What I Learned from my Year Long Battle with Insomnia
As I write this I glance at the time in the upper right corner of my computer screen, it reads, “3:07 AM” I’ve had insomnia, or at least trouble falling asleep since I was in elementary school. I never liked going to bed when I was younger and some nights I couldn’t turn “it” off. “It” being my brain. However, May of 2014 marked the beginning of a year long battle with insomnia. Insomnia isn’t just the occasional restless night where you can’t fall asleep right away. Insomnia interferes with your life. Your work, friends, family, hobbies, mood, and general outlook on life all suffer once insomnia takes control. I’ll outline my history and what I’ve learned along the way. I’ll take you down the road into how my insomnia developed into a nasty case of sleep anxiety. At the end I’ll list some tips and resources to help those also suffering from insomnia.
My First Bout With Insomnia
In May of 2014 I was getting ready for bed. I had a big day ahead of me, I was going to be a groomsman in a friend’s wedding. I was a bit nervous to be a part of all of the festivities but the feeling wasn’t overwhelming. I was mostly excited to be a part of my friend’s wedding. As I laid down in bed I had a strange uneasiness about sleeping. I worried I might not get to sleep. This worry became an actual fear as time went on. 1am turned into 2am, then 3am, suddenly it was 4am. I now feared how completely miserable I would be the next day. I’d be unable to function. I had to be up at 7:30am to drive 40 minutes to hop on a bus which would then take us 40 minutes to the church. My mind raced with all of my obligations I had the next day. I must have gotten in and out of bed a hundred times. I went on Facebook, played Xbox, played the guitar, I did anything to keep my mind off of my worries. Every time I started feeling tired I laid back in bed but the anxiety would hit me again. The more this happened the more angry and frustrated I became. To make a longer story a bit shorter I got maybe 30 minutes of sleep that night. However, as miserable as I felt I made it through the day.
A Year of Insomnia
My insomnia and sleep anxiety controlled me. That night showed me what little power I had over my anxiety. Anyone who has problems sleeping can relate to how terrible and useless you feel the day after a sleepless night. Compounding multiple sleepless nights is a recipe for disaster. Emotions are amplified when you are sleep deprived and anxiety and stress dictate your mood. I couldn’t even nap because my anxiety was so heightened. My work suffered as a result. Business trips were dreadful, I dragged at work and counted down the minutes until the day was over so I could go home to rest. If I knew I had a presentation or an important meeting the next day my night would be filled with even more anxiety. Hobbies I loved before had lost their appeal entirely. My days were spent hoping for a good nights rest only for my anxiety to spike when my head hit the pillow. I had completely lost control of my mind.
“The most important thing I began to understand was that I fed my sleep anxiety with fear.”
Finally Getting Relief
The most important thing I began to understand was that I fed my sleep anxiety with fear. In other words, I feared the anxiety of not being able to sleep which only gave it more power. I also learned that I had completely conditioned my bed with my anxiety. I relocated to the couch some nights and found myself falling asleep in minutes because I felt there was no pressure to fall asleep there. Here are some of my tips on how to conquer your insomnia:
1) The worry is the worst part. The anxiety about falling asleep kept me awake at night and stressed me out during the day. I realized, in the end, that was my biggest fear. I felt like I wasn’t in control of my mind and it was because I was in fact perpetuating my own anxiety with irrational and negative thinking. Meditation and breathing techniques can and should be used to alleviate stress levels. I would meditate when I was stressed during the day and before bed. The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique is awesome.
2) Don’t sweat it. It wasn’t immediate but it did seem to “just go away.” One week I found myself sleeping fine. I noticed I hadn’t really thought about my sleep anxiety in awhile. It went away because I wasn’t feeding it with worry. I had been so fixated on my anxiety that just the thought of it triggered a rush of panic. Remind yourself that this will all pass and your anxiety is as big as you make it out to be.
3) Just let go! Letting go is difficult. You can read more in detail on my other post, 3 Tips on How to “Just Let Go.” Letting go of anxiety is passive. It requires no effort. Meditation is a perfect example of observing thoughts, including anxious ones, and simply letting them be. They will eventually pass but you have to be patient.
1) Use your bed just for sleep/sex. This way you don’t associate your bed with things like stress or worry.
2) If you start to feel upset or frustrated because you can’t sleep get up for 5 minutes or more. Go walk to the kitchen and get some water, go read a book on the couch, go to the bathroom. By staying in bed and feeling anxious you begin to condition yourself to become anxious whenever you are in your bed.
3) Try installing an app like Flux for Mac which adjusts your screen hue. The idea is that your computer or phone’s blue light disrupts melatonin levels in your brain. Melatonin is the natural chemical your brain produces to help you feel sleepy when the sun goes down. Flux’s orange tint removes the blue light completely.
4) Cut down on caffeine. Try to keep your caffeine intake to a morning cup of coffee only. Avoid caffeine after noon.
5) Wake up at the same time everyday. This means you should not be sleeping in late on weekends as this disrupts your sleep cycle.
6) Avoid naps. This is especially tough for those who love naps. A 30 minute nap before 2-3pm may be ok but anything after that or longer than that can disrupt your night time sleep cycle.
So why am I up tonight you may ask? Aren’t you cured? I’ve learned to deal with the handful of nights where I can’t quite seem to turn my brain off. I’ll try a breathing exercise, meditate for 5-10 minutes and if I still don’t feel tired I go hang out on the couch and write posts like these. The trick is to roll with the punches. During my troubles with insomnia I created a meditation app named Zazn Meditation App. It is available for download below. Give it a try and sleep well tonight!