You don’t realize how important sleep is until you’re not getting any. There’s nothing more frustrating than lying in bed, wanting so badly to sleep, and not being able to. The paradox about sleep is that the more you tell yourself you need it, the more unattainable it seems to become. It becomes a vicious cycle that seems almost impossible to break without medication but I am going to help you fall asleep without any medicine, supplements, mind tricks; just a straightforward approach to a great night’s sleep.
I had trouble falling asleep for years but after my first child was born, I became a chronic insomniac. She was a terrible sleeper and for the first two years I would struggle to fall asleep because I knew that she was going to wake me up frequently anyway. When my son was born I went through the same thing all over but then once he started to sleep pretty well I still had problems falling asleep. There were nights that I didn’t sleep at all. It was at that point, after 4 years of struggling, that I decided to seek help and go to a professional.
When I went to the sleep doctor I was expecting a thorough examination, blood tests, some kind of answer to why my sleep patterns were so broken. I thought there must be something wrong with my hormones or some kind of mineral deficiency that was causing my insomnia because everything I had read online indicated that was the case. What she told me is that actually, people who suffer from insomnia aren’t any different than anyone else. It is purely psychological. If you’ve heard of Pavlov’s dog, insomnia is sort of like that: you have a bad night or a few bad nights, and then your bed stops being a place of rest and comfort and you develop a new association with it of restless nights and frustration. So how can you break this cycle?
The first thing you need to do: stop worrying about your lack of sleep.
1. Don’t Worry About It
You may have heard about negative side effects from sleep deprivation, but almost everyone has days or even weeks of poor sleep so don’t even worry about that. I heard an interview on NPR with a renowned sleep doctor who said that the body can adjust to just about any amount of sleep!
In fact, if you believe you had a good night’s sleep, you will function as if you had a good night’s sleep, regardless of how much you actually got. It’s called the “Placebo Sleep Effect” and it sounds crazy, but it’s true! So now that you know that how you feel about your quality of sleep plays a role in how well you function, regardless of how well you feel when you wake up, convince yourself that you had a fantastic night and are feeling great and your brain will respond accordingly! The mind is a fascinating thing.
2. You’re Probably Getting More Than You Think
On a related note, insomniacs do tend to underestimate the amount of sleep they’re actually getting. I’ve seen this for myself- I measured my sleep for a few nights (with the Sleep Cycle app for iOS which costs only $1) and couldn’t believe that despite my wandering mind at night, I was actually falling asleep much more quickly than I thought I was! I highly recommend measuring your sleep; you may be shocked at how much sleep you’re getting! It will really put your mind at ease and it’s a lot of fun to see your sleep cycle graph in the morning. Bonus- you can use it as an alarm clock to wake you up in a particular time period once you’re in light sleep, so you always wake feeling rested (and can get up before your kids!).
3. Break the Cycle
If you are like I was and you start to panic when you’ve been lying in bed for a while and don’t even feel tired (“what if I don’t sleep at all tonight?!”), you need to break the cycle of insomnia. When you get that panicky feeling, get out of bed and do something boring! Read a book you’ve been putting off reading. Clip your toenails. Just don’t do anything too active or on a screen- blue light won’t do you any favors. When you’ve been up a little while and are feeling calm, give sleep another shot and repeat if necessary (it probably won’t be). The idea is to maximize the percentage of time in bed that you’re actually sleeping so that you preserve the safe haven status of the bed in your mind.
If you really need help, an over-the-counter sleeping pill can help break the cycle. Don’t make it a habit, though; the long-term effects of sleeping pills are that they either stop working or begin to affect your memory. You’re a lot better off having a bad night here and there than becoming dependent on sleeping pills for the rest of your life! Believe me, your body was built to sleep as much as it was built to eat and you can do it!
The sleep doctor I visited prescribed me sleeping pills but agreed with me that it is better not to take them, if I can help it (and I never ended up filling the prescription)! She recommended taking them for no more than 3 days, but as I’m not a doctor and this isn’t intended to be a substitute, refer to your own doctor’s advice if you decide to go for professional intervention.
4. Keep a Consistent Sleep Routine
It may be tempting to stay up late on the weekends or sleep in late when you can, but choose a bedtime and wake-up time and don’t vary from it by more than 30 minutes. Be strict for a few weeks and when you’re happy with how your sleep is going you don’t need to worry about it so much. Insomnia shouldn’t rule your life, after all; it’s best to pay it very little attention and not even label yourself as an insomniac. But sleeping in or napping during the day can make it harder to fall asleep at night so in general, they’re not good ideas.
Here is one more thing that helped me and may seem counterintuitive and may or may not work for your lifestyle: don’t go to bed super early. I realized I was doing this (going to bed when my kids did) to account for the fact that it took me forever to fall asleep but it was actually self-sabotaging; if you go into it with the mentality that you’re going to struggle to fall asleep, you probably will! Now my scheduled sleep hours are just enough to give me a decent night and I don’t put pressure on myself to fall asleep on time. If I have a bad night, I know it will be okay!
I’m confident you’re going to have a great night’s sleep tonight, and remember, if you don’t, it’s not a big deal. You’re not broken, there is nothing wrong with you, and this is just a phase! Maybe you’ve got a lot on your mind right now. You will be just fine! And of course, if you DO have underlying issues like depression then consider something like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to get you back on track.
Have you ever dealt with insomnia? What helped you?