I struggled with insomnia for many years, and it made my life miserable. Sleeplessness starts a chain reaction that affects everything else in your life: your energy and productivity, your mood, your sex life, your health, your personality and your mental health included. When I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t do well at work, I was irritable and my relationships suffered. My perception of the world was skewed, so that all my problems seemed much larger, and it seemed that everyone was against me. My immune system suffered, making me more susceptible to illness. Worst of all, insomnia made me depressed, and depression triggered more sleep difficulties, including nightmares and night terrors.
I wish I could say there is an easy three-step solution that will help you conquer your sleep difficulties. I was able to conquer mine, and this method does work, but takes time and self-discipline. Everyone is different, and some things work for some people but not others. All I can do is tell you what worked for me. With a lot of discipline, over time, little by little, I gradually got back to normal, healthy sleep.
Before anything else, I should mention that if you have an underlying cause of anxiety, coping with that will solve most of the problem.
After that, the core of the strategy is to train your body, mind and emotions to sleep when it’s time to sleep. This training will eventually work, but it may require some sacrifices. The payoff, though, is huge: less depression, more energy, feeling better about life, doing better at work, being more likeable, and in general being healthier and happier.
How do you train your body, mind and emotions to sleep? There is more to it than simply telling yourself to sleep. There could be many factors keeping you awake, and some of them might not respond to simple willpower. You need to train yourself, consistently and clearly, to sleep when it’s time to sleep.
First: develop a regular bedtime and stick to it. I know this sounds boring, but it really works. Even if you don’t feel sleepy, go to bed at the appointed hour. It may be tough for the first week, or even the first month, but eventually, your mind and body will be conditioned, and you’ll find yourself getting sleepy at the appointed hour. If you are tempted to stay up, just remember that every time you don’t observe your bedtime, you set yourself back, even to the point of having to start over. If you can’t sleep, just lie in bed and rest with your eyes closed. Try to form a mental image of something pleasant, abstract and far away. Odds are, once you stop thinking about yourself, your life and your surroundings, you will fall asleep. If not, resting will still be good for you.
Once you have an established bedtime, the next step is to teach your body, mind and emotions to wind down. Create a period of about two or three hours before your appointed bedtime, that will be a buffer zone between wakefulness and sleep. In my case, I go to bed at 11:00 p.m., and the period from 8:00-11:00 p.m. is my sleep buffer zone. During this three hour period, I avoid certain activities, to allow myself to wind down and prepare to switch off for sleep. Protecting the sanctity of that two to three hour buffer zone is crucial.
Let’s talk about your body. You need to give your metabolism time to wind down before bedtime. If your body is working on digesting a meal, it’s going to be harder to fall asleep. So, for at least two to three hours before bedtime, don’t eat or drink anything. No bedtime snacks or late dinners. No alcohol, caffeine or sugar within three hours of bedtime. Also, it may sound obvious, but consider reducing your overall intake of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, sugar and other stimulants. Also avoid sleep medications if possible; the idea is to train your body to sleep naturally.
Add more physical activity during the day. Not only is it good for you, but it helps your metabolism function more normally, which can make it easier to fall asleep at night. Inactivity contributes to insomnia.
Now let’s talk about preparing your mind for sleep. Just like your metabolism, your mind has to wind down before you can fall asleep. The more mental stimulation you have in the late evening, the harder it will be for you to sleep. There is evidence that over-use of electronic media of any sort, including television, computers, video games, phones and other devices, contributes to insomnia. All these things can switch your mind into wakefulness rather than sleep. Avoid them for two or three hours before bedtime, to allow your mind time to wind down. Reading can go either way: a relaxing book can lull you to sleep, but an exciting mystery is more likely to keep you awake. Choose your bedtime reading carefully.
The same goes for your emotions. For at least two to three hours before bedtime, don’t watch the news, read newspapers or blogs, post on forums, or allow any other mental input that could make you feel anxious, angry or depressed. Your emotions have to wind down, too.
Now that we’ve identified some of the triggers that keep your brain awake, and have talked about how to deal with them, let’s talk about training yourself to sleep. Timing and environment are two of the most important ways to teach your subconscious to sleep when it’s time to sleep.
Timing and schedule are the crucial elements in this strategy. As I mentioned before, it is important to develop a regular bedtime, and stick to it. In addition, develop a regular bedtime routine. Do the same things in the same order every night. It’s a signal to your subconscious that it’s time to sleep. It may take some time, but eventually, your subconscious will get the point.
The environment where you sleep is important too. A quiet room with a comfortable bed helps, of course. If possible, use the bedroom just for sleeping (or other relaxing activities). Start calling it the sleep room – reminding your subconscious what it’s for. Don’t allow a television, computer or work desk in the sleep room. If there is a source of mental stimulation in the sleep room, your subconscious will learn to wake up when you go in there, which is not what you want.
Now that you know what to do, the next step is to do it, and keep doing it. It takes awhile. I finally achieved regular sleep after observing these methods for about four months. Don’t stop, or else you might have to start all over, retraining yourself from the beginning.
Sleep well! And may you have sweet dreams.