Whenever I meet someone that has the skill to sleep anywhere (and I do mean anywhere: trains, buses, planes, under desks, etc.), I am instantly fascinated by this admirable and astonishing feat. Anywhere? Yep. No noise level or presumed interruption can deter their instant need for rest, whether it’s a quick power nap or a solid eight hours.
However, these unusually talented people often leave me with another lingering feeling. I want to instantly leave it at basic jealousy, but that oversimplifies it a little too much. Sure, I’m envious of their ability to lie down (or sometimes not even) and drift off within a few minutes. I’m baffled by their automatic ease in sleeping in a strange place or spending the night somewhere other than their own home.
These pangs of resentment stem from the fact that for the past ten years (wow, has it really been that long?) I have been a devoted chronic insomniac. I have spent my nights awake in a variety of ways: writing, drawing, making lists, worrying, wandering, cutting my own hair (yep), reading and rereading a lot of books, watching some pretty bad TV, crying, being frustrated, laughing (because at a certain phase of sleeplessness, everything gets funny), railing at the ceiling, studying, thinking, accidentally eavesdropping on my neighbors and that only covers about the first six months of this state in which I’ve been living.
I saw some doctors in the beginning, all of which asked me if I was feeling stressed, if something in particular was bothering me, if I was overworked. I was a normal college student when this all began, so the answers to all of those questions were, yeah, of course. I declined any medicinal assistance for the fear of becoming dependent, though all doctors assured me that weaning was always an option for the future. I walked away from all of these appointments discouraged and, not surprisingly, exhausted. Aside from the one therapist who offered hypnosis, none of these physicians offered any advice for a more natural method or, more importantly, really tried to get to the root of what was really going on: why couldn’t I sleep?
As it turns out, there were and are a lot of reasons, and many of them are the same reasons why 48% of Americans report occasionally dealing with insomnia and 22% report to experiencing insomnia every night (via Sleep Foundation). In 2013, the CDC reported that 9 million Americans rely on prescription sleeping pills (via NY Daily News). The first thing I thought when I read those numbers, even though I’ve seen similar stats before, was yikes. Even in the overworked, overstressed and under-rested society I knew we lived in, those numbers seemed shockingly high.
“One reason we give for allowing stress to build in our lives is that we don’t have time to take care of ourselves. We’re too busy chasing a phantom of the successful life.” - Arianna Huffington, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and WonderTweet It!
My condition has significantly improved in the last few years. I am still labeled by doctors as a chronic insomniac, but my bouts of sleeplessness have significantly shortened in the past two years (much so compared to my previous stint in 2012 of over 60 days without a full night of rest). Despite being hugely skeptical and since I’ve had the time, I have learned several tricks and remedies, some more recently than others, that I have given me some much-needed relief. Though I can’t say that they’ve “worked” every time, I have them found to be seriously helpful.
Stop texting. You pretty much can’t flip through any health-lifestyle-wellness related publication without stumbling across this very advice. For all the stuff your phones and laptops can help you with, they are seriously messing with your ability to get real rest. Whatever it is, I promise you that it can wait. At least an hour before you plan to sleep, log off, sign out, power down. Don’t even bring these gadgets into the bedroom. Studies have shown that just knowing they are there in the room can bring distraction and less restful sleep. (So you use your phone as an alarm clock? Stop that. A vintage one from Etsy will wake you up just as well without the melatonin-reducing blue light.)
Meditate. This is another one that has been popping up more and more in recent years as advice for curing a variety of common ailments, insomnia among them. It can also decrease stress, lower blood pressure, relieve pain and much more. If you’re skeptical, here’s my reassurance: I was, too. It you think it will be difficult or boring, I worried about the same things. After practicing this habit for just over a year, I can’t imagine starting my day any other way.
Breathe. The worst thing I can do when I can’t sleep is worry about how I can’t sleep. But of course, this is a very common response which only further exaggerates the problem you’re facing: a mind that won’t quiet down. As much as possible, do not allow yourself to fall into the pattern of worry that comes with lying and staring at the ceiling. Instead, try the 4-7-8 breathing trick: “You simply breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds” (via Byrdie). Yeah, I was iffy about this one, too. But it hasn’t failed me yet. (Want options? You can also try slowly counting backward from 300 in sets of three. For example: 300, 297, 294, etc.)
Be honest. If insomnia is completely new to you (or not at all), or if you’re just having an off night, you have to ask yourself what’s really going on. When my situation first emerged, I was really scared and took much longer than I should have to address what was happening. Sleeplessness is a real problem with a real cause. Chances are there is an underlying reason, whether it’s an unresolved issue at work, tension in a relationship or even linked to another potential health problem. It can even be caused by something you haven’t considered. If you find that your trouble sleeping persists, don’t be afraid to talk to someone, even if it’s just to know that you aren’t going through this alone.
And, finally, Sleep is not optional. I know this should seem pretty obvious, but in a society where sleeping less means getting ahead, I’d like to join in the chorus of those who are calling this way of thinking out as bullshit. Conditions you can’t control aside (present), consistently choosing to get less sleep will only result in a weakened ability to make good decisions, will fray your creative skills, delay both mental and physical responses, decrease confidence and increase your risk of disease (via The Huffington Post).
“Too many of us are fueled by the fear that getting the proper amount of sleep means we must not be passionate enough about our work and our life.” - Arianna Huffington, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and WonderTweet It!
In Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan For Finding Peace In A Frantic World, they write: “Often, the very first things we give up are those that nourish us but seem the most ‘optional.’ The result is that we are increasingly left with only work or other stressors that often deplete our resources, and nothing to replenish or nourish us--and exhaustion is the result.” Though I do consider myself to be a seasoned night owl, I’m not an expert. These are only the responses that have (sometimes) worked for me. They aren’t foolproof, but nothing is. Just remember to respect your body and that sleep is something to take time for, like anything else. It restores us, it lets us start over, it makes all things new again.
Further reading (and listening):
- Dreamland: Adventures In The Strange Science Of Sleep (by David K. Randall)
- Cheating Ourselves Of Sleep (via The New York Times)
- How Sleep Deprivation Decays The Mind & Body (via The Atlantic)
- Exhaustion Is Not A Status Symbol (via The Washington Post)
- I’m Addicted To Sleeping Pills (And My Doctor Is Fine With That) (via Fast Company)
- The Most Relaxing Song Ever (via Apartment Therapy)
Helen Williams is the Community Love Director at Holstee. She is passionate about cooking and writing which pair well together on her vegetarian food blog, green girl eats. She's strives, every day, to be less sorry.
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