It’s 6.30am and the alarm starts to ring, but you have barely gotten any sleep. You spend the entire day feeling tired, and doze off a couple of times during class. Then it’s finally time to go to sleep and this strange phenomenon happens: you feel more awake now than you did all day and can’t pause your thoughts.
If you are experiencing difficulties falling asleep on a regular basis, you are not alone. According to the Sleep Council, 40% of the UK population suffers from sleep issues.
So, what can we do about it? Exercising regularly, keeping regular sleep hours and turning off screens early are some of the common methods suggested. While these are useful for preventing or breaking insomnia cycles, they do not provide answers on how to deal with insomnia once it’s there.
I have regularly experienced insomnia cycles when I would face difficulties falling asleep for months. Consulting specialists, and reading books on the subject, I composed a list of things to do to fall asleep during insomnia.
Taking the frustration outside bed
The first thing to do during an insomnia spell is to get out of bed. In the night hours, your body starts releasing melatonin and your body temperature starts to drop, preparing you for sleep. If you spend more than 20 minutes tossing and turning around your bed, your temperature will rise again. If you get out of the covers, you allow your body to cool down and to ready itself for sleep again.
Moreover, if you stay inside your bed, your brain will define it as a place where frustration, anger and anxiety can occur. To trick your brain into defining your bed as a place for sleep avoid doing any other activities than sleeping (or having sex) on it. After doing this for a while, your brain will associate the action of sleeping with your bed, helping you fall asleep.
Once out of bed, specialists advise shifting your perspective: if you are having insomnia, accept it. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, accepting the fact that we might not get any sleep helps us relax and, eventually, fall asleep. When in a combative mindset, fighting insomnia, we often become frustrated and angry, which makes matters worse. When we accept that we will not fall asleep, we can begin to listen to our bodies and our minds and apply relaxation techniques to feel at peace — leading us to sleep.
There are countless types of relaxation techniques. Here are some that I tested:
- Alternate nostril breathing. During sleep we breathe from our diaphragm; it is the deepest and most relaxing way of breathing. Alternate nostril breathing, breathing from one nostril only and then from the other in a specific pattern, helps regulate the speed and depth of breath, allowing the body to relax. Focusing on my breath patterns also helps me empty my mind. You can find a full explanation on how to practice alternate nostril breathing.
- Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE). If you are unable to fall asleep due to anxiety and stress, then TRE exercises can help. Since fear is an emotion that used to call our ancestors to run away in flight, moving our legs and shaking can make fear levels drop and relax our body. The downside of this technique is that it might take a few tries before it starts working.
- Be creative. Draw or write without judgement and see what comes out of it! I find that creating during insomnia helps me accept it. It transforms an otherwise unproductive moment into a time when I can explore my creativity in a relaxed way.
Some extra ideas: listen to classical music or rain sounds, colour mandalas, guided sleep meditation, yoga for sleep, sophrology…
If nothing else works, you can use supplements to ease you into sleep. The ones I find work best are:
- Two drops of essential lavender oil on the pillow
- Verbena supplements
- Melatonin supplements: while a bit heavier than lavender oil and verbena supplements, they can be a good solution for those emergency times when you really need to fall asleep. There are different brands and different dosages available, you might have to try a few before finding the best fit.
Do not hesitate to ask your pharmacist about which dosage could work best for you and which products they recommend. I personally find it helpful to know that such supplements are available: at times the sole thought of having melatonin close to me helps me accept the insomnia and fall asleep without even using it!
Understanding your insomnia
There are many different types of insomnia and many reasons why you might be experiencing them. Ultimately, what I learned from my experience is that by refusing to fall asleep, our bodies are often trying to tell us something. By listening to them and calibrating to their needs, we can begin to reconcile ourselves with sleep.
Words by Marina Grigoriou
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