The Sleep Killer

Insomnia is fairly common. It seems anywhere between 48-58% of adults suffer from insomnia on a regular basis. It can be short term (less than a week) or persistent (longer than a month), and is often related to anxiety or stress. Characteristics of insomnia include the inability to fall asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and sleep which doesn’t feel restful.

I have struggled with insomnia most of my life. It seems to run in my family; my grandmother had it and my mother also has it. My earliest encounter with bad insomnia was sometime in high school. It may have been my freshman year (9th grade) or it may have been the year before I started high school (8th grade). I vividly recall laying in bed, watching the time tick up on the clock, desperate to sleep but unable to do so. At the time, my mother suggested turning the TV to a boring channel and letting it lull me to sleep (I had a TV in my room at the time). That was how I came to watch the body-building competition where men strapped eighteen-wheelers to their backs and strained like they do in fighting animes to see how far they could drag them.

It lasted about a week. And as my energy dwindled, I discovered other exciting things they only play at 3 in the morning on ESPN2, such as cross-country running and Miss Cleo “reading tarot.”

My knowledge of insomnia, and how to live with it, has evolved somewhat over the years. As you can imagine, I’ve done a great deal of research on the subject. Much like my post on dreaming habits, my knowledge of good sleeping habits has arisen out of personal investment. I’ve met many, many people who share my affliction with the sleep killer and I’m sure there are many more out there. In the interest of helping a few of my fellow sufferers, here are ten tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years that work for me.

Create a bedtime routine.
It takes about an hour for your mind to settle down enough to sleep. You want this to start happening before you go to bed. If you have a routine you perform every night before going to bed, it signals to your body the time for sleep is coming. The best way to combat insomnia is routine.

Prepare you mind for sleep.
Make this a part of your bedtime routine. The TV and computer (or anything involving a back-lit screen) are HORRIBLE; they hinder your mind’s ability to power down for sleep. One of the best things you can do before going to bed is read a book. Music is another good way to relax. The best thing is to find what works for you, but it may take some experimentation. I usually brush my teeth, watch a short Youtube video (I don’t watch TV) and then read for half an hour before I head to bed. The nights I read before bed are the nights I sleep best.

Don’t use your bed for regular activities.
There are only two things you should ever do in bed. Those things are sleep and sex. This is another way to signal to your body that, when you get in bed, it’s time to sleep.

Drink a relaxing tea.
There are several blends of nighttime tea which exist for this exact purpose. I’m fond of orange flavor myself, but there are many to choose from. Really, any decaffeinated tea will work. Chamomile is popular. If you’re not a fan of tea, try hot milk, to which you can add some honey if you like. Again, this is a matter of finding what works for you. The key is relaxation.

It can take up to eight hours for caffeine to leave your system.
Caffeine is a huge huge contributor to insomnia. I cut myself off from coffee at around 2 or 3 PM and I cut myself off from soda at 8 PM.

Meditation is your friend.
If your mind is racing, use meditation to slow it down. It’s a simple technique, easy to learn, and you can literally do it anywhere. I find a meditation that helps me focus on my breathing is best. This helps me lock everything else out of my mind, forcing it to clear. Once that clarity comes, I usually slip asleep. It doesn’t always work. But on the nights I still can’t sleep, meditation keeps me calm and relaxed, letting me steal a bit of rest from that sleepless night.

Don’t look at the clock.
Watching the time tick away just makes you panic. At first you think it’s only 1:30, I still have five hours to sleep. But that number drops quickly and panic sets in. When you hit the point you realize you only have three hours left to sleep, your brain goes into overdrive. Even if you feel like you’ve been laying in bed three hours and gotten no sleep, don’t look at the clock for confirmation. Convince yourself it’s still early and you have plenty of time – don’t let the clock make a liar of you – and focus on that calming meditation.

Don’t torture yourself trying to fall asleep.
For a long time I’d read that once you went to bed you should stay in bed, and not get up unless you needed to pee. After a recent bout of Insomnia (worst I’ve had in awhile) I’ve read this can cause you to associate bed time with stress; the exact opposite of what you want to do. If you do have to get up, choose an activity that relaxes you such as reading a book or listening to music. Don’t, under any circumstances, turn on a computer. A lot of insomniacs think If I’m not sleeping I should just do something productive, but that wakes you UP rather than tiring you out. Every insomniac hits a point where they just keep functioning normally no matter how tired they are.

Sleeping pills are the worst way to combat insomnia.
Sleeping pills prevent you from reaching the deepest levels of sleep (levels three and four), which are the deepest, and most restful levels of sleep. If you really need a sleep supplement, consider (or ask your doctor) about melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone in our brain which makes us sleepy. Melatonin supplements are supposed to naturally enhance your ability to sleep by helping you produce more of this hormone. I’ve never tried it myself, but I know of insomniacs who swear by it.

Keep a sleep schedule.
Try to go to bed every night at the same time. Conversely, try to wake up at the same time every morning. Use your body’s natural circadian rhythm to your advantage. Even if you’re unable to sleep, try to lay in bed during your regular sleep hours and get up once you reach your normal waking time. Much like the bedtime routine, this signals to your body that these are the hours during which you’re supposed to sleep.

If you suffer from the sleep killer, I hope one or more of these tricks work for you. A good night’s sleep is one of the most wonderful and magical things in the world.

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