The essence of getting control over your sleep is realising that you’re already in control. You have the power to give yourself a good night’s sleep. You might not see it, but we’ll cover enough aspects during this guide to make you confident that you know which direction to head.
Let me preface by making it clear that I’m no medical professional. I’m simply a person who suffered from insomnia during about 20 years before having amassed enough relevant knowledge and experience to be able to fix it. It pains me to realize that it was completely unnecessary of me to endure for such a long time.
You also don’t have to continue suffering. Implementing the steps and the mindset-change proposed in this guide will take a couple of weeks. It’s more of a journey than a sprint, so please try to be aware of this and that enduring the process is half the battle. Small steps, always forwards.
Adjust your environment
The first thing you need to look at in order to gain control and confidence of your sleep is your environment. This is the easiest part. Make sure you have a dark room at night and that you are undisturbed by noise. If you can’t control the light or the noise, my suggestion is to do how I did; I got a sleep mask and one-use wax earplugs. I made these into my friends for at least 5–6 weeks. Once you gain the confidence you won’t need them as frequently but at the beginning of this process, it’s key that you can avoid disturbances as much as possible when falling asleep.
Remove disturbing substances
Okay, let’s talk substances. Do you drink coffee? Not anymore. Stop drinking coffee, cola, tea and anything else with caffeine. Believe me, I know how painful this can and will be if you’re as an addict as I used to be to that dark brew. The thing is, after a period of drinking coffee, you need the caffeine to get to the level you would be without it.
Caffeine can really mess with your ability to fall and stay asleep and it can stay in your system for up to 18 hours. Not even the morning coffee is innocent, and for the sake of this “program” I’m leading you to, you will stop drinking any beverage with caffeine for at least 6 weeks. No, I’m not joking. Yes, it will suck the first couple of days but gradually you will notice how nice it feels to wake up without coming down from caffeine.
Now if you followed along so far, you mostly have a silent, dark environment when going to bed. You’re free from caffeine in your system. For some of you, this will already be significant enough of a change. However, If this guide would end here and I would myself be the one to go through it, I would still end up staring at the ceiling, tossing and turning while silently cursing the author.
Think and grow confident
Fortunately, we don’t end here. Dealing with the destructive, repetitive, anxiety-fueling inner dialogue is next. What we’re going to talk about now is called Cognitive Restructuring. We’re going to dominate the demons roaming inside your mind. This is the part that will make the biggest difference and the part that will be your trustworthy ally. It’s all about you realising that you’re in control, and not in any danger.
Because insomnia is not dangerous. There is no clinical proof that longterm insomnia can damage your health. The only thing anyone has been able to prove is that it affects our mood. How do you feel after a night of bad insomnia? Well, shit. How’s your mood? Shit. But that’s about it. Your kidney didn’t stop working. Your nervous system is operational, albeit it might feel slower than usual. Everything is fine.
Key insight 1: Insomnia cannot hurt you. It can only piss you off. Whenever you’re worried about any longterm damage to your body, this is what you’ll repeat to yourself.
While you’re walking to bed you think about the hours you’ll lie there not being able to sleep. You might think about the endless hours of tossing and turning, growing impatient and frustrated. Man, I wish I could be there with you, hugging you, reassuring you. I feel your pain, I really do. But the pain is unnecessary because you do not know how the night will turn out. No one does! It’s in the future! There is no way you can know how this particular night is going to unfold. You might be lucky and fall asleep immediately. Not a single night is the same in the same way not a single day is the same. New dialogues, faces, thoughts, events. The only thing constant is change.
Key insight 2: Not a single night is the same. You do not know how the night will turn out. It might as well turn out to be a night with good sleep.
This insight is essential for combatting the dread you feel while sleep time is approaching. If you start feeling anxious about going to bed this is what you’ll repeat to yourself.
Let’s say luck wasn’t there, and the night indeed was the same sleepless night as the night before. What comes then? What happens during the day? Well, you cope. Not more than that. You’ve done it for as long as you can remember anyway, right? You might be a bit late to work/school, and you might be less talkative than usual but that’s about it. You had an important meeting? You handled it.
You might have felt like shit during, but the point is that you could handle it even though you didn’t get enough sleep. People are incredibly resilient beings and so are you. A couple of sleepless nights won’t be much of a disturbance in the big scheme of things, as is always the case in life.
Key insight 3: Even if you didn’t get the number of hours you felt like getting during the night, you’ll handle whatever challenge life throws your way the day after. Because you’re resilient.
Internalising these key insights will give you the confidence and the mindfulness to be able to fall asleep without focusing on your anxiety. It is key that you fall back to these insights whenever bouts of anxiety hit you. It’s an ongoing process.
Control the rhythm
Now we need to talk about the fact that you like to see yourself as a night dweller, a creature of the dark side of the moon. Now, I have no issue with your alter ego being awesome. I have an issue with the fact that you think you can’t enjoy mornings just because you feel more at home with the darkness. You can enjoy the mornings. You just have to set it up properly. Let’s talk about the circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock. It’s the reason we feel jet-lagged when travelling to the other side of the globe. Your sleep and wakefulness are regulated by hormones and these hormones are released at schedules dictated by the circadian rhythm.
