My uneasy relationship with sleep began when I was a little girl. One day when I was eight, I asked my father if we could rearrange the furniture in my room. He agreed to help, and we spent Saturday morning putting the dressers and cabinets in new corners and moving my bed to a new wall. I spent the rest of the day happily rearranging my plastic horse collection, Madame Alexander dolls, and miniature ceramic animals on the shelves above my dresser.
But that night, I lay in bed, focusing, in the dim light, on the scene before me: nothing was in its rightful place. My heart raced, and I tossed and turned in an attempt to find some comfort. An hour later, I walked downstairs to tell my parents, sobbing, that I couldn’t sleep. I pleaded with my father to move the furniture back, which he did, begrudgingly.
My sleep problems persisted. I remember slumber parties on damp basement floors, being surrounded by other small girls tucked in sleeping bags, everyone snoring softly as I lay completely awake staring into the dull grey scene around me. And I remember asking myself, “Why me? Why can’t I sleep like everyone else?”
When I couldn’t fall asleep at home, my mother would come into my room and softly pet my body over the covers, starting from my feet and working her way up to my head. “Now your feet are falling asleep,” she would say. Moving her hand to my knees, “And now your knees are falling asleep.” And then on up to my head. She was, in effect, helping me to relax.
It is decidedly my inability to relax that is the cause of my lifelong battle with insomnia. The cycle goes like this: I cannot fall asleep because I am thinking about whatever it is I did or didn’t do during the day. After some time has passed, I realize I have been lying there for hours thinking. My mind focuses on my inability to relax and fall into sleep. This obsession becomes the new thought cycle, which further prevents my ability to relax and fall asleep. Sensitivity to noise, light, and changes in my surroundings exacerbate my sleeplessness exponentially.
Death from lack of sleep sounds dramatic, but for those who experience sleepless nights and the exhausting days that follow, insomnia feels almost that grim. Most people have experienced at least once the effects of sleep deprivation: scattered brain, terrible thirst, shakiness, inability to focus, and increased heart rate. We insomniacs learn to deal with these symptoms, plodding through our workdays and social activities, masking the fact that our brains feel like they’re malfunctioning.
While losing a night of sleep here or there is harmless, the accumulated physical effects of not sleeping enough are significant. When I was in my early thirties, I spent months sleeping no more than five hours at a time. I began to experience some of the harsher effects of long-term sleep deprivation, such as memory problems, depression, and a weakened immune system. I eventually enlisted the help of a doctor and a psychotherapist to help me recover, and many of the changes I have made in my life to help me sleep better began at that time. Here are some of the strategies I’ve learned that increase my chances of falling asleep quickly at bedtime, sleeping through the night, or going back to sleep easily if I wake up:
- I only drink one cup of coffee in the morning and never drink highly caffeinated beverages in the afternoon or evening. Caffeine can stay in your system for up to 14 hours.
- I try to stay off social media and email for at least an hour before bed. Others recommend zero internet or email in the evening. Experts recommend at least a 15-minute transition period between technology and bedtime.
- I drink plenty of water during the day and slow down after dinner so I am not suddenly thirsty and consuming large quantities of water in the evening, which can lead to frequent wakings through the night to go to the bathroom.
- I limit my alcohol consumption to no more than a few drinks a week, and no more than one in an evening. While alcohol may help people fall asleep initially, it prevents deeper sleep and causes disrupted sleep.
- I wear earplugs and an eye mask and use white noise at night to drown out sensory distractions.
- I get vigorous exercise five days a week, including hour-long swims and trips to the spin studio.
- I keep a regular sleep schedule and try, even on the weekends, to go to bed at approximately the same time each night and get up at the same time every morning.
- One of the things that specialists recommend is using your bed only for sleep and for sex. Your bed should be associated only with comfort and relaxation, and not work, Internet, or any other potentially stressful distraction.
The bad news is that on some nights, nothing works. The good news is that most of the time, with some combination of countermeasures, I am relaxed at bedtime and can get enough sleep to get up, do my job well, exercise, socialize with friends, and be a good partner to my significant other. These days, I spend about one or two nights a week awake between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. and experience most-of-the-night insomnia only about once every two months.
After almost 40 years of insomnia, I have learned if I do go a night without sleeping, it is not the end of the world. In fact, I’ve even accomplished great things on days following sleepless episodes. Once in my late twenties, I didn’t sleep for an entire night before a master’s swimming competition. That morning, I set a personal record and won two silver medals in my events. Recently, I didn’t sleep the night before I had to speak in front of 250 people. Not only did I get through the talk the next day, but I had also given my best public talk yet. That night I had the best night of sleep I’d had in years.