A truly ‘ideal’ lifestyle – the definition of which is subjective – is, I would argue, impossible to achieve. In some instances, mere time constraints may get in the way: you miss workouts because of upcoming exams, choose convenient food while travelling, sleep less than your body needs because of work. Sometimes, it’s mental health. And speaking of sleep, that’s exactly what I want to address today. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with sleep for quite some time, and a desire to de-stigmatise mental health while promoting the ‘physical’ aspects of a healthy lifestyle is one of my objectives on social media. As of recent, my ability to manage sleeping issues has improved considerably hence I decided to take my internalised debates to the blog, muse about insomnia (with sleep anxiety being a central point of discussion) and hopefully help others unlucky enough to experience these issues.
The fact that insomnia affects up to one in three people in the UK scares me, given the indispensability of sleep in maintaining your physical and mental health. Until around March or April 2017, I took pride in being able to fall asleep within minutes: sure, sometimes I stayed awake out of choice to complete a pressing homework assignment or returned home later than usual after a gym session, but once I was in bed with my eyes closed, I’d be asleep in under fifteen minutes. I woke up no later than seven even on weekends and had a concrete sleeping schedule. But when a month remained until my exams and a mere couple of weeks before study leave, my cortisol (why can I never remember how to spell this word?!) levels skyrocketed and each night, I found it harder and harder to fall asleep. Then, one night it took me five hours to fall asleep. The struggle started with racing thoughts about the upcoming exams, their importance, the revision I could be doing instead of laying in bed, and when I spotted midnight on the clock, I imagined my alarm going off six hours later. I imagined the effects of sleep deprivation: grogginess, inability to focus, inability to comprehend information about quantum mechanics. After that, everything changed.
Unfortunately, many people fall into the same cycle: a ‘normal’ cause, such as stresses at work or school, keep them awake for a few nights. They begin to experience onsets of sleep deprivation side effects, and the longer they go without an adequate night of sleep the more their desperation for those eight hours grows. For me, this cycle developed into overwhelming sleep anxiety. When I finished my last exam, I thought ‘okay, I don’t have to be up at six tomorrow, I don’t have any more exams to worry about, I can sleep for as long as I need’. And guess what – it didn’t happen. I had such high expectations of myself: a return to my ability to fall asleep within fifteen minutes. And when it didn’t happen, I started to panic, to question why I wasn’t drifting off despite exhaustion, tossed and turned for three hours. For several weeks afterwards, this issue hindered my ability to enjoy the longest summer of my life. I walked around dreading nighttimes, the hours spent watching the clock and the harder I fought the anxiety, the harder it pushed back. Whenever I managed to secure the magic seven or eight hours I personally need to feel awake, I’d think ‘yes – it’s finally over’, and put too much pressure on myself to emulate the success the following night. I was constantly panicked about the accumulation of restless nights and the effects they were having on my body, with thoughts such as ‘tonight is the night insomnia drives me crazy’ increasing in frequency. It’s not fun. And it’s not great when you can’t relate to those millennial-friendly quotes about loving sleep.
Of course, I tried your conventional remedies: establishing a nighttime routine, turning off all electronic devices, drinking tea and taking herbal medicines. Such solutions help many people and I recommend implementing them especially in the early stages of insomnia / if sleep anxiety isn’t a problem. However, for me they exacerbated the issue: I associated such activities with the upcoming hours of laying awake. Neither herbal remedies nor melatonin helped because when my head touched the pillow I would think: ‘okay, I’ve taken medication, now I must fall asleep’. And we all understand the contradictory nature of sleep – the harder you try, the more elusive it becomes. When sleep within fifteen minutes didn’t happen, the panic set in and the whole cycle started again.
So. How did I return to a healthier relationship with sleep? The number one thing I would recommend to others suffering from the same or a similar problem is focusing on your mindset. This has helped me immensely. See sleep deprivation as unpleasant, but not deadly. Most adults do not get the recommended 7-9 hours, most take half an hour to fall asleep, most people go through occasional periods in their life when their sleeping pattern is damaged. Your body is smart, your subconscious understands the importance of rest, and regardless of how long it takes you will fall asleep eventually. If the issue isn’t solved in one night, it’s not the end of the world, and you won’t develop the horrible diseases listed on WebMD as side effects of insomnia.
Try to distract yourself during the day, avoid thinking about sleep (and hence dreading it) and develop an attitude of acceptance rather than determination (I can’t believe those words are actually coming out of my mouth). i.e., don’t think ‘I must fall asleep today! I believe I can do it! I can get eight hours!’, instead changing the thought to ‘it would be nice to fall asleep quickly today and get enough rest before my alarm goes off, but if I don’t manage to do so today, it’s not a disaster’. Acceptance is crucial in dealing with anything anxiety-related, including anxiety surrounding sleep, and this change in my mindset has helped me perhaps more than anything else.
Changing my routine helped a lot, which seems counterproductive, but it can break the ‘go to bed at a particular time – lie awake for three hours – eventually drift off’ pattern. For example, going to sleep at a different time or in a different location can be useful. When I was travelling in Russia, I typically fell asleep much faster because my body didn’t have enough time to associate our accommodation with that horrible self-perpetuating cycle. Nowadays, if I find myself struggling, I sleep downstairs for a couple of nights, change my bedsheets, do anything that helps me disassociate my room from insomnia.
Practicing mindfulness is something else I’d recommend to anyone suffering from insomnia, whether it’s anxiety related or not. I use tools such as the Headspace app and random videos from YouTube to learn different techniques. In modern-day application, mindfulness is deprived of its spiritual connotations and much of it is to do with the whole acceptance principle I talked about above. Accept that you feel anxious, focus on the anxiety without judging yourself for its presence, which will paradoxically reduce the feeling, unlike fighting to suppress it, which in many cases makes the anxiety worse. If I’m wide awake at night and my mind begins to wonder, or panic settles in, I divert my attention to a physical sensation, like the weight of the duvet, or the different sounds I can hear outside. Really focusing on such things, and ensuring the mind stays focused on something external (without being too harsh on yourself) can be a wonderful technique for quelling racing thoughts.
Finally, if you find yourself awake for a long time, get up and do something for a few minutes to avoid panicking, then try again. If I do this, I avoid checking the time because this only makes matters worse and once it gets to a certain time, there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t turn back the clock (as you can tell, acceptance is key once again).
Of course, this is only my experience and if you’re suffering from any form of sleep disorder, go and see your doctor! Even if they don’t prescribe strong medication or you choose not to take it (like myself), they will be able to offer advice or recommend some form of counselling, like CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). Please do let me know if you found this post helpful or interesting and well, I wish you a pleasant night of sleep if you’re reading this in the evening!
Loads of love, Maria xoxo