The Definitive Guide to Beating Insomnia
It seems like everybody I know is struggling with sleep these days. I’m no stranger to staring at the ceiling at 3am, feeling like I’m going slightly crazy. Insomnia can be debilitating. Sleep deprivation affects your whole life; your mental health and wellbeing, your relationships, your work, your ability to perform your passions, just everything. I’ve got about 8 unfinished blog posts and a book I’m trying to get finished (start) and this puppy has just bounced to the top – I reckon you need it 🙂
I’ve studied sleep for years and I’ve learned a fair bit about why it’s so important. There’s considerable science now to put sleep marginally ahead of both exercise and nutrition when it comes to maintaining physical and mental health. Think about that. Sleep, it turns out, is one of the fundamental cornerstones of being healthy. And by healthy, I also mean happy.
I’ve geeked out on the lot for as long as I can remember. And I don’t just read, I test for myself to see what works, ostensibly because I struggle with all the things that most of us do; over thinking, insomnia, negative self-talk, fuzzy headed days, all that fun. It’s just the way the world is these days; too much work, not enough meaningful solitude (solitude is not the same as being alone with your smartphone), too much booze, too many screens, too much stress.
And one of the reasons it’s so hard to deal with is because it becomes a bit of a cyclical conveyor belt. You can’t sleep when you’re brain is fried and you can’t un-fry your brain without a decent kip. Plop a broken heart, some grief or a job loss on top of the modern-world, sleep-deprived brain and it’s no wonder we feel like we’re sinking. We don’t have the tools.
Or do we?
Yeah, actually you do. Often a little dusty and flaccid, but they are there, locked away in the back of your noggin all the same.
You may not have massive biceps, but what happens when you repeatedly lift weights and eat protein? Yep, they get bigger. It doesn’t mean you don’t have biceps just because you don’t exercise them. Your brain is the same. More specifically, the parts of your brain that help you to deal with difficult emotions, everyday crisis and those godforsaken sleepless nights can be quite literally exercised, prepped for battle and ready to go when you need them.
Quite often, just like with any kind of regular medical issue, the thinking is sadly a little too sticking plaster in its approach. Here’s the problem, where’s the pill? When we should be more about preventative maintenance. Recovering from injury takes a long time. Preventing that injury from occurring in the first place is the smart move.
With sleep, if you’re lay there in bed, tossing and turning, it may already be too late. In my previous post about sleep solutions, I talked a lot about the conditions for sleeping well, the potions, concoctions and gadgets that can help in an emergency. But in the last five years or so I’ve found, through trial and error, that actually the most effective way to beat insomnia is by forming better habits in the day before you get anywhere near the bedroom. Don’t worry, we’ll look at some emergency sleep tips before we close up.
Here’s the super simple list of things you need to focus on to get a good night’s kip.
- Make your last meal of the day healthy, mostly plants, not too big, not too late.
- Get some meaningful movement in your life – exercise
- Buff out your brain biceps – Meditate (Nothing woo-woo – science has your back)
- Don’t consume caffeine after 2pm
- Booze ruins sleep – sorry, but it does.
- Don’t take your phone to the bedroom (even switched off) – Be strict with this one, trust me, leave it as far away as possible.
- Resolve any existing relationship conflicts, whether they are in or out of your house. Have the difficult conversation, be honest, be brave.
- If you can’t resolve an issue – Journal it out (more on that below)
- Day-to-day worries (debt, losing your job) anything in the future that may or may not happen – Journal it out.
Don’t eat too late
It’s not brain surgery; if you eat late then you’re giving your digestive system work to do while you’re laying down. It won’t help. If you must eat late, then go to bed a little later to compensate. Try to avoid refined sugary stuff too late specifically, and know that those naughty slow carbs (lentils, legumes etc) and even some bread can have a sedative effect.
The correlation between exercise and sleep is BIG. If you get regular, daily exercise then you’ll have better sleep. Sleep doesn’t just give your brain a flush and reset, it is also the time that your body does most of it’s healing, preparing and growing so if you’ve been working on your weights and/or (preferably both) your cardio then your body will be READY for a great quality, restorative sleep way more often. You don’t even have to join the gym or hit the pilates class, just get 30 minutes of walking in at least once a day (more if you can) and it will make such a difference to your sleep quality. If you’re not doing even this right now then it will make a huge difference to your whole life in fact. Get moving, please.
Meditate. Really?? YES.
Sorry, it’s a game changer, full stop. I’m going to put a proper post up about this soon, but in the meantime, I cannot even begin to tell you how important, misunderstood and underrated this form of brain training really is.
Whenever I say the word meditation I can almost see the eyes roll back, feel the resistance build, the excuses rise: I’m too busy, I’m not spiritual, I’ve tried and I can’t do it, it’s not for me.
We’re all too busy – we don’t find time, we make it.
I’m not spiritual either – this is science.
Trying and failing is actually the point of meditating, that’s the practice.
It’s making you better at being you – by definition, it IS for you.
But what is meditating, really?
