It’s hard to describe to someone who doesn’t experience insomnia, quite how debilitating it can be. At my worst I went 6 weeks without sleeping. I felt completely detached from reality, I started to hallucinate, I was so exhausted my resting heart rate was 150 bpm, I couldn’t think clearly. I had numerous panic attacks a day, it caused a complete breakdown. This was, of course, a very severe form of insomnia but the frustration and fear you feel when you can’t sleep can be overwhelming. 24 hours is a long time when you don’t get a break from your own thoughts or chance to recharge your batteries.
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for long enough to feel refreshed the next morning. It’s a common problem thought to regularly affect around one in every three people in the UK. I’ve suffered with insomnia for all my adult life so I am very familiar with the symptoms.
If you have insomnia, you may:
- Find it difficult to fall asleep
- Lie awake for long periods at night
- Wake up several times during the night
- Wake up early in the morning and not be able to get back to sleep
- Not feel refreshed when you get up
- Find it hard to nap during the day, despite feeling tired
- Feel tired and irritable during the day and have difficulty concentrating
Insomnia can be caused by many things including: pain, stress and anxiety, muscle spasms, overactive brain, environmental condition like noise, heat, cold or light, certain medication, lifestyle factors like shift work, alcohol or caffeine consumption, being over tired and wired, or just plain anger and frustration. Some of these we have control over, some we don’t. Firstly, make positive changes to the factors you can control.
Good sleep habits for beating insomnia
Good sleep habits, also called sleep hygiene, can help you get a good night’s sleep and beat insomnia. Here are some tips:
- Try to go to sleep at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning.
- Try not to take naps during the day because naps may make you less sleepy at night.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol late in the day. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants and can keep you from falling asleep. Alcohol can cause waking in the night and interferes with sleep quality.
- Take regular exercise. Try not to exercise close to bedtime because it may stimulate you and make it hard to fall asleep. Experts suggest not exercising within four hours of going to bed.
- Do not eat a heavy meal late in the day. A light snack before bedtime, however, may help you sleep.
- Make your bedroom comfortable. Be sure that it is dark, quiet and not too warm or too cold. If light is a problem, try a sleeping mask. If noise is a problem, try earplugs, a fan or a “white noise” machine to cover up the sounds.
- Follow a routine to help you relax before sleep. Read a book, listen to music or have a bath.
- Avoid using your bed for anything other than sleep or sex.
- If you cannot fall asleep and do not feel drowsy, get up and read or do something that is not overly stimulating until you feel sleepy.
- If you find yourself lying awake worrying about things, try making a to-do list before you go to bed. This may help you to not focus on those worries overnight.
I’m sure if you have suffered from insomnia for a long period of time you have already tried all of the above. These tips helped me but definitely haven’t cured my insomnia.
I find, although some of my insomnia is caused by pain and being over tired, the biggest aggravating factors are: anxiety, my over active brain, and the anger and frustration of not being able to sleep. Mindfulness meditation definitely helps calm my anxiety, but to be able to sleep you need to let you mind wander. If you want to learn more about Mindfulness meditation please read this post
Often when my mind wanders it finds itself at a painful memory or a regret, or it remembers a whole list of things I should have done or need to do. Given the opportunity, my brain will run through everything I’ve said that day that could have upset someone, or everything I wish I had done differently. My brain will start to ask me stupid, irrelevant questions like ‘Can you cry underwater?’, ‘If I wanted to read every book ever written, how long would it take?’,‘Why do we dream?’ or ‘What is consciousness?’ and I find myself reaching for Google at 2am.
Sleep Exercise: How I calm my over active and anxious mind
I find by focusing my mind on something that is very familiar but not threatening, and then letting my mind wander and explore that ‘something’, I have the best chance of falling asleep. Let me try to explain..
Focus on a film you have watched so many times that you know all the words, something friendly, so not a horror film. My favourite is Dirty Dancing but I also use Juno and Breakfast Club. Start by focusing on one line from the film… “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” Think about the scene around the line, take in the colours, the music, the characters. Now move onto another line….”Quite a little joiner aren’t we?” and another…. “Spaghetti arms” Again think about the scene, the emotions, the clothes, the colours… “I’m doing all this to save your ass, and all I wanna do is drop you on it”…. What happens next in the film? And another line….”I carried a watermelon?” By now my brain has started to wander and is remembering scenes and lines without trying. I’m relaxed and instead of worrying about not sleeping, I’m remembering and walking around the scenes in a film that are so familiar, they are like an old friend. As my mind continues to wander, I’m in a safe place rather than memories from my own past, which could be painful, and I start to drift off to sleep.
When I haven’t fallen asleep within an hour of going to bed, the doubts start creeping in, will this be another long, sleepless night? And with these doubts come anger at the thought of another night of torment. By focusing on a film (as above) rather than entertaining these negative thoughts you will have a better chance at falling asleep.
How I combat the negative thoughts
My biggest problems occur when I have one sleepless night. One sleepless night often leads to many sleepless nights. It’s like I lose confidence in my ability to sleep. I couldn’t sleep last night, so why should tonight be any different? Once these negative thoughts occur it’s hard to shake them. This is how I deal with them, this is my thought process. A few hours calm rest is almost as good as a few hours sleep, and it’s a lot better than a few hours getting frustrated, angry and anxious about not be able to sleep. So I tell myself ‘if all you manage tonight is a few hours calm rest, then that is ok’ By taking the pressure off myself to sleep I often find I drift off within a few minutes, or at the very least I stay calm. I also keep a voice recorder by my bed and record anything that is troubling me or keeping me from switching off. By recording my thoughts I find I am able to let them go and concentrate on relaxing.
Sleep aids: What I’ve found effective
No matter how much meditation or distraction I practice, I am still unable to sleep without something to relax and sedate me. For years that was sleeping tablets but thankfully I’ve managed to wean myself off them with the help of CBD. I now take CBD oil, CBG isolate (another cannabinoid like CBD) and drink hemp tea. All of these I find relaxing and mildly sedating. This mild sedation is enough for me to sleep. For more information about the CBD products I find effective please read this post.
Do you suffer with Insomnia? What helps you sleep?
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