The night is the hardest time to be alive and 4am knows all my secrets. – Poppy Z. Brite
As a mum of three and a recovering worrier, I know all too well the zombie-like state of sleeplessness. I remember actually dreading the night-time, and even the prospect of trying to sleep began to have an almost traumatic edge to it.
If this is you, whatever your reasons are, you have all my sympathy. I overcame my own sleep struggles years ago now, but it’s certainly one of the most common problems my clients experience.
Understanding more about sleep can help
When you’re struggling with insomnia you just want SLEEP and now, tonight.. you don’t care how it works. And besides, you may well have tried everything, been there, done that and got all the t-shirts..
Still, I encourage you to muster some self-compassion, hope, willingness (and energy 😕), to try something new – after all it might just do the trick for you… plus how different will your life be if it works right?!
It can be helpful to learn more, rather than assuming you’re at the mercy of sleep patterns. And then it’s easier to support yourself accordingly, and give yourself the best opportunity possible to get ample sleep.
Baby steps may be the way to go
- You don’t need to dive into all of this at once; slowly but surely trying a few strategies out over the next few months may be worth a go.
- Learning just one or two techniques “off-by-heart,” at a time, may help, so that the next time you struggle to sleep you can try them one by one without going to your phone or computer for a reminder.
- A post-it note on your bedside table might help you to remember which techniques you want to try, and any reminders that might help.
Six strategies to experiment with
1. Give yourself permission to have a bad night
Research shows that the struggle to get to sleep can be a big part of what keeps us awake. So it is worth trying something counter-intuitive: drop the struggle with insomnia, and allow yourself to not sleep. Be willing to have a bad night; for example, you might say to yourself things like,
- “if I can’t get to sleep, it’s okay, I will manage tomorrow”;
- “I am going to have a bad night and that’s okay”;
- “I’ll be foggy in the morning and that’s okay, I’ve done foggy before and managed”
- “I won’t be at my most sparkly, but it’ll be fine”
… and then return to your peaceful scene (see below), or get up and have a cup of tea, warm bath, sorting out the draws, etc.
2. A “mini holiday”
This one can work well with children too. Some people struggle with visualising things; if this is you, then you might want to skip this technique.
The idea is to visit, in your mind’s eye, a place that you associate with calm and relaxation. This can be a real place or an imaginary one.
Many of my clients choose a beach that they know well and love, or a spot in the mountains. A few go back to their childhood homes, or to a beloved grandparent’s kitchen or garden.
So wherever your special place is, see if you can immerse yourself there, using all your senses. If you are at the beach for example, you might imagine, as vividly as you can, the feeling of the soft warm towel beneath you; the feel of warm, heavy beach sand under your hands, back and feet; the gentle heaviness of your sunglasses and the rim of your hat; the scent of salty air; the feeling of a warm gentle breeze on your skin, the sound of children and seagulls; the taste of ice-cream still lingering in your mouth and so on.
(focusing on images of warmth and heaviness may help to develop the feeling of relaxation further).
When random thoughts and worries show up, gently acknowledge each one and put it on a cloud in the sky, letting it drift away. It may well return, and you may need to go back and forwards between your beach towel and the clouds many, many times; and that’s okay.
3. Make a worry list
This requires a pen and notebook next to your bed, and possibly a fisherman’s torch – and/or make your bedside light dim.
If your mind is too busy to sleep, brainstorm a list of all your worries (and/or things to do), from the biggest and wildest to the tiniest, on paper. Tell yourself that you will sort these out the following day, or over the weekend. If you are spiritual or have a faith tradition, you could turn these in to prayer. Then return your attention to something like progressive muscle relaxation, your breath or your relaxing scene. Rinse and repeat each time a new worry shows up.
When an old worry returns, which they tend to do, gently acknowledge and name each one as they show up. For example you might say gently to yourself, without paying the worry much attention, “oh yes, good one mind! that’s the one about dad again”, and go back to your relaxing scene.
5. Visualisation, relaxation and breathing exercises
- Some people swear by Dr Andrew Weill’s 4-7-8 breathing technique; give it a try if you like, he claims that it helps people fall asleep in 60 seconds…
- This audio exercise for sleep was one of Mindful Magazine’s most popular in 2018
- Progressive muscle relaxation can be very helpful, and works well with children too
- Dr Guy Meadows discusses mindfulness for insomnia here.
Yoga nidra can be helpful for sleep, or a body scan exercise such as this one or this one,
Books & articles
- Having a hard time sleeping? By Steve Hayes
- The sleep book by Dr Guy Meadows. (This is also available as an audio book). Guy has a website which you can visit, and an online course. He’s also been interviewed in magazines and newspapers, especially in the UK – check these out too, there are some interesting and helpful tips in these.
- End the insomnia struggle by Ehrnstrom & Brosse
- Why we sleep: unlocking the secret of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker. Matthew is interviewed here by Dr Rangan Chatterjee.
- Sleep hygeine. There are some things that you can easily change about where you sleep and your bedtime routine, which may help you to sleep better.
- Managing nightmares step by step by Marsha M. Linehan (best worked through with a therapist)
Do let me know if you strike gold with one of these, or with some other resource you find.
PS restless legs? speak to your GP, but taking magnesium before bed, and getting your iron and vitamin B levels checked, can make a big difference. Magnesium chloride flakes or crystals dissolved in a bath before bed may also help.