By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
If you struggle with insomnia, you know only too well the effects it can have on your quality of life. Consider the following tips from a therapist who used to toss and turn the nights away and, with a few simple adjustments, developed a peaceful relationship with sleep. May these practices bring you the rest you seek and deserve.
Ironically, one of the biggest contributors to insomnia is worrying about insomnia. Most people who have difficulty falling or staying asleep have thoughts along these lines: Uh oh. What if I can’t fall asleep?I have to get back to sleep. How am I going to function tomorrow? Another hour has passed. I need to get to sleep!
Though completely understandable, thoughts and questions like these do nothing to quiet our minds and calm our nervous systems. They usually generate anxiety, which is the opposite of sleep-inducing. Imagine shifting to thoughts like It’s okay. I can practice mindfulness by tuning into what is actually, factually, here right now. This is an opportunity to rest. Rest is the sibling of sleep.
It’s amazing what happens when we turn down the pressure to sleep and turn up the intention to rest.
Soothing the Mind
Sometimes physical factors contribute to insomnia, but oftentimes it‘s worrisome thoughts that keep us awake. Many people spend hours swimming in a swirl of anxiety, which of course, does nothing to help them rest or fall asleep. What if you could tend to your worried mind as you might tend to a scared child? Imagine a child came into your room in the middle of the night and told you they couldn’t sleep. My guess is you would soothe and comfort them. We can do the same thing with our minds. If worried thoughts keep you up at night, try soothing and comforting your mind like you would an anxious child and notice the calming effects.
Screening and Scrolling
The pull of screens can be fierce and lead many people to spend their pre-sleep time scrolling on their devices. Using screens right before sleep can throw off our systems and have the opposite effect of winding down, which is precisely what we need to be doing to prepare for rest and a good night’s sleep. Turning off screens and devices at least an hour before sleep can positively affect our ability to fall asleep faster, sleep deeper, and wake up feeling more rested.
Since it’s much easier to start a new behavior rather than stop doing a habitual one, if going screen-less before sleep is something you’d like to try, consider creating a list of calming practices that could take the place of screening and scrolling. Breathing practices can be very calming, like keeping your laser-focused attention on your breathing or counting your breaths. Many people count backward from 100 to zero and report that they rarely make it all the way to zero.
Repeating a soothing word or phrase can also help keep the mind focused and elicit relaxation. One of my favorites is, Mind-Quiet, where you mentally say Mind as you inhale and Quiet as you exhale. If your mind wanders, as minds will do, you gently shift back to your chosen phrase as soon as you become aware that your mind has wandered. I also like Deep-Peace or Deep-Rest. You can experiment with words or phrases and find ones that feel calming.
You can also download sleep meditations on your device to listen to a calming guided meditation without Wi-Fi. There are countless ones available. If you want to join me, I have several free sleep meditations. It’s actually the only time in my life when someone tells me that they fell asleep while I was talking, and I consider it a good thing!
Belly and Bladder Balance
Another important aspect of sleep support is taking care of our physical needs. This means making sure that you’re not going to bed hungry or overly full. Also, make sure that you haven’t had caffeine late in the day, and trying not to drink too much water right before sleep so you don’t have to get up for too many bathroom breaks, but also be hydrated enough that you don’t wake up in the middle of the night, parched. Of course (and thankfully!), this doesn’t have to be perfect, but if we do our best to balance our hunger and thirst, we can better support our rest.
Many people find great benefits from white sound and earplugs. White sound machines are easy to find, as are white sound apps that can be listened to in airplane mode. Doing your best to ensure a quiet space can really assist in creating a cozy and peaceful environment.
Even with lights and devices off, many people still surround themselves with small lights that can adversely affect sleep. I have found black duct tape extremely handy to cover up all the little lights in the bedroom. Some people enjoy wearing a soft eye mask to block out any light. Additionally, the blue light from screens can convince our bodies that it’s daytime instead of nighttime, so you might consider changing the blue light on your devices to a different color and adjusting the brightness on your screens when the sun goes down to help you shift from daytime energy to nighttime relaxation.
Check In for a Check-Up
While many people attribute their sleep disturbances to mental, emotional, or environmental factors, it’s also important to rule out or address any potential medical conditions or medication side effects contributing to sleep problems. Hopefully, you have a health practitioner who can help address any physical factors that might adversely impact your sleep.
Sprinkling Subconscious Seeds
Right before sleep or in a state of deep rest are wonderful times to plant seeds into our subconscious minds. Consider what thoughts to plant and grow in your pre-sleep garden. Thinking about things we love, appreciate, or feel grateful for can make for a wonderful bedtime ritual. We can also imagine ourselves being how we wish to be. For example, if you are someone who wants more confidence, you could come up with a scene or a feeling where you feel confident as you drift into deep rest or sleep. If you want more peace, you could envision yourself on a peaceful vacation. You can picture or think of any image or feeling that conjures a state you wish to have or have more of.
As Thomas Edison said, “Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.”