After more than 40 years experience with insomnia, I can share some of the remedies I’ve tried to help me sleep better. Some helped, some didn’t. My current approach is to see it differently, not as a problem but as an opportunity.
If you’re a veteran of insomnia, you will probably have tried every remedy you ever came across. I hope you’ve found at least one that works. If you have, please share it in the comments section. But I suspect you haven’t. Because if you have, you most likely wouldn’t be reading this blog.
Insomnia affects millions of us. I could produce statistics from the latest survey but I won’t. When I lie awake at 3 in the morning, it doesn’t make me feel better knowing that many other people also have this problem.
Because it’s an experience that many of us share, we can compare notes and learn from each other. And the fact that it’s so common means that many people have studied insomnia. There are all sorts of tried and tested as well as untried and untested remedies for us sufferers to try and test for ourselves.
Let the remedy fit the cause
I’ve had bouts of insomnia for more than 40 years and the triggers vary, as do the remedies.
The first bout came in the 4 months building up to the exam at the end of the first year of the university I attended in the UK. I had just arrived from the USA and was under the impression that British students were smarter than me.
I tried sleeping pills, recorded meditations and the Samaritans, none of which reduced my anxiety. As soon as the exams were over and I had passed, I slept through the night.
When it came time to prepare for the final exam 2 years later, I had no insomnia. The remedy was to look at the evidence. As I got to know my classmates, I realised I was as smart, if not smarter, than them (or to be fair, I was as good at taking exams as they were).
Toxic work environment
The worst experience I had of insomnia was when I worked in the corporate world as a health writer for an organisation riddled with a culture of blame, hostile criticism and endless dramatic crises. When I was given an assignment to evaluate insomnia remedies, I developed a bad case of insomnia which turned into a breakdown. After several weeks of not sleeping, I became a gibbering wreck and was off work for six weeks.
None of the sleep hygiene tips, herbal remedies or meditations I evaluated alleviated my insomnia. The cure was my resignation. See my blog for the full story.
Baby in the night
The most instructive experience I had of insomnia was when my daughter was a baby. She was a good sleeper, compared to some babies, but even so, I found it difficult to cope with being woken in the night.
The cure for that bout of insomnia was when she began sleeping through the night at the age of 7 months. I learned two important lessons from that experience:
- I can do anything when I’ve had a good night’s sleep.
- I don’t need nearly as much sleep as I previously thought.
Let the remedy fit the symptoms
Insomnia often, but not always, makes me tired in the day. I can get so tired that it feels like I’m passing out and going into a coma. This is rather dangerous when I’m driving on the motorway and rude when I’m entertaining guests.
* daytime naps. If I’m chatting to someone, I try to excuse myself and go into another room but often I’ve crashed before I can say anything.
* stopping the car by the side of the road and sleeping or asking my partner to drive, rather than slapping my face and pushing myself to keep going.
* exercises that galvanise my energy. Prune Harris has many Youtube videos that are short and easy to follow.
My tolerance diminishes, especially when children emit sudden loud shrieks or tell me about Minecraft just after I’ve banned any further mention of it. The remedy is to stay away as much as possible from the sources of irritation and forgive myself for snapping when I can’t stay away.
Poor coping mechanisms
Don’t ask me to do anything on a computer, TV, internet or mobile phone when I’ve had a bad night. I will become hysterical.
I beat myself up thinking I’m a failure since I can’t even do something as basic as sleep. One effective remedy is Tapping on all the points while saying the phrase: Although I feel like a failure, I choose to love and accept all of myself.
I have no resistance to chocolate brownies, second helpings and anything sweet. This is not due to weak willpower. A research study on the effect of sleep deprivation on weight gain found that sleep deprived people had lower levels of the hormone which tells you that you feel full and higher levels of the hormone which makes you feel hungry. Insomnia increases your desire and cravings for high energy foods like cake and biscuits so you end up consuming more energy than you need.
I used to not resist and would keep eating until I was ill with indigestion. But since embarking on a well-being programme called Second Nature, I’ve learned about the effect of insomnia on the hormones which control appetite. That information has enabled me to resist the cravings.
Insomnia cures that don’t work for me
“Sleep hygiene has been touted as the answer to sleep ills. (By the way, studies haven’t shown it to be very effective, but it’s still the thing.) Some people swear by it. Others, …., follow it precisely even though it’s not easy to do. And then there are those who dislike it so much, they won’t even start.”Sondra Kornblatt
I’m one of those who dislike even the word sleep hygiene so much, I won’t even start. Ditto for sleeping pills which make me feel groggy and ‘fall asleep in minutes’ guided meditations which make me want to scream. I’m particularly allergic to ‘health terrorism’ where you are warned of all the chronic and serious health conditions that result from insomnia. I suspect I’m not alone in finding fear a poor motivator.
The tyranny of the norm exacerbates my suffering. I don’t aspire to be the average in any other aspect of my life so why should I even consider it for sleep? Just because the average number of hours of sleep an adult needs is 7 to 9 hours doesn’t mean that’s right for me ever or at this stage of my life. I refuse to be ruled by measurements or to compare myself to others.
Insomnia is unique to each individual. What doesn’t work for me may well work for someone else. There’s no one-size-fits-all.
What does work for me?
It should be clear by now that I don’t believe there is a single remedy for insomnia that works every time. I see it as a work in progress. There are times when I’m desperate and will seek out cures and there are times when I take insomnia in my stride. I aim to be mindful, to listen to my body and do whatever I need to do to get a bit of relief.
Sometimes there is no remedy that will give me any relief. Then I simply try to accept that a part of me is tired, cranky, and miserable. I can welcome that part and hold it with compassion. I can tell myself it’s no wonder I feel tired and irritable. I remind myself that it’s okay not to be able to figure out how the remote control works after my 9 year old grandson has just shown me how. It’s okay to get up 3 times in the night to pee. It’s okay to get 5 hours of sleep at night. Accepting all of yourself is the key here. There are many tools that help. The practice of Focussing is one of the helpful practices I’ve benefited from.
Reframe and see the situation differently
I feel miserable if I’m constantly complaining about my insomnia. I don’t like it when friends commiserate. It makes me feel like a victim and I really don’t like being a victim. Recently, I’ve been wondering if I can think about it differently. Do I have to define it as a problem? Are our expectations of sleep unrealistic? Are they culturally or historically specific? Here is an interesting article claiming that people used to sleep in 2 shifts through the night. I find that intriguing.
When I start looking at the positives, I realise that insomnia presents me with opportunities and even some gifts.
I love the peace and quiet of the early morning hours. There are no distractions, no duties. I can follow my own thoughts.
I am free from the responsibility of caring for my family, of always being on call. I don’t have to do anything in particular. I can’t do housework because that would wake the family.
I can go outside and chat to the moon. In the spring, I can go out on the fields behind my house and see the sun rise.
My favourite activity when I can’t sleep is to phone my best friend who lives 8 hours earlier so it’s her evening when I’m awake at 3 or 4 a.m. We’ve had many good chats over the years.
Recently, I had a consultation with Sondra Kornblatt, a sleep coach. I found her counsel to be in line with my thinking and approach to life. She says,
That’s where I’m at with insomnia. I’d love to hear of your experiences.