On Sleeplessness and Things that Help*
A writer friend of mine recently complained of an inability to fall asleep due to a restless mind, so I decided to compile a list of *a few things I have tried that have helped me. I have had insomnia on and off for a lot of my adult life, much of it related to stress as well as the consumption of caffeine, although it’s hard to say which of the two is the underlying issue; my bet is on stress, personally.
So here they are: feel free to pick and choose, but bear in mind that most of them are long-term commitments rather than quick fixes. Most of them are directed in particular towards people who sit a lot, stare at screens a lot, and worry a lot, aka writers.
- The first one is obvious: cut out caffeine.
Doesn’t have to be forever, but an abstinence period of one to two weeks could help you determine how much of an effect it has on your sleep patterns, and also give your body time to readjust to life without stimulants. I know it’s rough [especially if, like my friend, you’re working on a novel and need all the cognitive resources you can get] but after a week you may start to notice changes in the quality of your sleep, as well as your ability to concentrate without coffee. If you can, give it a try.
However, good news: there are other things you can do.
Yes, I know. But seriously, it works on many levels. There are several apps out there that will teach you a basic technique (mostly learning to focus on your breathing and letting any distracting thoughts run by without dragging you away from your focus) and allow you to track your progress, remind you to do it every day, etc. As with most things, building a routine is key. The thing it has done for my sleep is that I am becoming better at detaching myself from the strong pull of my thoughts, especially late at night, when obsessive thoughts crop up claiming we have unfinished business and that I need to hear them out. Hearing them out would take hours and hours, and turn into a cycle that would generate even more anxiety. What meditation does is teach to focus on something else, something that isn’t thought-based, so that you don’t feel so prey to your mind and the things it comes up with late at night. In turn, this allows you to fall asleep more easily, to allow the mind to shut itself off when the body is tired, and to go to bed without being afraid of the hours you might spend lying awake cogitating.
- Unrelated psycho rant (because what would I be without those).
Speaking of the cogito: this may not apply to my friend, or to anyone else reading this, but another thing meditation brings with it is a kind of relaxing about what might be termed an ’emotional addiction’ to over-thinking. This is something I experience when I have had a day that didn’t feel particularly successful or productive, and I begin to not only compare my own achievements to others but also to feel like I am fighting against the clock, trying to make use of my time at all times. What this does at night is that I allow myself to over-think, allow my mind to churn, and tell myself that it’s a good thing, that it’s important, because my mind is doing all this work, be that work on a story I’m writing, or an essay, or working through possible ways of having a conversation I’m dreading, or simply arguing with someone else (or even myself) in my head. It all feels like work, and it also feels like it is somehow proof that I am smart, because I have this big brain that whats to keep going, keep producing these thoughts, rather than going to sleep. But the fact is: this isn’t an indication of intelligence, or of a productive mind, just of restlessness leading to exhaustion. In fact, the day after I’ve lain in bed ruminating, I usually feel something akin to a hangover.
- Preparing for bedtime.
I know this can be hard to do if you’re already stressing about wasting time but hear me out: combined with meditation, this has had the biggest effect on my relationship with sleep. If you can give yourself a couple of hours before bedtime, that’s plenty. Let’s say your bedtime is at 11.30: ideally, you’d start getting ready by 9.30. By getting ready I mean a series of things, one of them being letting go of work and crossing over into relaxation mode. This can be surprisingly hard to do, especially if you’re a student or have work that is intellectually demanding or comes with a lot of responsibility. It can take a while to convince yourself that the best thing for yourself (and for your work) is to take a time out right now and rest – it almost seems easier to say to yourself that you just need to do more.
- Morning pages.
This is a practice I’ve heard referred to by different names (a friend who works in herbalism called it ‘brain-draining’ – although, don’t worry, the effect is meant to be the opposite of draining. It is something like the writing version of meditation in that it requires some focus and dedication; it is also best done right after getting up if you want to feel its immediate effect on your day.
In practice, it goes as follows: first thing in the morning (well, you’re allowed to pee and have a drink of water if it’s urgent) take a pen and three pages of A4 paper (I use bills, old bank statements, crappy first drafts of stories, or just an old notepad) and go to town: any thoughts in your head are fair game, just write it all down as it comes to you. If your experience is anything like mine, the first page will be full of statements like ‘I’m tired’ and ‘I don’t want to do this right now’ and ‘It’s cloudy and grey outside’ – but after all that is out of the way something starts to shift, and you become more deeply immersed in the practice: you begin to talk to the paper about connections you’re making, memories that are coming up, or you begin to analyse the possible causes behind any anxieties you’re feeling. For me, this tends to happen mid-second-page. The idea behind the three A4 pages is that you have the space to write past your own inner critic, or the side of you that likes to churn out platitudes (guilty). And then you stop after three pages, because afterwards you tend to become overly analytical or self-indulgent, I guess. Oh, and it’s important that you hand-write it. No typing, not even on a type-writer (you know who you are). For me, the whole process takes about 30min, but then I am a slow writer, handwriting included. Good news: after this, you can resume your daily activities without giving it another thought, and that’s precisely what it’s about: you get some of the stuff that may have accumulated in your sleeping mind out of the way, or some of the churning anxieties about the day to come, so that you can feel like you’ve acknowledged some of it (which, in some cases, is tantamount to dealing with it) without letting it sweep you away completely.
Then, there are environmental things to bear in mind: what environment do you sleep in, is your bed comfortable, your room neither too hot nor too cold, yada yada. You know all of this already. Just don’t, you know, sleep in a boiling room, don’t sleep on a pillow made of rocks or dead cockroaches, don’t eat cheese before bed, make sure there isn’t any mould growing in the cracks in your walls. Basic things your parents probably told you anyway.
- Herbal remedies.
Lastly, some of the herbal stuff: Chamomile, lots of it (great if you get stomach aches, too). Not too close to bedtime if you have an active bladder, but a cup or two throughout the evening won’t hurt. Same with slightly stronger stuff like Valerian root or Passionflower, ideally as a tea (because it’s warming and comforting and easy), or as a tincture if you know what you’re doing. With Valerian and Passionflower I usually only have them when I start getting ready for bed as they can make me drowsy.
A lot of these may not help quieten a restless mind if you’re already wound up, but they will relax you physically, which can help, especially if you’ve had coffee or are buzzed from staring at a screen.
There’s this supplement I used to take for a while that can help your body process caffeine (I think that’s the idea) – it has an amino acid called L-Theanine in it, as well as a generous helping of Lemon Balm (aka Melissa officinalis). I used to take it when I realised I was really crap at dealing with caffeine and needed some help not getting the jitters from it (I could’ve just stopped having coffee, but at the time that didn’t feel like an option). While the bottle lasted, it was super helpful. The supplement itself is really pricy, but if you ever felt like treating yourself to some fancy hippie sorcery, that would be a good one.
That said, just having Lemon Balm as a tea would probably serve you just as well. Also: Lavender, especially as an essential oil. Spray that fucker all over your pillow if you like the smell. If not, there are lots of ‘sleepy teas’ that use lavender as one of their ingredients.
I kind of forgot one but I guess it goes without saying: exercise. Seriously, if you have an overactive mind, the best thing you can do for it is direct its focus away from itself for a while and making it aware of the body for a while. Plus, it will tire out you and leave you feeling less frustrated than if you sat in front of a screen all day. ALK would probably agree with me on this: the best thing for writers is to remember that they are embodied beings every once in a while.
I hope this helps anyone, but if nothing else I will have typed out a bunch of advice that I need to take as well, so… yeah. Sleep is good.