By Leigh Weingus
There are people who have the occasional bad night of sleep, and then there’s me: A 33-year-old woman who has spent several nights a week tossing and turning until the sun comes up since she was 10 years-old.
The worst part about my lifelong battle with insomnia is just how terrible the sleeplessness makes me feel. I know there are people who say they can do “just fine” on six or less hours of sleep, but I’m not one of those people. When I do manage to get eight or nine hours of sleep, I feel like a superhero. After a night of bad sleep I can barely function. I feel like a fog has engulfed my brain as I reach for sugary foods all day long that only end up making me feel worse.
Insomnia, defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep, runs the gamut from acute (once in a while, and usually happening because of life circumstances) to chronic (disrupted sleep that occurs three nights per week or more). According to the National Sleep Foundation, 40 million Americans experience insomnia annually — so I know I’m not alone in the torture of back-to-back sleepless nights.
I’m admittedly Type A and obsessed with health and wellness, so I’ve spent years of my life researching all the ways to improve my sleep. I can recite them all by heart: Don’t consume caffeine after noon, avoid electronics around bedtime, keep your bedroom cool and dark, go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, come up with a bedtime routine, the list goes on and on. I would spend weeks being incredibly strict about my sleep routine, declining dinner invitations if they were too late and freaking out if my husband brought my phone into our bedroom thinking I’d “forgotten it” in the living room. While I sometimes thought some of these tricks helped for a time, I never saw any long-term success with them. As someone who believes in the power of research, I found it incredibly frustrating.
Around the time that it became clear just how bad the coronavirus pandemic had become, I started to feel a loss of control over my life that left me a little numb. So I started doing something very unlike me: I pulled my laptop into bed with me when I got drowsy at night and watched an episode of “Sex And The City,” my ultimate comfort show. I expected it would mess with my sleep, but I didn’t care — what did sleep matter when I didn’t have anywhere to be in the morning?
Surprisingly, the opposite happened. Even with that evil blue light streaming into my eyeballs when I was supposed to be meditating, taking a warm bath or reading a book, one episode of the show lulled me to sleep and kept me asleep all night long. And guess what? I’ve been sleeping well ever since.
Giving In to My Individualized Approach to Sleep
It’s easy to think that when you’re not following certain prescribed “rules,” you’re doing it wrong. But if I’ve learned anything recently, it’s that paying close attention to your own needs might just help you make a set of your own rules — and rules that actually work.
While there are no guarantees when you’re an insomniac, I seem to have found a rhythm that works for me most nights: I stop checking my work email after six, I distance (but don’t totally separate) myself from my phone after dinner, I take a hot shower, and get in bed nine hours before I have to wake up to provide myself a buffer if it takes me a while to fall asleep. Then, I fire up my laptop and watch half an hour of TV.
When I chatted with therapist Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., LPCC-S (OH) and Clinical Director of Talkspace, she encouraged me to think of these sleep rules as things that work for “most,” not all.
“A general rule of thumb is to avoid screens for about an hour or so before bedtime; however, like everything else in life, there’s no one size fits all approach,” she explained. “The reality is, for some people, falling asleep with the TV on produces the type of consistent background noise, routine, and comfort that helps facilitate sleep. Getting too caught up in the process of what you should or shouldn’t be doing can actually end up being counterproductive to facilitating sleep.”
Another sleep “rule” I gave up following years ago? Getting out of bed when I can’t fall asleep. The very act of getting out of bed, turning on a light, reading a book or even trying to meditate seems to bring me further from sleep. If I stay in bed with my eyes closed, I feel calmer, and like I could fall asleep at any moment. And oftentimes, I do. O’Neill encouraged me to give in to that aspect of my sleep routine, too.
“If getting out of bed increases anxiety and moves you farther away from a sleep state, then I would suggest remaining in bed and perhaps considering the use of a guided meditation or counting backwards from 1000,” she said. “The bottom line is that it’s important to find a set of skills that will work for you. I encourage folks to view this process as an experiment until you find the right recipe for a good night’s sleep.”
Will I ever be one of those people who can fall asleep anywhere and gets a solid eight hours of sleep every single night? No way. I’ll probably always struggle here and there. But allowing myself to make my own sleep rules has provided me a whole lot of freedom around sleep that I didn’t know I needed.
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