If you suffer from insomnia, at any level, you understand the pain and frustration. And while there are those old standby tips and tricks we've all heard a thousand times...
Get to bed before 10 p.m. and wake up at the same time each morning. Switch off all devices and keep your room as dark as a black hole. Eat a well-balanced meal no less than 2 hours before bedtime. Swap caffeine for herbal tea. Have a regular bedtime routine, preferably involving a blissful bath; crisp, clean sheets; yoga; and meditation.
...having stellar sleep hygiene is much easier said than done.
Considering the breakneck pace of our lives, we're lucky to achieve maybe one of the things on that list at a time. And even if you miraculously manage to do everything right one day, you might still find yourself lying there, fully alert and totally irritated.
So, when "all the right things" don't work, what do you do?
When I first started experiencing full-blown insomnia as a side effect of Topical Steroid Withdrawal, I had no idea what to do. I'd always been a sleeper—often up to 14 hours a night! In all honesty, I thought that insomniacs were people who just couldn't relax. And as a yoga teacher, I could do that at will.
So, when my adrenals went haywire and I found myself wide-awake between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., I panicked and resorted to pretty unhealthy habits, like watching videos all night long or trolling Facebook. Sometimes these strategies worked simply because I exhausted myself, but more often than not I suspect they made things worse.
Fortunately, I had good training to fall back on, and as the chronic insomnia continued, I began to employ powerful breathing techniques and self-calming exercises, which actually worked, even when I was feeling completely manic and stressed.
I suffered from horrendous, all-night insomnia for around a year. I tried pills and other methods, but I knew that wasn't sustainable, and honestly, I hated feeling so out of control.
As my adrenals continue to heal, my sleep patterns have recovered a little, though I still need to use all my tools to fall asleep naturally. I can't stress enough how much the following simple tips have saved my sanity and physical health.
1. I changed my mindset.
When I was suffering all-night insomnia, I made up for those lost hours during the day through random naps, and although it would sometimes take me a few minutes to settle, I noticed I fell asleep with very little trouble during the day. It felt so utterly relieving but also a little indulgent and naughty because we're trained to think that napping is a luxury.
In contrast, getting to sleep at night felt extremely stressful, goal-oriented and as if I was forever clock-watching in fear. When I finally decided to start treating my nighttime sleep as something to look forward to and revel in rather than dread, it made a world of difference. Suddenly I relaxed in my expectations and then was able to relax physically and mentally.
A bonus to imagining bedtime simply as a lovely naptime is that you can feel deep gratitude for the simple pleasures you're currently experiencing—clean sheets, a warm house, and time to wind down at the end of your day. This sends positive signals to your brain, which contributes even more to a feeling of safety and ease and takes you into rest and relaxation mode.
2. I practiced tensing and releasing muscles/wriggling around.
Insomniacs often have real trouble relaxing physically for various reasons. For my part, my skin was often hot and itchy or cold and sore, and my muscles would be very tense as a result. I got into the habit of stretching and wriggling purposefully in bed until I felt I'd relaxed my muscles a little. This felt so good and added to the feeling of enjoying, rather than dreading, my bedtime ritual.
3. I use a controlled, cooling breath.
Anxiety around bedtime inevitably leaves you feeling hot, flustered, and out of control. It's vital at this point to bring the nervous system out of fight-or-flight mode and into a parasympathetic response suitable for rest and relaxation. One of the most powerful ways of doing this is with a simple, controlled, cooling breath. While there are many different breathing techniques you can employ for anxiety, this one is safe for all, can be used easily in a prone position, and provides both a cooling element and a controlled resistance very effective in achieving a sense of calm and control.
How to do it:
Purse your lips and slowly suck air all the way into your lungs, keeping your belly soft. Pause at the top of the inhale briefly and then slowly blow air back out through pursed lips, all the way to the end of the exhale. Pause briefly and repeat for a minimum of 10 rounds. Your mind will fight it, but stick with it. If after 10 rounds you still feel unsettled, try another 10. Come back to normal breathing if you experience lightheadedness or feel faint.
4. Settle on your tummy.
This may not be for everyone, and its comfort depends on your body shape and needs, but settling on your tummy is another powerful indicator to the brain and nervous system that you are preparing to rest. I find when I'm settling that I go through different positions until I'm ready to fall asleep, and that's when I lie on my front, with my arms around my pillow.
5. Listen to a guided meditation.
Inevitably, even if your body is now relaxed and ready to fall asleep, your brain may continue to worry and plan ahead. Distract your brain with a guided meditation. It provides something relaxing and calming to focus on as you drift off. I usually try to find something longer than 15 minutes so I have plenty of time to fall asleep completely.
Above all, strengthening your resolve to view bedtime as something to look forward to rather than fear is key. The more excited you are to fall asleep, the easier it becomes. Stop watching the clock and focus on gratitude for every bit of nourishing sleep you achieve.