For some people, the timing of this clock is a bit off “normal” day/night rhythm. For me, I seem to have 25 hours to my internal day and not 24. Unless I manage the rhythm myself, with routines and other factors, I constantly push forward the time I feel like going to bed. During a period of my studies, I decided to see what would happen if I went to bed only when I felt like it. The result was that I would move my sleeping hours a couple of hours forward every day, eventually coming back to the original point! During this period several of my friends got worried I was an alcoholic, but that’s a different story, hah.
You need to know that even though this is some strange biological internal mystery machine, you are in control of this. It is fully possible to take control of the rhythm to have it follow a more “normal” way of life. The best way is routine, but sometimes, especially when dealing with bad insomnia, a little push in the right direction is helpful for fast and ruthless results. Time to whip out the BodyHacks(TM)
Weapons of choice
To kill insomnia the fast way, and force ourselves into a healthy sleep schedule, we will need a very strong source of light, some melatonin and a nice book. You get to choose the book but I can recommend this one about curing insomnia, I fell asleep every time I tried to finish it.
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in everyone’s bodies and it’s a hormone released to make us feel sleepy, in essence. It’s often available over the counter. I use 2mg but please consult someone with the right education to tell you how much to use.
One thing I learned the hard way; don’t take the strongest just because you want to fall asleep faster, it doesn’t work that way. Headache, drowsiness and confusion work that way…
The light source needs to be a “daylight lamp”, or as I like to call it, my super lamp. It is strong enough to mimic daylight and when a light source like that hits the eyes it triggers wake-up processes in your body, shifting the circadian rhythm back to “start of day”.
Put this lamp right next to your bed, so that when you turn it on you’ll have your eyes within a meter if you’re facing it. If you have a timer available, hook it up to the timer and set it up so that it turns on when your alarm goes off in the morning.
Putting knowledge and tools into practice
So we’ve got the melatonin, the light and the book in place. What now? This is what you’ll do;
- Take the melatonin one hour before you want to sleep. Make sure your environment is dark and quiet. Use earplugs if necessary.
- Clean up your room, at least throw the dirty clothes in the laundry basket and arrange papers and other clutter. Make sure your environment is as clutter-free as possible.
- Go to bed, you should have about 30 minutes left before you want to sleep.
Now read your book, preferably on a kindle, with the backlight almost at zero. Turn off all other lights and read until you feel like closing your eyes. Put down the Kindle, and allow yourself to drift off. You might fall asleep now, later, or even later. It doesn’t matter. You don’t know how the night will go. Insomnia won’t hurt you. You’ll handle tomorrow no matter how the night goes, I promise. You’re doing good, investing in yourself trying to solve your sleeping issue. I’m proud of you that you came this far. Good night, sleep tight.
If you find yourself growing frustrated over not being able to fall asleep let’s step out of bed and take our book/kindle with us. Make the bed quickly so that it’s arranged and ready for you to come back. Then either stand up or walk slowly back and forth in the room reading your book until you feel sleepy. When you feel sleepy, let yourself ease into bed, enjoy the feeling of getting to lie down and relax again.
Repeat this process as many times as necessary. As you progress through this journey you’ll find that you need less and less time and effort to fall asleep.
Getting ready for the day
When you wake up, or when the alarm rings, immediately turn on the super light and make sure you have it close by your head. You don’t have to stare into it, but make sure the light hits your eyes. Keep the super lamp within a meter of your eyes. Now pick up your book, stay in bed, and read for about 15 minutes. You’ll feel slightly more awake after this. Make sure to have water next to your bed and drink a glass’ worth.
Get up, get on with your day.
Your next step is to follow this routine for the next two weeks. Do whatever it takes to have you and your environment respect the routine. It is crucial that you teach your body and mind that when you feel sleepy and go to bed, you will fall asleep. And when the light comes on in the morning, it is day, and you will get up.
Following the routine will cement the rhythm more and more, and eventually you’ll be able to go to sleep without any earplugs, sleep masks or melatonin. At this point, you’re a free person again, confident in your ability to fall asleep and no longer bound to the energy draining shackles of insomnia. Looking forward to the bed at night.
It’s a fantastic feeling for someone who saw his bed as their enemy for the last 19 years.
My own sleeping quality is good since years now. I have periods when I have a harder time falling asleep and now I can usually attribute the lower quality to not managing stress or other emotional factors. Sometimes it’s impossible to do anything about it, and I will have a really crappy night. It’s okay though, nowadays I have no issue only sleeping a few hours since I know that eventually I will get a good night’s sleep. I am confident.
Just as you will be.
Thanks for reading, I hope you’ll find use from this text.
Here are a couple of good tips donated via the commenting section from Dominic Powell:
While laying in bed with eyes closed, if I find that my mind is racing, I redirect my thoughts to specific scenarios. For example, I think about laying on a beach and imagine the sights and sounds around me. It has to be a relaxing imaginary scenario. Another common scenario I have is wandering around a deserted town (this might be a bit weird for some but works for me).
If all else fails and my thoughts refuse to cooporate, I force myself to think of nothing — in my mind’s eye, I think of whiteness, like looking at a blank white screen. This can be quite difficult and requires persistence, it’s a last resort before I give up and get out of bed.
I had terrible insomnia between the ages of 10 to 12 years old which was very distressing at the time, the techniques above came from that period. I’m 38 now and I rarely have trouble sleeping.
Another idea helps me to stop panicking that I am not getting enough sleep: just laying in bed is still rest, even if I am not asleep. So in other words, I am still getting rest and my efforts to fall asleep are not in vain. Usually that is enough to relax me and I fall asleep.
Thanks Dominic Powell!