By: Revanche

Insomnia: the old companion

August 13, 2012

Night after night, my brain chased multitudes of thought clouds up and down the night sky.  For years, 17? More? I spent hours not falling asleep at night until nearly dawn.

Savvy Working Gal, as a fellow insomniac, requested I share how I conquered insomnia.

It wasn’t until last year that I finally got effective help, but it’s more fair to say that I have insomnia management or coping mechanisms and I will have to keep in practice, just as I would treat my other chronic health issues, because when I don’t, I stay up til dawn again.

As you can see in the graphic above, the whirligig of my brain may seem very specific, but I think the overall trend is rather common:

Wakefulness.  I have strong insomniac tendencies.

Personally, I mentally fuss over things that are important in my life and it’s hard for me to let them go. And because I’m awake, I start doing things that compound that wakefulness.

My personal oddities: The wakefulness that accompanies that worry theoretically shouldn’t overwhelm the tiredness that I have rightfully earned at the end of the day, not when I typically work upwards of 12 hours a day and get very little sleep the night prior. And the pain that I live with should and does fatigue me so I should sleep like the dead.  I do also live with physical/medical issues that complicate my insomnia (the insomnia came first) so certainly these techniques can and have been modified to suit someone with chronic medical issues. I won’t dwell on those modifications in this post as I don’t expect they’re terribly relevant.

How to make sleep a regular part of your life again

A training period.

During a rather trying period of a few to several weeks, we were asked to:

1. set an exact bedtime,
2. eliminate all in bed activities extraneous to sleep except (ahem) involving your partner, (no reading, no eating, no watching tv, no laptops, no kids, no music, no animals playing, nothing at all but getting in bed to sleep)
3.  only go to bed when you mean to sleep.
4.  I am pretty sure people were asked to cut out caffeine after ~4pm as well but as I rarely drink any, I’ve forgotten that part!

Now, if you were sleepless: tossing, turning, thinking (see graphic above), you were instructed to leave your bed and sit quietly elsewhere to reset. Return when you’re ready to try sleeping again. But no television was allowed. No media with bright lights that would just stimulate your brain.

The key here was to retrain your body and your mind to understand that the bed was a sleeping haven. Both. A haven and for sleep.  You may have spotted what else this means: you don’t get to flop on the bed at other times to hang out!

Stress: Making time and space.

All that time you’d normally be worrying over legitimate things laying awake in bed? Your brain still craves that and you have to give it that release.

You now set aside a set period of time in the day. During your commute. On the toilet. Take a chunk of time somewhere in your day, 10-30 minutes, whatever you’re comfortable with, and make that your time to actively mull over the things you need to think about.  Actively worry, in fact. Get it done in the light of day and it gives your brain an outlet and a set schedule in which to say, Not now, brain, it’s late. Tomorrow, at 4 pm, we’ll worry about that.

And exercise.

Whether it’s stretching, meditative yoga, walking, running, classes at the local athletic club or gym, whatever suits your abilities, the act of engaging in a new physical activity isn’t just healthy, it improves your ability to sleep well.

I’ve added a walk to my weekly routine starting with 2 and now up to 5 times a week, approximately a mile long. Though I can’t always power walk it, I do my best to make it as brisk as possible, no matter how Eeyore my day has left me. It’s just been a matter of changing my commute routine to the once –less preferred routine.  Now I don’t “miss” the bus at all, I just skip it entirely! Even if I’m not invigorated, my circulation is improved and my ability to sleep is definitely improved.

Those were the things we were asked to do during the transition/training period.

It wasn’t easy juggling everything in at once, and I found it a little easier to do the Bedtime Brain-Time Space Clearing thing first in combination with Stress Later, and then add exercise in the next few weeks.

It still wasn’t great at that point. And we moved on to the next things….

Learning how to Breathe Properly

Apparently, deep belly breathing is hugely relaxing and oh-so-difficult. At least, it was for me and a lot of others in the room with me. I don’t know if I should attempt to describe it for fear of leading you all astray!

But in essence, it’s the kind of breathing you see babies do, where their bellies are moving up and down, not their chests. To do the same, you push your stomach out when you take air into your lungs to pull it deep down into your belly instead of letting it pit-stop in your chest. At least, that’s how I visualize and feel like I’m doing it. And after about 20 really focused deep belly breaths, my body does a hybrid full body breath naturally instead of totally wimping out and chest breathing again.

Sometimes, when I get incredibly tense at night, PiC reminds me to deep belly breathe and by the time I get it down, I’m so tired I can nearly relax.

Meditation/Relaxation CDs

If you don’t mind listening to things at night, letting a meditation CD run you through the paces can really make you sleepy. I wouldn’t say they’re boring, but even if they were, who cares, if it does the job, right? 😉

It was one of the first things that actually put me down like a baby. By which I mean, lulled me to nearly sleep and then I woke up with a start, freaked out about who I was and where I was. But that latter part is relatively normal for me. Nevertheless – lulled me to nearly sleep at 10 pm.  This is the important part.

We did these CD routines once a week together just to learn how to relax without thinking for 8 weeks. And were instructed to listen to them at least once a week if not every night during the training period as sleep aids (the only time you were allowed to sleep to them as you were not meant to sleep if trying to meditate/relax).

Other Recommendations

Taking warm baths (temperature is your call) an hour or so before bed: this gets your body prepped for sleep.

