Sleep Strategies from an Insomniac

So true. If you know who drew this, please let me know so I can provide credit!
So true. If you know who drew this, please let me know so I can provide credit!

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.

(Click here and here for some relevant articles.)

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!).

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Not Sorry Anymore

Lately people have been telling me to stop apologizing.A quote that reads "Embrace who you are and don't make any apologies for being yourself."

It’s happened so often in a short period of time that it’s caused me to wonder: what exactly am I apologizing for?

Invariably, it comes down to one thing: I apologize when I’m not at my best.

Example #1: I apologized for not having the in-depth knowledge in a discussion about current events. I felt guilty for not being as informed as I feel I should be as a reasonably intelligent, aware and concerned adult in today’s world, particularly one who has always had an interest in the world to the extent that I spent a few years as a journalist simply because I want to know what’s going on around me.

In this instance, I was apologizing for not being the best version of myself, which I envision as a person who has informed opinions about the world around her.

Example #2: I offered excuses for, um, a romantic indiscretion of the drunken variety, the kind that causes one to cringe a little in hindsight.

Here I was apologizing for not exercising good judgment and therefore, not being at my best as a person who is always in control of their actions and decisions.

Clearly there’s a theme here. At some point I became fixated on showing my best self, and only my best self, to others. When that doesn’t happen, I feel ashamed.

I don’t know when or why this happened but it’s so ingrained in me that it’s become a fundamental part of my nature.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. As a young girl and teenager, I had a healthy streak of an over-achieving perfectionism but heavy course-loads in university and a fast-paced career in journalism quickly taught me that done is sometimes better than perfect.

It took me awhile to feel comfortable with not always exerting my best effort but eventually I got there and accepted its necessity – or at least, I thought I did.

Once I started paying attention, I realized that I apologize for a lot of things. I apologize for not reading books that I feel I should; being tired; not feeling sociable; forgetting things; saying “no” to requests to be involved in various community organizations; my messy house; my spoiled dogs; not walking the dogs every day; my filthy car … the list could go on.

What all of these things have in common is that they are things that I feel I should be doing and which the successful, over-achieving, perfect version of myself would have no trouble fitting into her schedule. To be honest, sometimes I feel that I let that person down, and I apologize to her too.

There’s another side to this, however, one which to me is a little more insidious.

I apologize when I think I’m not meeting people’s expectations, when I feel that I’m not doing what others think I should be doing. I feel like not only am I letting myself down but I’m letting the people in my life down as well, simply for not being able to do all things at all times in the best way possible.

I suspect this has played a big role in the anxiety I carried for many years as I pressured myself to meet those perceived expectations and inevitably, fell short.

The truth is that I will never be that person. Perfect Susan is a figment of my imagination. She doesn’t exist. Real me makes mistakes, falls down, does stupid shit, doesn’t always make good decisions and doesn’t always try my best.

Perfect is exhausting and I just don’t need it in my life.

It’s time to remind myself that the things I think I should be doing aren’t being done for a reason, and that reason is that they’re usually not a priority for me. Maybe a clean car is a priority for someone else but it isn’t for me and frankly, if you’re going to judge me for the muddy paw prints on my backseat, well, that’s just not my problem.

The things that are important to me – my friends and family, my physical and mental health, my personal growth, my dogs – are things that make me happy and help me feel fulfilled. And those are being taken care of as well as I am able.

I’m not perfect, and I don’t need to be perfect for anyone else either. I know that and I’m OK with it. But it doesn’t hurt to remind myself that the person I am is pretty decent anyway, in spite of all my flaws.

I’m not going to apologize for that.

A Lesson from the Sniffles

As I lay in bed, a tissue crumpled in my hand, breathing shallowly through my mouth and wishing away the congestion in my sinuses, a thought flitted through my mind: “I just want to feel good.”

