The tossing and turning once again gives way to pure frustration. Time to try laying down on the couch, I decide. It’s 5 a.m. and I’m too tired to do anything else. I put on a podcast, hoping I’ll drift off for at least a little while before I have to be at work in three hours.
This wasn’t a bad night. It was every night, but I still never got used to it. You don’t get used to feeling like you are too tired to function.
The Insomnia Cure: How I Finally Broke the Cycle
I spent about a decade of my adult life looking for an insomnia cure, thinking that that modern medicine must have some magic solution. In reality, my problem was not understanding what sleep was or how it worked.
It all started when I was 19 or 20. I’d go to bed and nothing would happen. Just rolling around in the darkness, trying position after position while my thoughts turned more negative.
So, I did what I thought anyone in my shoes should do: I went to the doctor and told him I needed sleeping pills.
Thankfully, he refused, instead suggesting I avoid TV before bed and consider trying melatonin.
Sleeping pills do help people sleep, just not as restoratively. They can suppress various stages of the sleep cycle, often REM sleep which is crucial for learning and memory consolidation.
More importantly, sleeping pills don’t address whatever is keeping you awake. They carry health risks in the long run, too.
Melatonin, on the other hand, is a hormone produced naturally in the body that induces sleepiness and regulates our sleep-wake cycle.
The problem is, there are no consistent guidelines on how much you need or when to take it.
The instructions on the bottle I bought that day said to take 1-3 tablets before bedtime. I don’t remember if I started with one, but I do know that soon enough I was taking three every day.
Melatonin and Insomnia
Melatonin is very effective in helping people overcome jet lag, because it can start your sleep cycle at a different hour than your body is used to.
As a student at the time, I didn’t have a regular sleep schedule and would simply pop some melatonin whenever it was time for bed.
I had little idea I was throwing my body clock for a loop by starting my sleep cycle at a different time every night. In fact, I didn’t really know what a sleep cycle was.
Before long, the melatonin stopped doing anything. Sometimes I’d take more during the middle of the night (which, in hindsight, I realize is a terrible idea). Eventually I stopped with it all together.
I remember constantly feeling tired during the day at this point in my life. When I’d go to work in the evenings, I often felt as though I could instantly fall asleep if I’d had a bed nearby.
Then, later at night after I got under the covers, nothing would happen. University got more difficult as time went on. I felt less and less capable; my motivation began to wither away.
Sleep hygiene was completely unknown to me at the time and would be for years to come. Tired, I would frequently study in bed, not knowing this was probably making my insomnia worse.
I thought a change of scenery might do me some good so I went on an exchange year to Austria. Indeed, at first my sleep was much better. There are many factors in this, but it surely helped to be sleeping in an environment that I didn’t associate with insomnia.
It didn’t take long for this to change, unfortunately. I lived in a dorm room where my bed was right next to my desk and, thanks to the wooden chair it came with, I found it more comfortable to use my laptop in bed.
Pair this with some other common attributes of student life – poor diet, alcohol consumption, irregular sleep schedule, little exercise – and soon enough my insomnia was back in full swing. This was the first time I remember going weeks without much sleep.
I didn’t make a connection between these behaviours and insomnia because many of my friends did the same things, yet had no issues catching some Z’s.
In hindsight, I should have gotten out of bed when I couldn’t sleep and used that time to do something relaxing. In fact, as I would only learn years later, I shouldn’t have done anything in bed at all except sleep.
Over the years, my insomnia morphed into a mental problem and this was the hardest to overcome. I went to bed every night knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep, yet extremely stressed by how desperately I needed to rest. Queue sleep anxiety.
I had made progress in other areas. I eventually started to think using laptops in bed might not be the best idea and that I should at least move to the other room if I wasn’t able to sleep.
Still, the first step in falling asleep is believing you’ll be able to. Here I had a long way to go.
The more important it was for me to sleep, the more impossible it was. I worried so much about sleep, particularly if I had a big day coming up, such as an exam or a job interview.
But even less crucial things still brought me to my knees. In grad school, I used to do day trips to ski in the mountains. Just the stress of knowing I had to be up really early, and that there was a long day ahead, kept me up all night every single time without fail.
I’d still go, using caffeine to compensate, in turn stimulating me excessively and increasing my anxiety.
Insomnia Mind Games
I had another bad spate last year, seldom sleeping more than two or three hours a night. I started to feel like I couldn’t perform my job properly or keep up with commitments. This morphed into a fear that insomnia was destroying my physical and mental health.
Enough was enough. I found a sleep counsellor in the area and picked up a copy of Overcoming Insomnia.
I soon had an important realization: everything we do during the day culminates in the sleep we get.
I was diligent about sleep hygiene before this, but always ended up at a loss on why my problems persisted. I didn’t do anything in bed but sleep (yes, even reading got the axe), I had a consistent relaxation routine, and a stable bedtime. This wasn’t enough.
The reason is simple: sleep hygiene couldn’t resolve the mental block that had grown in my mind surrounding sleep.
Every single day when I went to bed I was plagued by anxiety about not being able to sleep and how tired I was going to be. In the course of the night this anxiety would slowly encompass the other worries I had in my life.
It was actually through meditation that I first got some relief from the thought loops of my racing mind. I found myself falling asleep during meditation in the middle of the day as soon as I would shut my mind off and just focus on my breathing.
This wasn’t even my goal in learning about meditation, but very soon I incorporated a short mindfulness exercise into my nightly wind down routine.
At the root of most sleep anxiety is ‘catastrophizing,’ a favourite of the insomnia brain. Basically, this is the tendency to believe that not sleeping will cause everything to go wrong.
In reality, most insomniacs keep up with their lives fairly well, they just have to try harder to focus and be alert.
Breaking the Cycle
The next thing is to realize that bedtime isn’t the time to worry about anything, including sleep. If you’ve done everything right to set yourself up for a restful night, then there’s nothing else you can do and thus there’s no point in stressing about it.
In short, I started accepting the outcome of the night before I went to bed. If I found myself stressing, I’d either stop or get out of bed if I felt the need to.
As I chipped away at the mental wall barring me from slumber, my nights started getting better to the point where I was regularly getting about seven hours of sleep.
I still have the odd bad night, but so does everyone else and I don’t let it affect me in the same way.
We all know that everyone’s sleep is unique; everyone needs different amounts and is affected differently by what they do during the day. The only thing that’s the same is that we’re all capable of sleeping well.
The first step is believing you can; then you need to back that belief up with the actions, such as good sleep hygiene, that help make it possible.
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