How I Deal with Chronic Insomnia
Hint: It’s not exactly sleep hygiene…
I’ve been an insomniac to some degree for as long as I can remember.
In middle school, I’m up late, engaged in a new sketch or my watercolors. In high school I spend late nights writing something my head just won’t let rest until the sun starts coming up. In college, friends joke with me, asking how my “nap” was, referring to my night of sleep.
I’ve been told that, even in infancy, I was a night owl as I spent hours in my parent’s room lying on my dad’s chest while he tried to soothe me to sleep.
The root cause is a delightful blend of genetics and mild anxiety. I can be a worrywart. But I’m also a worrywart who doesn’t like the idea of pharmacologically-induced sleep. I’ve never taken sleep pills for any sustained amount of time and consequently have found myself finding ways to tolerate the insomnia. I’ve managed it in different ways- some not so efficient but others pretty effective.
To clarify: what I call “effective” doesn’t often involve getting a full night’s sleep. This is based off two things:
- My body needs around six hours of sleep a night to run at full speed the next day. But, I can get four hours and be a bit drowsy and still manage, so I don’t stress too much over not getting eight hours. I can’t live off four hours a night forever, of course, but a few nights a week doesn’t put me in too bad of a place.
- I weigh out the benefits differently since I’m not necessarily striving for sleep. If I got plenty done and I feel alright the next day, it was effective.
I’m an individual just like you’re an individual. You and I probably have vastly different biological clocks and responses to sleep deprivation and feelings about taking sleep drugs. Since the subject is sleep, it’s extra likely that what worked pretty wonderfully for me may not be your cup of tea. And vice versa just because there are so many variables at play.
Think about your lifestyle, your body and your goals and take what I say with a (very large) grain of salt. Without further ado, here’s how I’ve dealt with my insomnia over the years.
Just Ignoring It
This one wasn’t the best idea I came up with, to be sure. Just like ignoring most problems in life doesn’t work. They just build up and start affecting your life in other ways.
I would lay down in bed and just feel energy coursing through me as my mind raced. Other times, I’d feel more relaxed, but feel somehow unsettled or restless.
So I got up and worked. I worked on whatever was occupying my mind or whatever needed to get done. If it was creativity calling me out of bed I followed its call and found something to create. When I was in college I spent this time going over optional readings and researching things I thought were interesting from the day before. In adulthood, I write past midnight or clean the kitchen.
I just act like it’s a daylight hour and get some more done.
Sometimes, cleaning the bathroom at 3am tuckers me out and I’m ready for sleep. Mission successful.
Other times, I get sucked into what I’m doing and end up drafting responses to emails late into the night (I say draft because it’s a rookie mistake to send out emails timestamped at 4am. I’ve faced many embarrassing conversations the next day).
If I felt I got a lot done and even squeezed in a 4 hour nap, life is peachy.
This is the method I turn to least often because, like I said, hitting the lower threshold of my sleep tolerance of four hours a night isn’t something I can do often at all without making things worse for myself over all.
Pretty soon I get overly sleep deprived, which means for me, I start crying when I finish a tube of toothpaste or I put the milk on the shelf and the cereal in the fridge. Not good for a productive day. That hasn’t happened in a while because I don’t insist on constantly pulling 20 hour days.
But in a pinch, it keeps me from spending hours in bed tossing and turning.
Dealing with the Anxiety
Like I mentioned before, I’m a worrywart, like you may be. My mind races with things I need to do the next day, anything I left undone from the day before, anything I’m concerned about.
I’ve attacked this anxiety in a few ways.
One of the ways is to keep a notepad next to my bed. I list down anything. To do items (that I sometimes scratch out the next morning as I realize how unrealistic I was being), things I don’t want to forget, problems that are bothering me. Once it’s on the paper, it’s out of my head and I feel free to relax.
It’s by no means a novel idea and it works for plenty of people, me included.
Another thing I’ve done is to stop holding things inside so often. I keep things to myself and subsequently implode and keep myself up at night over them.
Even in my own mind, I don’t often resolve issues, I just keep turning them over again and again, looking at them from the same three angles and deeming them unsolvable.
I started talking to family or friends when it felt reasonable and it turned out I slept better because of it. Getting things off your chest is a genuine relief.
If there was an issue I refused to ‘dump on another’s doorstep’, as I referred to it, I started actually working through it in my head. Sometimes I’d get out a piece of paper- on the left side I’d list my worries. On the right I’d list why it doesn’t really matter as much as I think it does.
Worry: I’m not prepared enough for my presentation tomorrow in front of my more knowledgeable teammates.
Why it doesn’t matter: I’ve done all I can do to prepare and it’s out of my hands now. Plus, I won’t get fired from delivering a subpar presentation.
This one works for me very well and has bled into my life with other positive outcomes. Confront yourself and make yourself see reason. It’s got a learning curve, like any new habit or practice, especially one so wrapped in feelings and long-set beliefs, but it works.
People have different feelings about this and I was on the fence before I looked into the science behind it. Melatonin, as you probably know, is a naturally occurring hormone produced in our brains by the pineal gland (the gland that helps to regulate our sleep-wake and reproductive cycles).
I was nervous about a few things: would I become dependent on using a pill to fall asleep? Would I start sleep walking? Would I not be able to wake up if I needed to? Turns out none of that has happened for me while taking melatonin.
Supplementing with melatonin can hep you fall asleep, though it’s not as great at keeping you asleep. I haven’t had any trouble getting up on time.
This also addressed my fear of some of the sleep walking I’d heard can happen with traditional sleeping pills. The last thing I want when trying to fall asleep is to wake up in the car at 2am having driven myself to the dentist in my sleep.
(There are some crazy stories- and lawsuits- involving what people do on sleep aides, no doubt some sensationalized somewhat, but I don’t like to take chances with my history of occasional sleep walking. Long story short, talk to your doctor if you’re concerned, don’t just take my word for it.)
One of the additional selling points for me was that it doesn’t forcibly pull you into sleep- you can shake off the drowsiness pretty easily if you need to for whatever reason.
I started out with 3mg tablets and I haven’t needed to go up since. You can purchase them at the supplement section in the drug store or Costco, or pretty much everywhere they sell over the counter drugs.
One 3mg tablet under my tongue about 20 minutes before I’m ready for bed and I feel drowsy enough to lay down and trick my brain into chilling out and getting some rest.
I’m willing to believe that part of my positive experience is due to a placebo effect. I’m completely fine with that as it still serves my purposes and isn’t acutely harmful as far as I can tell.
Sleep is a complicated conversation for the workaholic overachievers among us. You’ve likely experienced a bout of anxiety or a stressful time that shook you awake for weeks at a time. But there’s still work to be done and deadlines to make so we have to confront it.
Whether you push past it, attack underlying issues or supplement with something to help, addressing the problem can leave you much relieved, healthier and happier. You just have to make sure your method of attack is what’s best for you and your life. If all else fails (or maybe before everything fails) consider visiting a doctor.
Nowadays, I’m settling into a sort of routine I’ve never had before that gets me around 6 hours a night- likely spurred on by physiological changes, courtesy of getting older. However, I’m also in a job with extremely irregular shift hours (12 hours, 24 hours) so there will always be more obstacles to reaching the ever-elusive ‘good night’s rest’. I’ll be ready to try something new when that happens.