It’s exercising the parts of the brain that help you to not run away with your negative thoughts. Yes, that’s right, the thoughts that trigger anxiety, that perpetuate depression, that keep you awake at night. Those thoughts. It’s not a cure-all, it’s a getting stronger. It’s just more awareness.
What does winning at meditating look like?
I know when I’m NOT meditating regularly because I’m not as good at being present, with my friends, with my work, with my kids, with whatever I’m doing. And I’m far better at engaging with the narrative in my head, the story I tell myself about things that don’t exist. Winning at meditating is simply being better in your day-to-day at saying to yourself “Oh, that’s just a thought, it’ll pass in a moment and I can get on with this real life thing I’m doing” as opposed to “I should have done this, I should have said that, everything is rubbish, I’m rubbish, fault, blame, sadness, regret blah blah blah”. Wouldn’t that be smashing?
You know when you don’t workout for a while, or stop running for a bit, and you start to feel a little soft around the edges, not as fit and healthy? Meditating is the same deal. Little and often will change your life. CHANGE. YOUR. LIFE.
So how do you actually meditate?
Here’s a really simple meditation guide you can have a go at to get you started.
- Find a space where you can be undisturbed for 10 – 15 minutes.
- Set your phone alarm for 10, preferably 15 minutes – aeroplane mode of course.
- Sit upright in your favourite chair or cross-legged on a cushion
- Rest your hands comfortably on your legs
- Keep your back straight, chest out
- Relax your shoulders and your jaw
- Take a few deep breaths, close your eyes
- Let your breath fall into its natural pattern, don’t force anything
- Start to become aware of your breathing
- Notice the breath going in through your nostrils, filling your lungs
- Notice the breath leaving your body, your body relaxing with the out breath
- Keep your back straight, shoulders and jaw relaxed
- Following the sensation of your breath going in and out is your meditation practice
- When thoughts inevitably come simply acknowledge them (oh, I’m having a thought) and return to following your breath without engaging with it
- Getting immersed in thought is going to happen, you WANT that to happen because each time it’s an opportunity to get better at returning to your breath
That’s actually all there is to it. If you do just that for 10 – 15 minutes a day you will be building the brain muscles that help you to engage less with thoughts at night, helping you sleep. Consistency is key – don’t give up. There is no failing. There is no “I’m rubbish at meditating”. It’s all just a practice.
If you want an app for your phone to help you out a bit then my favourite meditation app right now is the Oak app. It’s in the app store, it’s free and it’s super simple.
Coffee and alcohol – sleep killers.
I know, I know, I LOVE coffee and I’m no stranger to one too many tequilas. But if you are struggling with sleep then this is black and white I’m afraid. Do not drink caffeine after 2pm. We all process caffeine differently but as a general rule, it stays in your system for a long time. After 2pm and it will actively impair your ability to sleep restfully that night.
With booze, I’m not saying don’t have a glass of vino to unwind at the end of the day; I’m saying don’t overdo it and certainly don’t binge drink. Falling unconscious because you’ve had a ‘nightcap’ or three is not the same as falling asleep naturally and the quality of sleep will be poor. Not only that you will be more likely to wake up in the night. You have been warned.
Smartphones – cope without one for a bit.
This is not the place for a deep and meaningful about the perils of a world so connected through technology that even solitude is in danger of becoming meaningless. But I’m pretty sure that you don’t need me to tell you that some unplugged time is overdue for most of us. Not just so you can be present in the world and look up once in a while, but so then you can spend some meaningful time alone, with yourself. I’m not going to digress, don’t fret, but never is there a more important time to switch off, than bedtime. Even if your phone is upstairs, near you and switched off. It’s there; that little black slab of dopamine with all it’s pinging notifications, luring your brain’s reward system. I’m not going to get into the problems with blue light from screens and all that jazz. The bigger problem is your brain’s response to the device. Struggling with insomnia? Serious about dealing with it? Leave the phone downstairs, switched off.
Don’t go to bed angry.
Whatever it takes, resolve people problems. Even if it looks like this: “look, I love you, that hasn’t changed. We won’t resolve this tonight and we need to, but tonight let’s spoon”. You can’t always resolve the thing on the spot, of course not, but 90% of rows are over silly things that only need an ounce of forgiveness and a little more gratitude. Try your best. Life is short and good relationships with people are more important than winning an argument.
Journal the thoughts out of your head
If you can’t resolve a conflict or you’re freaking out about something that happened today, maybe you lost your job, or something that’s happening tomorrow – perhaps a big exam or an impending financial crisis.
Firstly remember what Henry Ford said:
I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
And also what Seneca said:
There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives
The future doesn’t exist yet. It’s still just a thought, a story in your head.
The Stoic response to trouble ahead is, in the first instance, to dismiss it until it is real. Deal with it then, when you can. Because you can’t right now. And furthermore, if it’s getting real, ask yourself, is this something within your control? Or is it something you can do nothing about like the weather or traffic or a lover’s heart? If it’s the latter. Let it go.