This is a meaningful phrase for me. When I was recovering from broken ribs and a year in which I had sustained a concussion, endured serious insomnia and fell victim to multiple flus and viruses, I felt broken. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt at home in my body and as I reached out to a friend who ran Beachbody challenge groups, I told her “I just want to feel good again.”

A quote about gratitude set against an ocean view.

That motivated me for several months. “I just want to feel good” became my reason for committing to an exercise program, my deal-breaker consideration when faced with unhealthy options, my “why” for resolving to work on all aspects of my mental, emotional and physical health.

And it worked! I got healthier, I felt stronger, I wasn’t sick all the time, I gained control of my insomnia (most of the time), I took courses in nutrition and I learned strategies to work on the other areas of my life. But as I continued to learn and grow, I also began to take my health for granted.

I’ve always had a weak immune system, it seems. I’m not sure if this is truth or something that I’ve incorporated into part of my being through the stories we tell ourselves (“Hi, I’m Susan, and I’ll get sick if you sneeze in my general vicinity”). Regardless, it was truth because I believed it and I did regularly get sick every few months with whatever virus was going around the office or my social group.

So to not have to deal with the sniffles for a year was a pretty big deal for me.

It took lying in bed for a few days and a cough that is still lingering to remind me that health is precious and not something to be taken for granted.

Over the past few months, I’ve faltered a little on my nutrition commitment. I’m not sure why but I’ve been indulging a lot more in junk food than I used to, and I’ve had trouble trying to motivate myself to find my triggers and start working on rebuilding those healthier habits. I’m wondering now whether the two – too much junk food and my recent illness – are connected. Did I let my body get run down, even a little, and did that make me more susceptible when the germs crossed my path?

I don’t know.

I realize that a cold isn’t the end of the world. There are plenty of people out there who face greater trials and whose illnesses, unlike mine, won’t heal.

My point is that it took catching a cold to make me realize I’ve been taking my health for granted.

And – mid-sneeze – I had a moment of gratitude for that reminder.

Mantras and Power Phrases

One of the things I’ve learned through practicing yoga is the power of a mantra.

From the Sanskrit words “man” (to think) and “tra” (instrument), a mantra is an instrument of thought. It’s a tool used by yogis, typically during meditation, to turn inward and find stillness away from the noise of the outer world and the chaos of our thoughts. It helps quiet and focus the mind and establish a connection with your true self.

My yoga teachers usually start a class by asking us to set an intention or sharing a mantra to use throughout the practice, and that combination of purposeful thinking and physical movement often helps me let go, find peace and cultivate inner strength.

Recently, I listened to a podcast from The Chalene Show, hosted by fitness leader and entrepreneur Chalene Johnson, focused on power phrases. She described these as phrases, words or sayings we repeat to ourselves in times of difficulty, when we need to find strength and power through a challenging time.

I use both of these techniques, depending on my mood, activity and what I need in that moment. I thought I’d share some of my favourite mantras and power phrases.

Be bold, be true – I used this one for a long time in the long months following my divorce when I felt shattered and emotionally adrift. I repeated this phrase daily to remind myself to be brave and true to myself, and it helps me choose the best path for me, even if it’s not the easiest. It’s a mantra I continue to use and which I hope will guide me for a long time to come.

Maybe that’s not true – This is how I question my brain when it’s telling me that I have no friends, that no one wants to hear what I have to say or that I’m not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, whatever. This simple phrase is enough to question whether what I’m thinking is based on reality or whether it’s possible that my anxiety disorder is taking over, and usually that’s enough to power through the moment and start practicing cognitive behavioural therapy.

I am stronger than I think – Courtesy of Autumn Calabrese, trainer in the workout program that I do, this power phrase helps me dig deep through forearm plank or mountain climbers or any other challenging fitness situation in which I find myself.

