Sometimes you know why you can’t sleep; sometimes you don’t. Either way, if you’re like me, you get what I call “intermittent insomnia:” bouts of sleeplessness that attack in unpredictable waves, in varying degrees of severity, and for differing lengths of time. Here’s what I do to combat the symptoms and the cause.
For me, my insomnia can last just one night, a few days, or, if I’m really struggling, weeks. Lots of factors can contribute to poor quality sleep or the inability to sleep — not sure which is worse. Stress, lack of activity, grief, children (just kidding), and other normal pieces of the human experience detrimentally impact sleep quality. So, in my opinion, lack of sleep is something prevent — if possible, but let’s be real we just need to manage it sometimes.
My Personal Remedies
Keep a consistent routine. Getting up at the same time — whatever time that is — can make or break a circadian rhythm, in my experience. It’s especially hard to do when you’re not falling asleep till a few hours before you wake up, but if there’s any way you can keep at least this part of your circadian rhythm consistent, it will pull your body back into sync.
Tweak the simple, physical factors. Sometimes it’s the little changes that have the biggest impact. Try these out quickly to make a subtle difference.
- Keep your bedroom cool at night
- Eliminate light, especially blue lights, in your room
- Turn off screens an hour before you go to bed. (This tip is floating ALL across the internet but I never do this one. Doesn’t seem to have an impact on me.)
Develop a wind-down routine. Make a little ritual that you do in the evenings. Expand your normal habit of brushing your teeth and changing clothes to be a little more of an effort, a longer process such that you have time to think and separate from your evening. The more automated the routine is, the better. Let it be something that your body can go through and your mind can wander, like folding your clothes from the day, walking to the mailbox and back, refolding all your towels.
Spend time in prayer. I have a place, a quiet place, where I go at night. The blinds are always open here so I can look out. In the cooler months, I’ll open the door so I can feel the breeze, hear the trees sway and the planes fly over. I spend time in “unproductive” prayer. (What I mean by that phrase is, I’m not praying down a list or trying to check a box, not praying for something specific, like a meal or a sick person, but just sitting in a silent place with God. I am not meaning to imply in any way that prayer is unproductive.) Speak to the Creator. Why is this calming? He is a presence in which every emotion is welcome and safe. You don’t come to Him put together and with it figured out, you come to Him broken and sleepless and exhausted, and He listens.
Watch the caffeine intake. Caffeine and other energizing substances can mess with your regular sleepiness. Try to go without for a few days, or at least set a cut-off time in the afternoon which you won’t caffeine-ate past. Sugar can also keep you up, so consider that before your midnight snack (or before dinner is cereal again).
Free-write. One of the best routines I’ve ever developed is my morning pages habit. I never thought stream-of-consciousness writing had any value until I immersed myself in the practice. It has developed into a freeing, calming, emptying time, where I face the things I’ve been trying to hide, the words I’ve been trying not to say. In a happy accident, I missed my morning pages one day and made them up in the evening before bed, discovering how unraveling it feels to journal freely before bed as well. For me, writing out whatever comes to mind takes my tense and buzzing heartspace into a calm and relaxed place.
Try out some old wives’ tales methods. When you’re desperate, you’ll try anything. Try these things that some people swear by. (Not me.)
- Drink a glass of milk before bed
- Take a melatonin (Literally has never worked for me, but it really helps some people… apparently. I still believe it’s all sawdust.)
- Meditation apps (Can’t recommend any, but they’re all over YouTube.)
Tidy; really tidy. Nothing is such a subtle disruption to my subconscious as an unkempt house. Do the dishes, fold the laundry, clean the table. If I’m really struggling to sleep, I might do something a little unnecessarily tedious, like sweeping the floor or organizing a drawer, just to use my energy in a productive and satisfying way.
Stretch, run, yoga, lift, walk. A little physical exertion can do wonders for the soul. Sweating it out can help your body release its tension and welcome sleep easier. Run hard or just stretch for a few minutes, either option will connect you with your body more. When I am in the trenches of sleeplessness, I tend to move throughout the day entirely outside of my physical existence. It’s like I don’t feel things with my senses; tastebuds numb, skin goes lifeless. (If you know what I’m talking about, you might be an Enneagram Type 5…) Anything that brings my awareness back to my body — as strange as that might sound — is helpful for me.
Play through old chords. Zen out with an instrument. Let practice dissolve into mindless strumming, automatic keystrokes. Listen to your fingers as they choose their own path in a detached, spectator manner. Play a little of what you know until they take off on their own and then let your mind wander.
Be patient. Sometimes the correlation between stress and lack of sleep is nebulous and delayed. It takes time for your body to correct whatever imbalance its undergoing. Be kind, be patient, allow time for these habit changes, or any pro-sleep changes, to take effect.
Remember that sleepless people deserve love, too. Okay, so you can’t sleep. You are, at first glance, wasting precious time that could be spent in deep rest or could be spent doing something productive. But, friend, you’re here. You’re here and sleepless, just like me. Being angry about the situation or frustrated with yourself is not going to help you sleep and will only serve to make the passing moments miserable. Please, use this time to think true and lovely thoughts. Be kind to yourself.
((Also, here are some songs that are lyrically about not being able to sleep.))
Wishing you sweet dreams,