Insomnia is an extremely common type of sleep disorder, affecting 30-50% of people at some point. The condition is commonly thought to involve an inability to fall asleep, with lots of tossing and turning, and being wracked with anxiety and ruminative thinking. And that is definitely a core aspect of the condition for many sufferers, but it’s worth noting that insomnia can also involve waking up several times during the night (so finding it hard to sleep through the night), waking up early and being unable to go back to sleep, and waking up after an adequate amount of sleep and still feeling tired.
I recently wrote an essay for The Partially Examined Life blog on the chronic insomnia experienced by the philosopher Emil Cioran, describing as well my own experience of insomnia. While I haven’t suffered from insomnia to the same degree as Cioran, it seems, I can still attest to how torturous and disruptive the condition can be, especially when sleepless nights repeat themselves. I’ve found insomnia to completely change my personality. After a sleepless night, depression and anxiety are often worse, and I feel uncontrollably irritable, cantankerous, exhausted, and unable to function properly. Worries about being in this state inevitably make insomnia worse, as I lie awake hoping to sleep, fully aware of the ramifications on my mental health if I sleep poorly.
I also watched – and was thoroughly fascinated by – the interview with sleep expert Matthew Walker on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. Walker really impressed upon me the vital importance of sleep, especially in terms of maintaining physical health, longevity, and productivity. But ironically, understanding the importance of sleep can often make it easier to lose out on sleep, since if I can’t get to sleep, I worry about the impact this will have on my health, life span, and ability to concentrate and get tasks done the next day, making it more likely I’ll stay awake.
On the other hand, knowing about the effects of both insomnia and restful sleep has made me more determined to sleep well. I’ve come across many useful tips on coping with insomnia, which I believe are worth trying out if you’re ever struggling with sleep.
Some Form of Meditation
At times, practising some form of meditation is the most effective technique I can employ to calm the mind and easily slip into sleep. I practise either mindfulness meditation (watching the inhalation and exhalation of breath or being watchful of my present experience, in general) or metta meditation (which involves repeating warm and friendly phrases, directed to myself and towards others).
Studies indicate that mindfulness meditation can help you beat insomnia and from personal experience, metta meditation helps as well, I think for similar reasons as mindfulness, as it involves a present-minded focus on phrases, which offers respite from an overly active and anxious mind.
Limit Your Exposure to Light
Melatonin is a hormone that is released naturally in your body constrained by exposure to light that controls your sleep cycle. Your brain releases more melatonin when lights are dim – making you lethargic – and less when there’s more light, making you fully alert. Be that as it may, numerous other factors can adjust the release of melatonin from the body and also control the circadian rhythm.
So make sure to turn off all the lights in your bedroom. Reduce smartphone usage and unplug from the digital world before you prepare for sleep.
Be Careful With What You Eat/Drink
Think about the substances that you’re eating and drinking when you’re consuming them. For instance, it’s ideal to remove nicotine from your life on the off chance that you need to start sleeping better, and it’s ideal to drink caffeine in restricted amounts, preferably during the day. It’s also best to avoid high-carb, sugary, fatty, and spicy food late at night, as these can keep you feeling wakeful.
Establish a Routine
Your body requires consistency, so forming a routine can be useful in supporting a healthy sleeping pattern. Going to bed and waking up around the same time each day, for instance, can condition your body to wake up at the correct time. Building up a routine may also help you in finishing up your day’s work quickly, and go to sleep early for rest.
Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), a specialised form of therapy for dealing with insomnia, can help you change your sleeping habits and establish a sleeping routine that allows you to feel ready for sleep.
Exercising regularly during the day can help in exhausting your excessive energy and condition your body to be prepared for a peaceful night’s sleep. It’s best to avoid exercising late at night, as for many people, the associated increase in core body temperature and heart rate can make it difficult to sleep (I’ve personally found this to be the case).
Keep Your Body Cool
To sleep well, you want to keep your body cool, as sleep onset and deep sleep is associated with a drop in core body temperature. You can do this in a variety of ways. One way is to keep your room cool, so if it’s hot outside, this might involve turning the heating off, keeping the windows open, or having a fan or air conditioning.
You can also keep your body cool by using a thinner duvet (or having different layers, so you can adjust based on your needs), as well as by taking a warm or hot shower/bath before bed. This last piece of advice may seem counterintuitive (shouldn’t you take a cold shower if you want to cool your body down?) But as Walker explains in the podcast interview with Joe Rogan, when you take a hot bath, you bring the heat from the core of your body to the surface, cooling your core body temperature in the process (I’ve personally discovered that this works impressively well to feel cooler, like on a hot summer’s evening, for example).
Accepting my insomnia has helped massively in coping with it – and this mindset also – strangely enough – makes it so much easier to fall asleep. Acceptance here doesn’t mean a lack of care about insomnia; it means letting go of all the mental baggage that usually goes along with it: attachment to the desire for sleep and the endless worries related to not sleeping (i.e. the effects on your mental and physical health, struggling to function, not being on your best form around others, and so on).
When I calmly and simply recognise that I can’t sleep, a lot of the thoughts that keep me up (those related to insomnia, of course) go away, leaving me with just the feeling of wakefulness. Yet with so much of the mental baggage unloaded through the act of acceptance, wakefulness soon naturally changes into a soporific feeling and then – assuming I don’t then get hopeful about sleeping, as this can reignite anxiety – I can finally fall asleep.
It’s worth underscoring that, for many people, insomnia is a chronic and severe condition that can really feel out of control and seem to be immune to lifestyle changes. This sometimes calls for medication or some type of therapy suited to the thoughts and feelings that keep you awake. When it comes to pills, especially benzodiazepines (e.g. Valium), these can be a highly effective short-term solution to insomnia, but in the long-term, they can be risky, as they can carry a high risk of both physical and psychological addiction. Then you not only still have insomnia (which will make a resurgence once you reduce or stop taking the medication) and an addiction to contend with.
A long-term solution involves practising good sleep hygiene, which may feature many of the techniques mentioned in this article. Insomnia may feel like an obstacle that’s impossible to overcome. For me, it always feels like that at the time, but I know it always passes. It’s crucial, however, to also be prepared to deal with insomnia if and when it arises again. Reminding yourself that insomnia will pass is a relief, but this doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to overcome insomnia in the moment. By adopting as many sleep-friendly practices as possible, you will give yourself the best chance of falling asleep, staying asleep, and feeling refreshed when you wake up.