I’ve struggled with sleeping for as long as I can remember. When I get into bed my mind starts racing and I can’t switch off. When I was a child I had my sister tormented – we shared a room and once the light went out I’d have a hundred and one topics of conversation to pursue. She’d often fall asleep while replying to me. Then I’d lie there and have whole conversations with myself in my head. I would often talk to my grandparents (in ‘heaven’ – this was when I was quite religious) at night. I’d say hello and then chat to them about my day and what was going on my life.
As I got older, sleep became more and more elusive. Rather than lying there and panicking about it, I’d read a book, or watch a film, or write in my diary until I was tired enough to sleep, or fell asleep writing or reading. My mother told me that resting is better than not resting, and if sleep is still elusive there are still some benefits of lying down and relaxing.
This past year, sleep has become a chore that I dread every night. Depression is made worse by lack of sleep, so for those suffering from ill mental health, insomnia and depression can become a vicious circle. For me, trying to get to sleep is a long process. I know that it is perhaps the “trying” bit that is hampering the process. Sleep should just come, it shouldn’t be a conscious effort.
It’s well known that sleep has a restorative effect on the body: it repairs any damage that you’ve done to it during the day and prepares you to be mentally and physically alert and ready for the next day. Without sleep, our body cannot repair itself and we start to slip into a dangerous cycle of higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Here’s an interesting link about restorative sleep for more information.
I often find that even when I do fall asleep, I wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes once, sometimes twice, sometimes multiple times. This interrupts the body’s healing mechanism by preventing deep sleep and the restorative effects that come from that. I have yet to figure out how to stop this from happening, but I have got certain tips that I have used in the past or use now to help with falling to sleep.
1. Don’t eat 2 hours before going to sleep.
– This can be difficult, depending on your lifestyle, but it’s worth trying not to eat too close to bedtime.
2. Don’t watch TV, use your laptop or phone or tablet, or any visual electronics 2 hours before going to sleep.
– I’m currently breaking this rule, and on the whole I try not to, but for those occasions where laptop/electronic use can’t be avoided, there are ways to get around this. I’ve downloaded f.lux onto my laptop, which means that on the days when I have to work late, the glare from the laptop doesn’t affect me as much. If you have an android phone or tablet, it can also be downloaded onto these. It essentially changes the colour of the laptop depending on the time of day, so during daytime the colour resembles the blue daylight, and at night, the colour resembles firelight, which humans have (apparently) evolved to cope with at night time without the firelight disrupting sleep.
3. Do something relaxing before going to bed.
– This can be reading a book, writing thoughts down in a diary to help empty the mind, meditation, a hot bath or shower, or a relaxing ritual that helps get the mind into sleep mode.
4. Burn a lavender candle in the bedroom for half an hour before going to sleep.
– I’ll often do this while reading in bed or meditating.
5. Have a warm, non-caffeinated drink like hot milk or chamomile tea.
– I like Pukka Night Time Tea as it forms part of my ritual and the taste has become part of my night-time routine.
6. Use the Sleep Cycle App to monitor your sleep patterns.
– This is a handy app that I have on my iPhone (not sure if it’s available for Android) that uses the motion sensor on the phone to detect patterns in your sleep. You can then set it to wake you up gradually in the morning over a 30 minute period (you can also use less or more time) so that you don’t wake up in the middle of a deep sleep and feel groggy. There are loads of other features such as monitoring what might affect sleep, such as tea, coffee, exercise, stressful day – you can put in whatever you want – you put this information in as you set the alarm and you can access it once you’ve used the app for 7 days. Check out the link for more info.
7. Try to get to bed before 10pm.
– Apparently this is the optimal time to fall asleep. Others say that it’s better to fall asleep with sunset and rise with sunrise, but this is unrealistic where I live – sun sets at 4pm in winter!
– I’ve already included this is number 3., but I’ve found meditation great for relaxing my mind, and I can’t recommend it enough. I tend to do a simple meditation where I concentrate on my breathing and try to let my thoughts drift by without taking over my thoughts. I usually do 10 minutes, and there are loads of apps and podcasts which help with this if you don’t know what to do. Here’s an interesting article on the benefits of meditation.
9. Listen to something relaxing when going to sleep.
– This is a personal thing for me, but I find that listening to Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter books puts me right to sleep. This is not a criticism of the books or Stephen Fry’s voice, it’s merely that I’ve listened to these recordings on repeat for so many years that they are incredibly familiar to me, and thus help to relax me and take me to a safe place within the familiarity of the story and the storytelling.
10. Try to recreate the feeling that you get when you wake up and don’t want to get out of bed, turning over and putting the alarm on snooze.
– The time when I feel most relaxed in bed is when I wake up and am so tired I want to go straight back to sleep. What I do is remember how that feel, literally. I think about how soft the bed feels, how warm the covers are wrapped around me, how relaxed my muscles are, and then I try to recreate that in the here and now, while lying in bed trying to get to sleep. It takes practice, but practice makes perfect and it’s a useful method to call upon when I know I’ve got a big day ahead of me and I can’t sleep.
I just want to add that by no means to I follow all of these tips all of the time. When I’m feeling particularly depressed or anxious, I fall back on using all of this mechanisms to help me to get to sleep. When I’m less depressed or less stressed out, I relax the ‘rules’ and try to fall asleep without the routine. Sometimes, like now, when I’m really struggling with sleep, I realise that it’s time to bring back the rules and start following them again. I’ve written this post for my benefit as much as anyone else’s, but I hope there’s something useful in there! My cats never have any problems with sleeping, and hopefully some day I’ll be like them!