I suppose at some point I was a good sleeper but I don’t really remember it.
Like my first day of school or my first kiss, remembered only in brief snatches of a corduroy skirt or a racing heart, my ability to sleep deeply and wake rested has become a distant memory.
I started to have issues with sleep in my early 20s. I remember being uncomfortable if someone else was in the room – sleepovers or hotels, for example – and rarely feeling rested when I woke up. As I got older, and stress and anxiety grew, my sleep troubles also increased (I’m sure there’s a correlation between my decreasing sleep quality and my growing issues with anxiety and depression) so that now I’m at the point where I’ve developed stress and anxiety about sleep itself.
My issues with sleep reached a peak after my ex-husband and I separated and I became a full-blown insomniac. I rarely slept more than three hours at a time and would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep for hours. As my exhaustion grew, it affected every aspect of my life. I was unable to concentrate for prolonged periods. I’d doze off in meetings and waiting rooms. I’d struggle to stop myself from yawning in conversations with co-workers and friends. I didn’t want to drive for long because I was at risk of falling asleep at the wheel. I was so tired that I couldn’t force myself to overcome my innate procrastination tendencies and all my usual strategies for productivity failed.
Sometimes I felt so tired that I simply wanted to curl up and cry, and other times I was too exhausted for even that.
I know I’m not alone. Various studies over the past decade suggest that a third of Canadians are sleep deprived, affecting everything from moods and personality to productivity and overall health. It’s a serious health concern as chronic sleep deprivation affects your immune system and cognitive function and has the potential to pose severe long-term health problems.
I still have issues with sleep but nearly three years after my divorce, I feel the worst of my insomnia has passed. I’ve also developed some insights and sleep strategies that I thought I’d share for those of you who also have challenges with getting a good night’s sleep.
Routine – Above all else, routine seems to be key. Go to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends (or if you can’t do that, try to minimize the variations in your bedtimes). Have a pre-bed routine that signals to your body that it’s time to slow down and get ready for sleep.
Limit screen time – DO NOT take your phone to bed with you. I even try to avoid it for an hour before bedtime. Not only does having your phone within reach encourage you to continue scrolling long past your bedtime but the light from smartphone screens suppresses a sleep hormone called melatonin. In short, your phone is telling your brain it’s time to wake up when it’s actually trying to do the opposite.
Stay active (but not at night) – I exercise for many reasons but one of them it to beat myself out. If I’m physically tired, I’m more likely to welcome crawling into bed and stress less about whether I will be able to sleep.
However, exercising at night has the opposite effect. Exercise gives you energy and therefore, I need to minimize my activity levels in the evening. I walk the dogs and occasionally do yoga in the evenings but avoid anything high impact or high energy. This has meant some sacrifices as I’ve had to give up my favourite sport in the fall and winter due to late game times but given the misery of chronic sleep deprivation, it’s a sacrifice I’ve decided is worth it.
Avoid caffeine – I’m not a coffee drinker but I love a cup of tea so I’m careful to only drink caffeine-free varieties in the late afternoon and evening. Other common sources of caffeine include chocolate, sodas, some flavours of ice cream, some pain relievers, and energy water and other energy drinks.
Don’t eat a large amount before bed – A big meal, particularly one high in carbs and fat, can leave you feeling overly full and uncomfortable, which can affect your ability to get into sleep mode.
Do a brain dump – Call it whatever you want (“brain dump” works for me) but give yourself five or 10 minutes to get rid of everything that’s in your brain. Set an alarm, grab a pen and paper and write, paying no attention to structure, grammar or punctuation. Anything that pops into your head goes onto the paper. This is a strategy I also use when I start to feel overwhelmed or like my to do list is getting out of control.
Journaling – You can tie this into your brain dump or use your journal in other ways. I like to take a few moments to write down the things I was grateful for that day. I find this helps shine a positive light on my day and can put me in a better and more relaxed mood before trying to sleep.
Relax – Spend some time in the evening trying to relax. For me, getting outside has the effect of calming my mind and soothing my spirit, and watching my dogs run around makes me happy. For others, a good book or a warm bath may do the same.
Read (but not a page-turner) – Don’t start reading a book you can’t put down right before bed! Save that for the weekend. If you must read, have it be something lighter that doesn’t engage strong emotions or stimulate your brain with learning activities.
Use technology in a helpful way – Although I’ve said above not to bring your phone to bed, there are some cases in which it can be useful. I don’t recommend this unless you’ve developed the self-control to avoid social media! There are some sleep-friendly apps I’ve used that can help you get a good night’s sleep.
- Sleep Cycle lets you set an alarm and a timed wake-up period. It begins gently waking you up during that period so that you wake at a time when you’re naturally coming out of sleep. The idea is that you wake feeling more rested than if you’re jolted out of deep sleep by a blaring alarm.
- Meditation apps – I’m just beginning to incorporate these before I go to bed. I listen to a guided meditation as I lie in bed and it’s helping me to relax. There are many options out there but a crowd-sourcing question on my Facebook page recommended Insight Timer, Calm, Omvana, and Relax and Rest. Try them out and figure out what works best for you!
White noise – Get a fan or a white noise machine to create just enough background noise that it blocks out other disturbances such as traffic, pets or other people in the house.
Have you struggled with insomnia or other sleep issues? What sleep strategies have helped you get a better rest at night? Tell me in the comments (I may use them!).