It’s 3:30 a.m. and I’m wide awake. Again.
Was it the walk around the lake at 7:30 p.m.? The wicked dark chocolate I had after dinner? Was it the dairy I had in my coffee earlier in the day, or maybe the stress about that big deadline? I was definitely on the computer way too late last night. Maybe it was just my dang hormones. Or, maybe it was all of the above.
Either way, I was not asleep in my bed in the middle of the night. Instead I was frustrated, annoyed and exhausted.
When the alarm went off at 7:00 a.m. I was already awake, and I wanted to throw it as hard as I could. But I was too tired.
And thus began day number eleventy-thousand of sleepwalking through my life as I negotiated the ins and outs of working, parenting, even driving, and just managing to stay sane in a deeply sleep-deprived state of being.
I have wrestled with the beast that is insomnia on and off since a fateful night in December 1995 when I flew from Seattle into New York City in a snowstorm on a delayed flight. By the time I arrived it was well after 2:00 a.m., but I couldn’t fall asleep. I tossed and turned for hours thinking it was jet lag, but then I couldn’t sleep the next night (or the four nights after that) and I knew something was wrong.
When I got home, I went to my doctor who wrote a prescription for sleeping pills. That was a fine Band-Aid, but I sensed there was more to it. I decided to try a naturopathic doctor and the first thing she did was test my thyroid.
This put me on a long journey through Graves Disease, food sensitivities, and “alternative” healing practices (if you want to call 5,000 years of Chinese medicine “alternative”).
My insomnia has waxed and waned through years of IVF, pregnancy, childbirth, parenting young children, going back into the work place and now having teenagers. The same things do not always trigger it, but I have learned many ways to navigate my way back to sleep when I fall down the rabbit hole.
I admit that I don’t follow all of these things 100 percent of the time. I live in the real world and sh*t happens. Plus, sometimes a tried and true method doesn’t work like clockwork and I have a sleepless night. That said, there is always some underlying reason why things go sideways and I now have a good tool box full of resources that can help me get back on track.
Here is an abbreviated look at my top five ways to beat insomnia:
- Fooling my brain into relaxing.
This is a great insomnia buster that I picked up from Seattle’s Swedish Sleep Medicine clinic. I typically have no problem drifting off at night but after about four hours I often wake up and can’t get back to sleep. To avoid any anxiety about falling asleep again, I grab my phone (which is next to my bed, face down and on airplane mode), plug in my headphones and go straight to a podcast or a book. The more interesting it is the better. This may feel counter-intuitive but I am usually asleep in five to 10 minutes.
It seems that my brain is so used to staying awake and being anxious in the middle of the night that I have to bypass the neural wiring and engage it in something else so that it doesn’t notice I am actually falling asleep again.
- Avoiding screens in my bedroom.
It’s been over seven years since we have had a TV in our bedroom and I have not missed it at all. The room feels more like a sanctuary now and I know it will be peaceful and welcoming at night. Having chronic insomnia adds a level of anxiety that only a fellow insomniac will understand. Knowing that the place where I sleep will be quiet, serene and free of potentially sleep-disrupting blue light is a comfort.
It was more of an adjustment for my husband than me, but the benefits of having a partner who is rested and not cranky outweighs the inconvenience of not watching movies in bed.
- Going dark.
Two magic words: blackout shades. They are worth every penny. I also have a sleep mask just in case.
- Not exercising after 6:00 in the evening.
I found this out the hard way after some post-work spin classes and evening runs were followed by sleepless nights. Now I try and work out in the morning and it seems to help. Plus I get my exercise out of the way early.
- Paying attention to what I am eating and drinking.
It took me years to work this one out but when I slip into an insomnia spiral it’s often because I am eating something that my body doesn’t like or drinking coffee or red wine too late in the day. The tricky thing about this is that sometimes I can tolerate those things, and sometimes I can’t (I’m talking to you, dairy). It often depends on what else is going on in my life at the time.
Do I really want that glass of wine? My mind says I should be able to have it because I’ve had a busy or stressful day. But if I don’t sleep that night then the next day will likely suck even worse.
Bottom line: Honestly checking in with my body about what feels good and what doesn’t is a big help.
These are just a few of the things that have worked for me. Just knowing that I have this arsenal of ideas is sometimes enough to ease my mind and help me get back to the business of sleeping.
Author: Lisa Levine
Apprentice Editor: Kathy Baum / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Image: Natalia Drepina/Deviantart