Putting Insomnia to Bed


I am writing this at 4.49am, having been awake since 3.11am following about 3 hours of sleep. You may think this disqualifies me from having any wisdom about dealing with insomnia. But this has been an exception – and I blame it entirely on the course of steroids I have just started. The last ten nights or so I have been sleeping like a baby. An interesting metaphor, given that my most prolonged period of sleepless nights was caused by a succession of babies and small children.

Nevertheless, here are a few half-sensible things I have tried to put into practice in recent weeks, with some success.

Lounge in your loungewear

An hour or so before bedtime, dispense with those day worn jeans, that stiff shirt and that tight jumper, and slide easilly into your checked lounge pants and soft pjama top, wrapping yourself in your fluffy dressing gown. Then ease your tired feet into a pair of furry slippers – ideally some form of happy animal version. Mine are smiling elks with floppy horns.

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You have now divested yourself of your day, and can lounge around in lounge wear in your lounge or bedroom. Your world is fluffy, furry and floppy. Snuggle up in a armchair, or with another fluffy, furry and floppy human being – maybe with a glass of wine a few squares of choclate and an undemanding television programme or movie. You will be so relaxed, you will have to be careful not to float into dreamland before cleaning your teeth.

Whatever you do – if the bell rings – don’t open the door.

Eat and drink carefully

What we eat affects our mind. I have researched all of this on the internet, so it must be true. Here are some things which will help allegedly you relax – black tea, dark chocolate, spinach, beans, barley, omega-3 fatty acids, citrus fruits, micro baby greens, holly basil and foods containing zinc, such as oysters, wheat germ, pumpkin, squash and cashew nuts. Oh and clean water.

Clearly, if you ate all of these you would probably spend the night bloated and with stomach cramps. Or we would be up in the night frequenting the bathroom. Rather, embroider some of these naturally into your daily diet – or take them as snacks in place of crisps and old slices of pizza. They will help counteract one of sleep’s greatest enemy – cortisol, the fight or flight hormone. They will help keep you calm and centered and within a sensible lifestyle speed limit.

What about a glass of red wine, I hear you say? Well, I certainly heard me say it. Alcohol will make us drowsy and may help you get sleep. Hooray ! In excess, I have heard it will render you unconscious as surely as a blow to the skull. Not a good way of lapsing into unconsciousness, I understand. Not least because you tend to wake up fully clothed with the light on and a headache. So I have heard.

Beware, if you drink even a little too much it will affect the quality of your sleep, and you will wake in the night and feel groggy the next day. One glass of red wine will probably help. Stop there. Well okay, maybe two, but then really do stop there.

Other things to avoid – caffeine. Many people have an early evening cut-off time for coffee. And big meals. Dont eat a big meal close to bedtime – especially Indian takeaways or probably cheese, which apparantly gives you nightmares, but will certainly give you overactive digestive activity in the early hours.

Finally try a wonder relaxing herbal remedy – if you believe in herbal remedies – which you have if you want them to work. My current panacea, or placebo is rhodiola. It comes in handy herbal style lozenges – with the texture and taste of that corrugated cardboard used to make large brown boxes. If allegedly soaks up anxiety, energy and calms an over-active mind.

Time for bed

Said Zebedee – although 6pm was a bit early even for Florence and Dougal on the Magic Roundabout.

When we were kids we had very precise bedtimes, adding on fifteen minutes every birthday. In hindsight they were – like Zebedee’s – ridiculously early – more of an attempt by our parents to get the kids out of the way as early as possible. Once in bed, it was strictly no lights on. So I used to read for hours sat up by the window, illuminating the pages of my book with the convenient street light outside my bedroom.

But there is something to be said for a curfew, a latest bedtime. Not too early, but not too late. Mine is midnight. I will be in bed by – or before – midnight on a school night. Except on Friday night or Saturday night when I give myself permission to stay up as late as I like. The worst thing an insomniac can do is to not go to bed on the pretext we won’t sleep. It becomes a self-fulfilling and very unfulfilling prophecy. Can’t sleep won’t sleep.  No point trying.

No – be in bed by your allotted time – not too early, not too late.

Adopt a bedtime ritual

We already started this downstairs with the loungewear. Before we go to bed, we need to finish off things for the day and tidy up any loose ends. Tidy up our belongings and our minds. This might be clarifying tomorrow’s appointments, writing your diary, setting the dishwasher, locking the doors, updating your calorie counter, switching off the lights, filling the dishwasher. Everything we need to do to avoid lying in bed and thinking “oh no, I didn’t . . . . ” Rather we feel satisfied that we have put the day to bed, before we put ourselves to bed.

Then, visit the bathroom, clean your teeth and then enter into the bedroom – the room for sleep. Enter it once and stay there – avoid dashing around the house, retracing your steps, finding your glasses or your book or belatedly switching off the kitchen light.

Ensure the curtains are fully closed, with no gaps, and that all extraneous lights are covered up. The TV in our bedroom has a tiny blue light on the power switch. In the night it is like a laser beam penetrating the eyelids. It is neatly covered with a teabag packet. We have blackouts behind the curtains. Hotel rooms are more problematic – a light on a phone, a smoke alarm, a thermostat may all disturb. All must be covered up properly. Think of it as a wartime blackout. Get the temperature and air flow right – not too hot, not too cold, maybe a little air through a window.

Finally, set your alarm carefully, dim the lights, slip into bed. Turn off your electric blanket. Everything under control. Everything done. Every enemy of sleep disarmed.

