If you’ve ever experienced long spells of insomnia, you know how incredibly lonely and isolating it can be. The minute I realize I’m the last one awake in the house, my mind goes into what I assume is some primal reaction, activating my fight-or-flight instincts, leaving me hyper-vigilant and totally unable to even think about sleeping. Over the years my best sleep has always taken place in large apartment buildings or hotels in big cities; anywhere someone else would always be awake while I slept.
I am grateful that with the help of therapy and good sleep hygiene practices I don’t currently have much trouble falling asleep at night. When I do have a rough night, I have tools I’ve picked up over my lifetime of being a bad sleeper. Of course, this is not medical advice. If you suffer from long-term sleep issues, please check in with your doctor. These are just little tricks that can help you move through it when you are having a bad night.
1. Get out of bed.
I know it sounds counterintuitive, but this is my number one most solid piece of advice when you can’t sleep. There is nothing less conducive to falling asleep than lying awake wishing you could fall asleep, repeatedly working the never-ending math problem of just how much sleep you could be getting if only you fell asleep right this second. Instead, get up. Move to the couch and put an old black-and-white movie on at a very low volume. Have a glass of ice water or a bowl of cereal. Take a warm bath. Paint your toenails. Pick up a boring book and tell yourself you have to read three chapters. Maybe even throw on a sweatshirt and Crocs and take a slow walk around the block. Whatever you do, don’t stay in bed just trying to get sleepy.
2. Progressive relaxation
If getting out of bed isn’t possible, try progressive relaxation. The idea here is to slowly and deliberately relax your body part-by-part. I even practice this some nights when I am very sleepy, as relaxing slowly after a busy day helps me to avoid that unpleasant feeling of jerking awake suddenly while falling asleep too fast. There are a few ways to do this. My favorite is counting down from 5, first relaxing my head, neck and shoulders, then at 4 relaxing my chest and arms, at 3 relaxing my belly and back, at 2 relaxing my hips and thighs, and at 1 relaxing my lower legs and feet. Sometimes I fall asleep halfway through, and sometimes I have to do it three or four times, but it always helps me slow my mind and release my tension. Another method is closing your eyes and visualizing an enormous snowman, then picture him melting slowly from the top down (Smell ya later, Olaf!). I’ve also had luck with going through each part of my body one by one and saying to myself, “Now my toes are warm, heavy, and relaxed. Now my feet are warm, heavy, and relaxed…” You could even try just counting backwards from 100.
3. Prayer and meditation
This one has always brought me a great deal of comfort because even if it doesn’t put me to sleep, it at least makes me feel much less alone. For years I took a soft cord rosary to bed with me every night. If meditation is more your speed, the Calm and Headspace mindfulness apps both have sleep-specific guided meditations and bedtime stories. A meditation/prayer I like to use lately is one in which I picture myself inside a warm circle with my immediate family and I imagine sending them love, safety, health, and happiness. Then I widen the circle to include my extended family, friends, acquaintances, and on and on as long as I’m awake. I’ve never had to do it for so long that I’ve run out of people to pray for.
4. Prevent sleeplessness
If you’re experiencing ongoing trouble falling asleep, take a look at your waking life and see if you can find anything that may be causing your trouble. These are all probably things you’ve heard before: cut back on caffeine and don’t have any after 1 PM, exercise daily but not too close to bedtime, shower an hour before bed to lower your body temperature, no screens in bed, etc. It helps me to manage my sleep the same way I manage my toddler’s. Have I had enough mental and physical stimulation today? Have I maybe had too much?
5. Again, talk to a medical professional
Ask your doctor before trying any over-the-counter sleep aids. I’ve had great luck with melatonin for occasional trouble sleeping and daily magnesium to prevent restless legs. Your doctor will also be able to determine whether or not there is an underlying medical cause for your insomnia and will help you find a long-term solution.
My greatest wish for everyone is restful sleep. We all deserve it. If you’ve found sleep tricks that work for you, please share them. And know, at the very least, you’re never really awake all alone. Someone, somewhere is trying hard to fall asleep too.