Then grab your paper and pen and spill your brain on the paper with no filter. This is not a diary for you to reflect on later or a writing class that’s going to be judged. It won’t be read by anybody else, not even you. Just GET IT OUT. All the thoughts, all the niggles and the negative chatter, vomit it onto the page. Don’t worry about style or punctuation or spelling. Just write until it’s out of your head, and on the page.
This process will clear your head and give you some space. You will have had your say, there will be no more chatter to engage with, you’ve already made it solid rather than still just a thought rolling around in your noggin.
Once you’re done, tear it up, burn it, say goodbye to the thoughts, they’re done for the night.
Bonus tips just before bed
I’m going to add a tiny caveat here. Whilst some of these things are lovely, helpful and can work wonders, they also add a list of ‘to-do’s’ that you might find yourself obsessing about if they’re not available or in order (and they can’t be all the time, like when you run out of something or travel). That kind of thinking will defeat the purpose so take these with a pinch of salt, test, and add to your routine in a non-OCD way (because type A’s like us are ALWAYS on the OCD spectrum let’s face it).
- Earplugs – the foamy ones – because neighbours have noisy dogs (and sometimes drop pins)
- My apple vinegar and honey tea concoction – Will cause drowsiness – Check it out here
- Make sure you are in as close to total darkness as possible – blackout curtains are rad
- An eye mask – for light rooms and travelling
What to do in an emergency
It’s 3am, you have to be awake at 6am. The kids have to eat, get dressed, get to school on time. You have to be in the office for 9am and ready to smash that presentation in front of the board (or exam, or drive someone to the hospital or just about anything that requires some kind of well-rested YOU). It’s not pleasant. 3am brain is nothing like 3pm brain. 3pm brain lives in the waking world and is capable of at least some rational thought. 3am brain, on the other hand, seems to actively hate you. It will only think about anything that will not let you sleep, how awful the next 24 hours are going to be and of course, the possibility that you have cancer. 3am brain can be an asshole.
What do you do in this situation? I’ve been there a lot, and I know how the mind can fluctuate between a kind of angry frustration, replaying some argument or injustice over and over, and a resigned sadness. It’s all very poor me. And if you are a regular sufferer of insomnia then you will have already told yourself that everything is pointless – you are NOT sleeping. Game over.
Step 1: Always go here first, to the most logical thought you can have. Ask yourself, what is the worst case scenario?
It will most likely be that you will not sleep for the rest of the night. You will stumble out of bed when the alarm goes off and attempt to get through all the morning routines as best you can with a bowling ball for a head and a short temper. You’ll get to work, quite possibly late and bumble through the day somewhat ineffectively, having your short fuse tested, craving bad food and overdosing on caffeine.
Yep, it will most likely be a crap day. In some ways.
However, you will totally cope, like you always do. Nothing catastrophic will actually happen. Your kids will get to school, you will achieve something productive and the world will not collapse around you. And despite your awful night, there is actually no evidence whatsoever that your day will turn out bad. In fact, future unknown, any number of amazing things might happen to you during the day. You may win the lottery, you may find the love of your life, you may find that jumper you love and thought you’d lost in the back of the wardrobe. Who knows? You don’t – that’s the point.
Once you’ve performed a little mental worse case scenario in your head, realised that even the worst outcome of you not sleeping isn’t really THAT bad, you can get onto step 2…
Step 2: Give up and get up.
You’ve agreed with yourself that you’re not going to explode if you don’t sleep, so give up a little bit. If there’s one thing that doesn’t work when it comes to trying to go to sleep it’s trying to go to sleep. Sleep comes to you, you don’t go to it. So if it’s not there, walk away. Go make a peppermint tea and read some fiction. Don’t pick up your phone or turn on the TV. Maybe go for a walk around the block, enjoy being out at weird o clock, hanging out with the foxes and the bats. Breathe deeply. Listen to the sounds of the night.
Maybe there’s a thing; an argument, a big worry, a thought that’s blocking out everything else like a fat, grey cloud. If that’s the case, get a pen and paper out and write it the hell out of your head. If it’s on the paper, it’ll fade away for a while. Tear it up, put it in the bin. It’s gone. If there’s a thing, this is the best way to expunge it from your head long enough for waking brain to pick it up again in the morning, when you can be a little more logical.
The only thing you can’t do is worry. Because there’s nothing to worry about. Smile, you may as well, you’re not going to change anything. Don’t watch the clock trying to figure out how much sleeping time is left between now and the alarm going off if you were to fall asleep NOW. That’s a zero-sum game. The time is now, as always. Do this until you feel peaceful, resigned, rested. Then head back to bed and with absolutely NO pressure to fall asleep, lie there, breathe some more. See what happens. Maybe you’ll nap, maybe you won’t. I reckon you will.
That’s it. Just be kind to yourself, take all the pressure away. Even if you don’t sleep, it’ll still be fine. Not ideal, but still fine. Once you know this, you’ll find these emergency moments will be way less sharp.
Regardless, your best option (as with all options that come before all obstacles) is to work hard to prevent the problem occurring in the first place. And this mostly happens before you even go to bed. Do the work and you’ll be armed to the teeth with thought-piercing sleep bullets.
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