Once upon a time, I thought that sleeping was as easy as lying down and closing my eyes. In fact, during my four years at uni I pretty much made sleeping a hobby, happy to sleep away half a day and take a nap whenever I wanted.
Bu these days, trying to sleep can be hard work. While I count myself incredibly lucky to never have experienced full-blown insomnia, there have been periods where I either struggle to get to sleep or stay asleep – and from the responses to my 2am “urgh can’t sleep!” Facebook posts, it’s pretty clear I’m not the only one. From general anxiety or nervousness, depression, nightmares and night terrors to the full moon, injury, illness or side effects from medication, there is a seemingly never-ending list of reasons to why we find ourselves counting down the hours until sun rise, growing more frustrated and anxious as we calculate just how little sleep we’ll actually get.
For those us who commonly struggle to get a full nights’ sleep, the idea of counting sheep or spritzing lavender on our pillows can seem ridiculous. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve counted down from 100…then back up to 100…then to 500…then backwards from 500…and then wanted to punch someone (myself?) in the throat because I’ve just spent two frickin hours counting, and am still no closer to sleep.
So, what do I do when I can’t sleep?
I get up.
It might sound counterintuitive, but the science actually backs me up on this one. Rather than growing increasingly irritated at not being able to get to damn sleep for fuck’s sake…get up. Put some distance between yourself and your bed and break the association of not being able to sleep.
1. Re-read a favourite book
Reading is a great distraction and is something that’s easy to do even when you’re tired. Choose a book you’ve read before to ensure you don’t get too engrossed in the story and try to pick something that won’t have you on the edge of your seat with fear or excitement. Magazines are great as the articles are bite sized.
You don’t have to be a writer for this – the idea is simply to get all those thoughts out of your head and onto a piece of paper. Write down whatever is it that you are worried about, make a list of all the things you need to do tomorrow or note those song lyrics that you can’t get out of your head so you can look them up in the morning. Write anything you want, whatever comes to mind, whatever is on your mind. Don’t re-read it or try to censor yourself, just let it flow. Once your mind has been emptied onto a piece of paper, it’s time to try sleeping again.
I can’t tell you how many times I woke up to freshly baked muffins when I was growing up – yep, trouble sleeping runs in the family! Baking is the perfect midnight activity if you want a tangible outcome or sense of achievement; plus it gives you a timeframe to work with – once the oven timer goes off, it’s time to head back to bed and try again. Make sure you stick to simple recipes that don’t require too many ingredients or tricky techniques and be extra careful to turn the oven off when you’re done!
4. Take a bath
A warm bath can be both relaxing and soothing to sore or restless muscles. Throw in some soothing oils or a bath bomb and soak your blues away but avoid ‘energising’ fragrances such as mint, coffee or citrus. If you’re a multi-tasker, you can also listen to relaxing music or read while you’re in the tub.
5. Have a snack
Going through the motions or preparing and eating a snack can often be enough of a distraction to pull you out of the can’t-sleep-funk. Keep it light and avoid cheese, spicy foods and anything with caffeine. My snack of choice is a few crackers and a cup of Super Berries tea.
6. Do some light exercise
2am is not the time to try to beat your personal best, so no running, jumping or zumba-ing please! You want to take it really, really slow – a gentle walk, some light stretches (or a few yoga poses if you know them) or five minutes at low resistance on the stationary bike are all you need. Follow this with a few minutes infront of some infomercials and you’ll be all set to head back to bed.
When you feel relaxed and ready to try to sleep again, set yourself a 20 minute time limit. If you can’t get to sleep, get up and do something else.
Remember – good sleeping is all about creating good habits. Once you stop sleeping well, it’s as if your brain actually forgets how to fall (and stay) asleep without the drama. Break the cycle by getting out of your bedroom and distracting yourself.
I’m always looking for more middle of the night activities, so I’d love to hear what you do when you can’t sleep!