Actually learning and practicing Meditation. Not a religious/spiritual thing unless you want to pursue that, just as a relaxation technique. It teaches you the ability to make your mind and body to Let Go, the precursor to sleep.

Things that were really important in coping for me

Support:  You wouldn’t think I’d need support in this but the battle of sleep vs not-sleeping means that we need better communication, coordination and understanding of each other’s needs and priorities.  PiC and I don’t have the same schedules, needs or habits, especially when mine are artificially imposed habits, but because sleep is critical in coping with my medical issues, having a partner who is on board with my sleep needs is just as critical.

I need to get a minimum amount of sleep and it has to be good sleep.

A new mattress: We had a nearly 20-year old mattress and I could make out the impression of every coil on my back.  Combined with my other needs, it was time.

This was a multi-month process to get the sleep consistent from night to night, and a fair amount of time and money spent, and I still relapse on occasion. But not too frequently.

There have been many more sleep-filled nights than not since I started, and that’s quite a thing.  I hope that some of this is helpful!

:: Do please share your stories and what you’ve tried or are trying if you’ve been a fellow citizen of the night.

17 Responses to “Insomnia: the old companion”

  1. Valerie says:

    I was really glad to see this post this morning. I have been suffering from Sunday night insomnia for weeks now. I have always had stretches on and off insomnia, but lately I cannot sleep on Sunday nights. (I think stressing about going to work on Monday is a pretty obvious culprit.) I have tried to create a relaxing Sunday night routine, but I still find myself having trouble sleeping and waking up repeatedly throughout the night. I used to use relaxing CDs in my teens to get to sleep, and I think I need to look back into it. I also tend to use Sundays as a rest day for exercise, but I might look into changing that.

  2. Mr FS has terrible problems with this, in part b/c of back pain. So he takes a tiny piece of a pill…sadly, your techniques haven’t worked for him. It’s great that you can deal with the issue without medication.

    • Revanche says:

      Oh – I left my medication regimen out so that it wouldn’t muddle the issue but make no mistake, there is absolutely a regimen! My pain issues wouldn’t allow otherwise.

  3. Great tips. It’s funny how people are different. I actually find it easier to fall asleep with tv. Or reading. But on the occasions where I am so stressed out my stomach is knotted and I can’t sleep, I am going to try getting out of bed and reading until I’m ready to try again.

  4. Karen says:

    I need to block out as much light as I can in my room even if it means a sheet is used to cover where the curtains don’t.
    I also take melatonin. I use it to help me stay asleep more than it puts me to sleep (at least that’s the way it seems to me).
    And I sometimes recite the alphabet slowly (I can’t count sheep because I would spend too much mental effort picturing sheep leaping over a fence. Yes, I literally tried mentally counting sheep lol).

  5. I have had trouble sleeping for many, many years. As far back as I can remember, I was reading books by flashlight after trying to sleep, because I couldn’t fall asleep.

    Spending time separate from bedtime to stress about things helps me. I started using time in the shower, but sometimes that leads to really long showers… but then when I get to bed I try to just relax and focus on breathing.

    For a few years in college and a year or so after, I found that having the TV on actually worked for me. I know they say you shouldn’t have the light and sound of it, but if I had it on just loud enough to hear without straining, on a show that wasn’t too loud or interesting (late night TV is good for this, fortunately), I fell asleep faster. I think it was because it sort of forced me to stop thinking about other stuff, if I listened to food network telling me how to cook something or some old sitcom…I didn’t think about my own stresses.

    Now that we don’t have cable in the bedroom, I’m back to trying to sleep on my own. Most of the time, if I read for a little while before bed, I can get my brain to turn off and relax…but not always. Chamomile tea helps too. I could probably try harder at some things, though.

  6. psychsarah says:

    I’ve been fortunate to not suffer from insomnia, other than a short bout a few years ago, but many of my clients do have this issue, and you’ve summarized the empirically supported treatment incredibly well in understandable and palatable language. I might send a few clients here to read this, rather than listen to me explain it-they might take it better from you! I wish more people realized that these behavioural interventions are more effective in the long run than sleep medications for most people. Thanks for passing on your experience.

  7. ms k russ says:

    It is always interesting to get input from others who struggle with insomnia. I have never been a good sleeper, and now I have to resort to nightly doses of ambien. I also have to watch my caffeine intake. None after 2 or 3 p.m. But it’s like I get into bed and all of the sudden my mind clicks on and there is no off switch. There have been times when I’ve had to get up at 2 in the morning to work on a project because all of the sudden I could see it in my mind.

    • Revanche says:

      That last has definitely happened to me as well, in the past week. I’ve been waking up in the middle of conversations with work colleagues clear as anything quite early in the morning, feeling compelled to get up and follow through with them.

      I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to get to sleep before that and gotten a bit of rest to start.

  8. Shelley says:

    There was a BBC programme on some time back and I took notes and blogged about it.

    Somewhere I read that quiet, repetitive work helped the brain go back to sleep, so one could pick up knitting or do some ironing perhaps? I have tried the ironing and it worked for me. I had trouble sleeping just last night and I’m certain it was because I was reading on my laptop before turning out the lights. I knew better…

    • Revanche says:

      Oh this is a great link and summary, thank you so much for sharing!

      I do much better when I’m not foolish (reading on the laptop or phone before sleeping). Reading a book is fine before turning out the lights, but anything with a backlight is just asking for trouble.

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