Total health – Since I signed on with the 21-Day Fix program, this has been my guiding principle. I seek total health on a daily basis: mental, physical, emotional and social. If something doesn’t serve that purpose, I think twice about whether I should do it. After several years of feeling awful in every way – of being sick, tired and injured, of being filled with anxiety and depression, and of feeling professionally and personally unfulfilled – reminding myself to seek total health has resulted in me being happier and healthier today than I’ve been in a very long time.

Om namah shivaya – Sanskrit for “I honour the divinity within myself” and sometimes translated as “I am, I will,” this mantra helps me believe in myself and find inner strength.

Today I choose joy – I don’t use this one a lot but when I do, it’s powerful. I reminds me that I always have the choice to choose happiness and that I can make that choice right here, right now.

Fuck it,* I’m doing it** – I find myself saying this when I want to do something but fear is holding me back. It’s my way of shrugging off the doubt, feeling the fear and remembering that I’m strong enough to deal with the consequences when they occur. In the meantime, I’m going to do it and have fun.

What are your favourite mantras or power phrases? Tell me in the comments!

*It’s my blog and I’ll swear if I want to.

**Quite often used before jumping out of trees, ziplining or clicking “post” on The Post that Started it All.

When a Picture Isn’t Worth a Thousand Words

Before and after pictures of the author after 48 days of physical activity.
Slightly more toning around the middle.

Today I had to give myself a little reality check.

I’m nearing the end of Beachbody’s Summer Strong Challenge, and one of the requirements to participate is to submit before and after pictures. This is quite common with Beachbody programs and as a coach, I encourage the use of pictures because they quite often show results that a scale doesn’t measure. I also think pictures can encourage us to focus on the things we love about our bodies and to view them as a source of pride as we recognize the results of our hard work.

However, this morning, when I took my Day 48 pictures and put them side-by-side with my before pictures, I wasn’t happy with the results. In fact, there’s hardly any difference at all.

To say I was disappointed and discouraged is an understatement. I texted my sister with a woe-is-me attitude, lamenting that I’m not seeing results in the pictures.

A side view of before and after pictures of the author.
No difference here at all.

But in between pep talks from her, I also started giving myself a little talking to.

First, the reality: I’ve been doing really good with the workouts and regaining physical activity but I haven’t stuck to the meal plan 100 per cent. With my coaching group, we encourage living by the 80/20 rule, meaning that 80 per cent of the time you follow the meal plan 100 per cent. The remaining 20 per cent is for those times when we want or need to treat ourselves or indulge a little.

My 80/20 has been more like 65-70/35-30.

I have a sweet tooth, which I’ve complained about publicly on Facebook, and it’s gotten the better of me sometimes. And while I don’t keep junk food in my house, it’s often at work. Sometimes it’s hard to resist; other times I make the healthy decision.

So nutrition is something that I need to continue working on.

Here’s some more reality:

  • I’m stronger than I was 48 days ago. I’m lifting my heaviest weights almost all the time. In fact, I need to buy heavier weights to continue challenging myself.
  • I’m regaining my fitness. I’ve surprised myself a couple of times by swimming more laps in the pool than I thought I could and at my first football game of the season yesterday, I felt strong.
  • My pants fit a little more comfortably. It’s not drastic but it’s noticeable (by me, at least).
  • I like what I see in the mirror. Yup, I do. I can see more muscle now than 48 days ago. I am comfortable in my own skin, and that’s a good place to be.

    A rear view of before and after pictures of the author.
    I like this view. It’s the triceps.

The point of this post is really to reiterate something that I tell my clients all the

time: fitness can’t be measured by just one tool, and neither can progress. Whether it’s the scale or measurements or pictures, taken alone, they only tell one part of the story. And a story isn’t complete without all those other details.

I am a work in progress. My body, my fitness, my mental health and my emotional health – I take them all together as my why (my reason for making health and fitness as a priority), which is total health. It’s what I strive for every day so that every part of me is working towards being the healthiest and happiest that I can be.

These pictures show one aspect of that. I’m not where I want to be but I’m getting there. And working towards that feels good.