Tame your Phone

Do not take your phone to bed. Your phone is not your friend. Your phone is not your lover. It does not belong in your bedroom aand certainly not in your bed. Any more than a dog or a cat or a small child belongs in your bedroom or your bed. They should sleep quietly in another room. Your phone may feel like a friend – it can be charming, entertaining and attentive. But it demands attention, follows you everywhere and is manically possessive.

Do not take it to bed. If you do, you will soon be secretly lying there with it under your duvet, reading emails, checking facebook, tweeting and tapping your keyboard long after you have turned your light out and your partner is asleep.

And all of those photons will keep you to stay awake. A bright screen six inches from your eyes is telling your eyes and your brain that it is daytime, even when it is 1am. Everything you read or write will stimulate your brain. You will read messages and which annoy you, irritate you, excite you and fire of neurons. All of this is conspiring against sleep. You cannot switch your brain off until you switch your input off.

So, be very strict and very clear with your phone. Leave it in another room and tell it to ”stay”. Instead, take a book to bed. Within minutes you will be re-reading the same page, as you slip into dreamland. You will wake later in the night with the book balanced on your nose your bedside lamp still glowing. At which point you can switch off the light, drop your book open on the floor and have that delicious feeling of rolling over onto a fresh piece of pillow. Much bettter than waking up with a buzzing or beeping phone digging into your ribs, demanding your response.

Keep work in a box

Another key to a good night’s sleep – and indeed a balanced life – is to keep work in a box and out of bed. This starts earlier in the day. Clearly separate times when we work, from times when we don’t work. Again our enemy can be our phone or our laptop. It is so easy to read work emails whilst watching TV, sitting on the loo, eating our supper. We blur the lines between work and personal time, to the extent that work starts to infect everything like some deadly virus, and follows us into the bedroom.

We don’t switch off and we don’t enjoy other things properly. We can eat a meal without realizing we have eaten it. We can watch a TV programme but lose the plot and lose the enjoyment. Multi-tasking madly is not big, it’s not clever, and it’s not very healthy.

So my other phone rules include – no phone or work emails when eating, walking or bathroom-ing. The day you find yourself tapping out a quick email to your boss whilst urinating – is the day to realise you have a serious problem.

So – be strict. No work in your loungewear, no work in bed. And if you find yourself thinking about work in bed, here is the trick. Imagine an empty box at the bottom of your bed with a lid. If you are lying in bed and work is possessing your mind, politely tell it to stop. It is not allowed in bed. Mentally open the box, and put the whole mangle of thoughts / can of worms into the box. And put a lid on it. And lie back and breathe.

Waking in the night

So last night, I lounged in my loungewear, without working, I ate sensibly, I took my herbal remedy and a small glass (or two) of wine, I locked my phone in another room and I was in bed by midnight. I followed the rules, there was nothing to disturb me. I read a few pages of a magazine in bed, found my pillow, rolled over and fell asleep. But then I was awake at 3.11am, well some time before 3.11am. For a while I didn’t dare look at the clock – was it 1am or 5am? What do I do?

Well number one is probably not to look at the clock. I have taken to putting my reading book in front of the digital display. I didn’t do that last night. Your clock will accuse you and intimidate you. Knowing the time – like knowing the salaries of your work colleagues – is rarely a good thing.

The key thing in this situation is to calm the mind. To slow down your thoughts.

We are not our thoughts. We are more than your thoughts. Our thoughts are our servant, not our master. Our thoughts can be like highly strung children, running amok, shouting and screaming. But they can be calmed. We are in charge – not them.

Try a bit of mindfulness. Get out of your own head. Get in touch with the here and now, the physical, the tangible. Listen to your breathing. Lie still and feel the various sensations in the various parts of your body – your knees, your fingers your toes.

One night when I was particularly hot and disturbed, I reached out to feel something physical around me. My fingers chanced on the glass of water by the side of my bed. It was deliciously cool, smooth and curved. I wrapped my fingers around it, explored its perfect smoothness and imbibed its chill and calm.

It’s not always that easy. This morning I woke up with a great work problem spinning around my head in ever increasing circles. It’s usually for me an abstract, insolvable, imaginary problem. This requires rather more intervention. Sometimes you have to get up and break the nightmare. This is what I just did – I made a cup of tea, sat down and wrote an email in draft to my boss. This has worked – it has taken the problem out of my head and onto paper. Important – never send that email! Now I am writing this blog.

On another night, I have got up and  looked out into the darkness of the night, maybe watched the traffic on the freeway out of a 20th floor hotel window. Anything to calm and empty the mind before reorganizing the bed and gently returning my head to the other side of the pillow.

Or you may open your book and read a while. Or plug in your iPod and listen to some quiet music. Music is particularly soothing and distracting. You can keep your eyes closed. The melody and pace can soothe, and if you want to control your thoughts, you can focus on the words. I once listened to a whole Eva Cassidy album twice through – until on the last track, my mind finally drifted somewhere over the rainbow and I was wishing upon a star, in a land that I’ve heard of once in a lullaby. My troubles melted like lemon drops and the next thing I knew it was morning, and I had woken up with the clouds far behind me.

Finally

You may have other techniques which work for you. In the end the key thing is not to stress it., We will get the sleep we need in the end. Of course – don’t take steroids, and don’t have babies.

It’s 5.46am. I am off to bed now, feeling calm and a little tired. Sleep well.

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