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How to Fall Asleep: 6 Tips From a Former Insomniac
“How are you?” “Tired.” Yep, we’re all tired, all the time. Working forty hours a week, trying to be creative, see friends, cook, chores, errands (while navigating a global pandemic)? It’s all too much. Everyone is tired. We don’t live in a society where we are allowed to sleep until we wake up, and it feels like we all have trouble falling asleep on the front end. Short of better sleep through chemistry, there’s got to be ways to put our head to pillow and not catastrophize ourselves into a frustrating 4 AM toss and turn.
I was a child insomniac. These days, it takes me less than three minutes to head to the land of nod. Now, this isn’t medical advice, but anecdotal devices used by myself or people I’ve spoken with on the subject to find our way to the land of slumber quicker and calmer. Consider trying one or a combination and see how your sleep patterns might change.
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Relax (and stop catastrophizing).
Before you close this browser window for being overly simplistic, hear me out. I had a therapist once who told me, “You can control your own body, and our bodies are hardwired to our minds.” It did me so much good. When we go to bed, our minds race. We think of embarrassing things we said to colleagues that day. We wonder where our relationship is going. We think that pain in our body might be the start of a chronic illness. It’s all common. Forgive yourself, if you can. Our bodies and minds are engineered to run these thoughts regularly, but especially when we lay down for bed.
Put a hand on your chest, and one on your belly. Breathe deeply in, letting your belly (and not your chest) rise and fall. Breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in. Do it as many times as you feel. Next, notice where on your body is not relaxed. Are your teeth clenched? Is your forehead wrinkled in knots of complex frustration? Have you pointed your toes out like you’re a damsel character in a bad movie from the fifties? Mine sure like to do that. Relax your hands and feel the blood pump to the end of your fingers. Keep the slow breathing. Sometimes this is all it takes, but even if it’s not, it’s a great start for getting yourself closer to sleep.
Catastrophizing is what humans naturally do. We are a negative species. Does that sound negative to you? Well, there you go; you’re irritated and I’m looking on the dark side of things, so we’re both proving the point. We are made to see the bad in ourselves and also the world we live in. Never does this feel more present than when we are trying to sleep. “I don’t want to go to my sister’s birthday.” “My phone screen is broken and that guy at the mall who fixed it last time probably stole all my nudes from it.” “That jerk Brian at work can go stick it” (or something less grandpa-sounding). It’s gonna keep you reeling for hours if you let it. We make up dark potential paths for our frustrations and personally-perceived shortcomings.
Okay, so you know that saccharine motivational trope about how it takes more muscles to frown than smile? Our brains at bedtime can kind of work that way. We carve out negative emotional paths, and then they become natural. It’s like if you are trying to make a town in an undeveloped area. You walk on the grass and the grass becomes flat. The flat grass becomes dirt the more you walk on it. That dirt eventually feels like it needs some stones put down for a path. Perhaps we pave it after a while and it later becomes a street, and then a highway. Now we’re just joyriding a Rolls Royce down our eight lanes of catastrophic thoughts. You gotta start walking on new grass. Fantasy is easy on the mind. Try something simple and personally joyful. “Man, it’d be sweet to own a Ford Bronco.” “I bet I’d look good with the glasses Colin Firth wears in that movie.” “I should see about going to Sicily.” The more you fantasize, the more your mind will naturally want to when you are all tucked in.
You probably already know if you like a hard or soft mattress, and what type of and how many pillows you find most comfortable at this point in your life. If not, I suggest going to a sleep store and taking the customer-given right of flopping on all the types of beds they have. As the old trope goes, “You spend half your life in bed. Buy the right one.” However, there are some other arrangements in your boudoir that might require a little extra attention.
Firstly, for those sleeping next to a partner on a nightly basis: before you have the crushing discussion about separate bedrooms, consider a few other steps. Do you both sleep at similar temperatures? Do you fight for the blanket at night? These can both actually be remedied by having separate blankets. It sounds overly simple, but it’s a life hack that has made so many couples I know find peace between them during the sleeping hours. There’s no tug-o-war, plus you can both regulate your temperature without having separate sleeping quarters and feeling frightened that you’ve taken the first step towards relationship and bed death. Separate blankets means you can be as toasty or cool as you want without giving up the pleasure of falling asleep with your hand resting on your partner’s butt.
Before you have the crushing discussion about separate bedrooms, consider a few other steps.
Everyone has a different level of sound they prefer for sleeping, but it’s uncommon that we have all found that one that works best for us. When I was a kid, my visiting aunt noticed that I was a troubled sleeper when I was barely able to function at breakfast every morning. One day, while walking my dog, she suggested to me something that worked for her: putting a baseball game on the radio. I still use this approach today if I find myself struggling to pass out. The white noise of the crowd. The slow pace of play. The metered announcer rattling off numbers in a dozy fashion: “He’s been hitting .244 in afternoon games against pitchers with a WHIP of five or lower since 1991.” It always puts me right out, and I genuinely love baseball.
You might be the classic type who likes a fan on even during winter months. Perhaps you can’t sleep in dead quiet, and prefer the sounds of the street out your window, or just an entire season of Frasier on in another room. Mess around with options and see if you might have a constant sound that suits you best.
Advanced Techniques: counting sheep (just kidding).
Still taking hours to fall asleep? I have a friend who has nearly an hour-long, pre-bed sleep regimen. First, she turns off all screens an hour before bed. Personally, I enjoy the effect screens have on my dreams (dreaming about driving a Toyota AE86 around with nineties Bridgette Wilson while blasting the WKRP in Cincinnati theme is definitely caused by a perverse amalgam of Instagram posts before bed), but screen time isn’t just risking turning your eyes square. It often juices up the active part of your mind, which can easily lead to catastrophizing again.
Furthermore, we’ve made long strides in the advancement of mind exercises since counting sheep. I have a neurological condition known as aphantasia where I can’t imagine images, so counting sheep was never an option for me. The last time I had a spell of trouble sleeping, I was suggested an exercise that’s almost mnemonic. Here’s how it goes: take any word that’s at least five letters long, with none repeating. For instance: Norbit. (Eddie Murphy helps me relax). Now, take the first letter, and free flow as many words or phrases as you can think of that begin with that N until you feel you’ve done enough. “Nonsense, Nuremberg, New Balance Sneakers, Ned Flanders” etc., etc. Now do the O. “Obituary, Oprah Winfrey, Oshkosh B’Gosh” and keep going. I’ve never gotten to the final letter without turning into a snore monster.
In the Long Term: prioritize & personalize.
We all need to sleep. Not sleeping ruins our days, and ruining our days can ruin our personal lives and professional lives. But sleep is a very personal thing, and we all need different approaches to it, just like we all need different amounts of it. I spoke to a doctor a few years ago about whether or not it was problematic that I sleep at least eleven hours a night. Her response was, “Some people just need more sleep than others.” Hopefully we can all find our most direct paths to slumberland, even if it’s you being bored by reading this article.
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