When I arrived at Berkeley at the tender age of 18 I started living, and stopped sleeping. Too much caffeine. Too much excitement. Too much booze. Too much stress. Just TOO MUCH. That was the beginning of years of struggling with insomnia, subsisting on as little as three hours of sleep a night for stretches of months at a time. But I’m proud to say that I no longer dread the moment when I get in bed, fearing that it’ll be the beginning of hours stressful tossing and turning. And I have just one thing to say to all of you out there with similar fears:
TAKE BACK THE NIGHT!
Insomnia is something that doctors seem to spend a great deal of time guessing on. Well, perhaps not guessing, but it is not necessarily an easily diagnosed or cured condition. Sleeping pills are quite addicting and the sleep you get isn’t satisfying, so it’s not the most beneficial course of treatment. Back in the day I was given allergy tests, cat scans, thyroid tests, prescriptions, eye tests…
Unfortunately there was no quick and easy cure for my insomnia – Though I was convinced I had a brain tumor. In college the doctors told me to slow down, that I was taking too many classes and not giving myself enough downtime. Then after I left school and joined the workforce they told me it was the stress and pressure of my 12+ hours a day job. Well… Clearly there needed to be another solutions since I’m a go-go-go kinda girl.
Since I’ve had a handful of sleepless nights recently and needed to go back and resurrect some of the tricks that I learned over the years, I’d like to share them with you in the hopes that we can all enjoy a full night’s sleep.
[1.] Create a sleep space - This is the first thing that a doctor will tell you if you make an appointment to discuss insomnia. Make your bedroom a sacred place, a place for sleeping alone. That means no television, no eating, no stressing – Your bedroom is for sleeping and sleeping only. This was particularly hard for me in college since I had such limited space in my tiny Berkeley apartment. It was especially challenging for me to find other locations for studying (libraries, cafes) and eating (balcony).
These days, I’ve discovered that if I allow my bedroom to become cluttered it really affects my ability to sleep at night, so I have to keep things neat and organized. And for me, this also means no radio, television, or computer in my bedroom. Too tempting. Too distracting.
[2.] Power down - Turning my brain off at night after 17 or 18 hours of being “on” is another major challenge for me. In order to do this I employ a number of techniques, including turning my cell phone and blackberry over so that I don’t see any flashing lights, wearing a sleep mask, ear plugs, and keeping a notepad handy so that I can write down things that are keeping me awake so I don’t have to focus on them right then.
[3.] Sweat it out – I for one sleep vastly better when I’m physically exhausted so getting in a good workout is incredibly important. If I don’t have time to hit the gym, sneak in a Pilates class, or go for a run, then I go for a walk after dinner or spend 15 minutes stretching right before bed. Stretching in particular is very therapeutic for me, by concentrating my energies and focusing on my body, I’m usually able let go of everything else. I know that’s how some people feel about yoga!
[4.] Caffeine Monster - Some people can have caffeine right up until bedtime and have no issues sleeping, the key is to know your personal limits and to do some research to determine what works best for you. While caffeine wont keep me awake, it will make my time between the sheets more restless, so one green tea after lunch is all I allow myself during the week.
[5.] Food - For some people sleeping on a full stomach is uncomfortable and interferes with their sleeping patterns. Trial and error may have taught you to avoid spicy dinners – and therefore the horrors of indigestion - or taught you not to eat after 7pm. Personally, a carb-heavy dinner always makes me wake up starving in the middle of the night so I try to have bread-y or potato-based dinners on the earlier side and not right before bed.
[6.] The Golden Rule – Most important rule? Do. Not. Panic. When you go to bed fearing that you wont be able to sleep – surprise – you wont be able to sleep! You need to do whatever you can to reduce your negative and/or nervous energy before you pull back the sheets and fluff your pillow.
Some of my quick fixes to try before heading to a doctor for poking & prodding?
- Ear plugs – While there are those who dislike the feeling of something in their ears (especially if you sleep on your side) these can be a great tool since they allow you to sleep through small noises without waking up.
- Sleeping mask – Studies show that exposure to light and can greatly affect your body’s ability to fall into deep REM sleep, so cover those flashing numbers on your alarm, turn off your phone & pull on a mask for deeper sleep.
Check out the Huffington Post’s 30 Minutes More Sleep Challenge for more ideas.