Insomnia sharpens your maths skills because you spend all night calculating how much sleep you’ll get if you fall asleep right now.
Like one in four of the population, I get problems sleeping. I tend to wake up in the middle of the night and find it hard to get back to sleep again. Others I know struggle getting to sleep in the first place.
Experts aren’t completely sure what sleep is for, though we know that it has lots of health benefits, physical and mental. But learning about these really doesn’t help you getting to sleep, it just makes you more frustrated.
So in the years of getting pissed off by lack of sleep, I’ve picked up lots of tips. There is no panacea, but with a combination of physical and mental approaches, you can go a long way.
- if you’ve been lying awake in bed for a long time, get up and move around – this releases tension in the body, and takes the mind off whatever thoughts are distracting you from sleep.
- wash your face – I can’t remember the details of the research I read on this, but the face being cool helps getting to sleep.
- don’t eat sugary snacks before bedtime – slow release energy is better, such as cereal with milk, or yoghurt with granola. If you have chocolate for example, your blood sugar will drop shortly afterwards, and your body will wake you up for you to get food. Slow release energy will keep the blood sugar stable so you are more likely to stay asleep.
- get lots of sun in the day time, avoid light before bedtime and keep your bedroom dark – there’s a little receptor in the back of the eye, not used for seeing, that is sensitive to blue light. The blue light makes your body suppresses melatonin production. In the dark, the body produces melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. Getting this light at the right time of day helps to regulate your sleep cycle. It’s interesting that for me sleep is better in summer and worse in winter. I’ve recently got a daylight bulb in the living room, and a daylight lamp in the office. And the corollary is to stay clear of strong light the hour before bedtime. If you must use a computer or mobile phone, get an app that reduces the blue light (you can use f.lux for the PC and there are plenty of mobile apps available).
- it may be an obvious suggestion, but no drinks after 8pm is good idea – a full bladder can wake you up.
- keep your feet warm – it increases the blood flow and so helps you nod off.
- keep the same sleep schedule on weekends as you do during the week.
- steer clear of the drugs – they may be of help in the short term if you’re desperate, but in the long term they can have really messed up side effects, and can often make the problem worse.
- try not to get annoyed and frustrated about it. That keeps you awake longer. Acceptance really helps. It’s interesting to know that back in the day two sleeps of around four hours was the norm – in between sleeps they’d get up for a few hours and chat, eat, or even indulge in a spot of rumpy pumpy.
- if you have things on your mind, write them down before sleep. Even if you feel like you don’t have anything consciously going on, it may be worth writing whatever comes to mind when you can’t sleep.
- the standard advice is to keep your bedroom for sleep only; don’t have a telly, or use it as an office.
Often with insomnia, the mental state when lying in bed is key. It’s easy to get stuck in the mind, perhaps re-living a past event, or thinking about the future. Maybe getting stuck in a loop. There are two approaches here: calming the mind, or taking your focus out of the mind altogether.
- mindfulness, is a great way to break out of that cycle and relax the mind. I did a mindfulness course last year and it has a lot of benefits. I know it sounds like hairy-fairy nonsense, but take it from an inveterate skeptic: there is a lot of scientific evidence behind it. Check out my recent post on the topic.
- try to take your focus out of your mind. An easy one is just wriggling your toes, maybe once with every breath. Another approach is the body scan – it’s a mindfulness exercise that works most times with me.
- while I would normally agree with the mindfulness training I’ve done, and say that watching the breath without controlling it is preferable, when trying to sleep I think slowing the breathing down is useful, as it can help to calm the body and mind.
It’s worth bearing in mind that insomnia can, in many cases, be a reaction to life circumstances. Much like depression, it can have great utility; when we have a problem, laying awake at night can be a way the mind gets our attention that we have a problem to solve. Also, as described here, it can give us the time, free from interruption, where we can contemplate our situation away from the mundane pressures of the day, and come up with solutions to improve our lot.
As a result many recommend CBT as a way to beat insomnia.
And if you’re up for trying something a bit more edgy, get a load of lucid dreaming.
I do hope some of these suggestions are helpful. I’ve largely beaten this issue using the mindfulness techniques, but if you have other things that have helped you, feel free to add them below.