. I spend most nights tossing and turning in an attempt to capture that elusive thing called sleep. After a while I will usually succeed in falling asleep, but then I wake up frequently. I'm a light sleeper and it seems like every little thing can wake me. Then, I'm back to square one-- tossing and turning, falling asleep, waking too soon; repeat.
It's frustrating, to say the least!
A Big Impact
I'm always amazed by how much of an impact a bad night's sleep (or lack of any sleep at all) can have on both my physical and my psychological health. Lack of sleep can make us grumpy, restless (no pun intended!), and melancholy. After all, who wants to go out and do anything when they feel like they've been run over by a truck? In addition, lack of sleep can impair our judgment and make us more likely to make mistakes. Not getting enough sleep can have a major impact on our lives.
Finding a "Fix"
Over the years, I've pretty much tried every sleep remedy out there. Anything and everything from using ear plugs to drinking warm soy milk (I can't do the dairy kind) to reading books (which always backfires for me because I get so caught up in the story that I forget about sleep!). I've even tried meditation and medication with limited success. While it's true that some of these things have helped, none of them have ever really "cured" me. I still have trouble sleeping (more often than not).
A Few Tips
Even though I'm not cured, I'd like to share a few of the things that have seemed to help me to sleep better. I realize that everyone is different, so the following tips made not work for you. However, if your insomnia is anything like mine, you'll give them a chance. I mean, what have you got to lose?
1. Set a regular sleep schedule.
The number one thing that I would recommend to my fellow insomniacs is to set a regular sleep schedule. Personally, I go to bed between 10 and 11 pm each night and wake up between 6 and 8 am (although I'll sometimes sleep in until 9 am on my days off). The basic idea behind setting a regular sleep schedule is to get your body into a routine. After a while, you'll establish a pattern. These are the hours we're awake, and these are the hours we sleep.
This really does help, but it's not fool-proof. I still have rough nights. Also, life does tend to get in the way. Let's face it, who goes to bed at a reasonable hour on New Year's Eve (and other special occasions)?
Okay, I'll admit that I was skeptical at first. But, after reading some books about meditation and borrowing a few DVD's from my local library, I discovered that it really does help. Basically, what you do is try to block out all of the things that are preventing you from sleeping-- all of your stresses, the sound of your neighborhood garage band practicing at all hours of the day (including right now, while I sit at my computer typing this), your worries about the following day, everything!
It sounds hard (and I'll admit that it can be) but the easiest way to accomplish this goal is to focus on your breathing. One video I watched said to take deep breaths and try to imagine that the sound of the air traveling in and out of your lungs is the sound of waves breaking against the beach. The sound is constant and unchanging.
Try it! Close your eyes and breath deeply. In then out. Can you hear it? The waves go out and then they come back in, break against the sand, and then travel back out to sea.
Focus on your breathing. Try to envision yourself sitting on a sandy beach watching the waves. There's a pattern. The waves come in, break against the sand, and then the water recedes. The sound is soothing. Block out all other thoughts and sounds. Just listen to the waves and breath deeply, in and out... until you drift off to sleep.
Meditation and breathing exercises work for two reasons. 1. They force you to block out all of your stresses and quiet your thoughts. 2. The extra oxygen from the deep breathing is calming and a good stress reliever. Once your body and mind are relaxed enough, sleep will find you.
Note: If you have trouble imaging the sound of the ocean, there are numerous CD's on the market. One of my favorites is simply the recorded sound of the ocean waves crashing against a beach with the occasional call of a seagull. The CD's can make it easier to focus and block out all other distractions while you're trying to fall asleep.
3. No caffeine after 5 pm
You've probably heard this bit of advice before, but it bears repeating. Caffeine is a stimulant. You'll have less problems falling asleep and staying asleep if you avoid consuming caffeine within a few hours of your bedtime.
4. Eliminate distractions
Turn off all of the devices in your room. Your computer, your phone, anything that makes noise, lights up, or does anything else that can prevent you from sleeping. If necessary, kick your pets or significant other out of the room.
5. Black-out curtains
Unfortunately, one of the windows in my bedroom faces toward my neighbor's. They have a motion activated light on their back porch. This means that every time a neighborhood cat walks by or the wind shakes the branches in a nearby tree the light turns on. For an insomniac, having your room flooded with light every hour or so can be frustrating (to say the least). Remember how I said that every little thing wakes me up?
Well, the neighboring house is a rental with a pretty quick turn-around rate. After talking to the first two sets of inhabitants about the light, I gave up. Instead, I invested in a couple black-out curtains. I take them down during the day to let in the light and then put them up right before I head to bed.
The black-out curtains transform my bedroom into a dark cave that is much more conducive to sleep.
6. No liquids within an hour of going to bed
At the risk of sounding like a nanny, I would recommend avoiding drinking liquids within an hour of going to bed. Only, instead of avoiding bed wetting, we're trying to avoid the need to get up in the middle of the night.
7. Allow extra time
Most of the articles that I've read recommend that adults try to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night. In my case, I know that it'll take me at least an hour to fall asleep and I usually wake up several times in the middle of the night. So, instead of laying down for only 7 hours, whenever possible I allow myself at least an extra hour to make up for the time spent tossing and turning.
8. Light Therapy Devices
Somewhere along the line, someone suggested that I try light therapy. So, I bought a Philips "goLite." Basically, the device was designed to help people that suffer from "seasonal affective disorder" (SAD). The disorder is also referred to as "the winter blues." Basically, some people can become depressed during the winter months when they don't receive enough sun light. Light therapy can help increase your energy and improve your mood.
From an insomniac's point of view, light therapy can help train your body by setting waking and sleeping patterns. All you have to do is sit in front of the light for at least 15 minutes each morning. The light works like sunlight to stimulate alertness and help you prepare for the day.
I've found that my "goLite" works well with my continued efforts to set and keep a regular sleep schedule (see tip #1).
9. Sleeping Aids
Finally, as a last resort, there are numerous sleep aids on the market to help people get a good night's rest. I've tried several over-the-counter brands and a few all-natural ones with mixed results. The biggest problem with taking pills is that most them will leave you feeling groggy in the morning. Also, most of them will help me fall asleep initially, but I still sleep lightly and wake up several times throughout the night. I know that there are stronger sleep aids available with a prescription, but I've hesitated to try them (so far).
When I tried regular over the counter sleeping pills in the past, I didn't like how groggy they made me feel the following morning. A year ago, I decided to try melatonin instead. I started taking 5 mg before bed then increased it to 10 mg. Unlike sleeping pills, I don't feel groggy or "out of it" after taking melatonin. It's not as strong as sleeping pills, but I like that it does help me fall asleep easier.
(* Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor. The information above is based on my personal experience taking melatonin. Please talk to your doctor if you're interested in trying it).
And there you have it: nine tips from one insomniac to another. I sincerely hope that you'll find this information helpful. Here's to a good night's sleep!