If you want to skip this part to get straight to Sleep Hygiene, scroll down. I don’t blame you. But if you want to know more about my experience, then keep on reading, friends!
I have a very problematic relationship with sleep. I always have. I have memories of being four years old and watching the clock all. night. long. I didn’t understand why. My parents didn’t understand why. But back more than 20 years ago, from a very Portuguese household… we didn’t really go to the doctor unless it was an emergency. And this was not an emergency. My parents figured that I was acting up or playing too many games and that when I was very tired, I’d eventually sleep. Like a regular person would. But I can’t sleep. It’s one of the most basic human survival instincts and I can’t do it.
I have some sleep disorders in my family though. My dad also has insomnia and has been known to sleep walk. A maternal aunt has night terrors. So really, I’m thankful I just have insomnia. Perspective.
Until I was about 8 years old, I would try to sleep and fail. Sleeping gave me anxiety (it still does) but it would turn into thoughts of “oh my gosh, someone is going to break in a kidnap me” or “the house is gonna burn down” and then I’d go to my parents bed and toss and turn, keeping them up. For my 8th birthday, I got a tv. One of those tiny 10 inch box tvs from back in the day, it was awesome. Instead of running to my parents room in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, I’d watch some tv. Mostly infomercials, but it kept my brain from having anxiety over sleep.
Sometimes I’d go days without sleep. I had a bad episode when I was 16. I hadn’t slept in about 6 days, maybe I got a total of 4 hours over those 6 days. I had to go to school though, obviously. So, it’s second period (history) and about 5 mins in, I passed right out. Hit my face off the desk and everything. Bless my teacher, she knew I had issues and she let me sleep but I was so knocked out that I slept through third period. I had gone to the doctors about this but since I was under 18, she didn’t want me on sleeping pills. Which is fair enough, they’re highly addictive.
When I was 16, I started smoking marijuana. I didn’t get my first high until I was 17 though, when I learned to properly inhale. And let me tell you, I freakin’ slept! I had good sleep for the first time in my life. For about a year and a half, I went to bed early and woke up early and felt rested AF. But then I started university, lost my weed hookup and stopped sleeping again. It affected my performance at uni. So, again, I went to my doctor to ask for help.
As soon as she asked me what was going on with my sleep, I burst into tears. I couldn’t help it; I felt hopeless and tired and drained. My brain was fuzzy, I couldn’t concentrate. I wanted to fight everyone, especially my profs. I cried and cried. And I finally got a prescription for Zopiclone at 19 years old.
I’m still on this prescription to this day (I’m 26 now) and I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. It’s worked great for me and then it’s stopped working entirely. I’ve abused them, I’ve given them away. I’ve taken breaks from it and tried other meds (Trazodone, Seroquel, various tranquilizers) but none of them worked for me so I always went back to it. When I first started taking it, it used to make me black out (which is fine for getting to sleep I guess). Obviously, I’ve built up a tolerance to them. They do not affect me like that anymore. They don’t even put me to sleep anymore. I use them to keep me asleep but I smoke weed every night cause that’s what puts me to sleep. I need to be pretty heavily drugged up to get to sleep.
I am ashamed to admit this: if there is ever so much a *threat* that I can’t get my Zopiclone (if my doctor doesn’t fax it or if my pharmacy slacks a bit) I go nuts. Absolutely nuts. I get into a panic and my thoughts turn irrational. During these episodes, I think that someone is restricting them on purpose. Recently, the pharmacy kept fucking it up so it wasn’t filled and couldn’t be. I would yell at them on the phone and in person. On the off chance that my doctor screwed it up, I’d yell at her too. In the events that I wasn’t able to get them, I would drive to a 24hr pharmacy and buy whatever over-the-counter sleeping pills they had (not that they worked), grabbed some NyQuil and NeoCitran just to get some sleep. I hate doing that though, it makes me feel very shameful. Unfortunately, I am very addicted to this sleeping pill and it makes me act in a way that makes me carry a lot of shame, if I’m being honest. (To be fair though, it was happening every month for 5 months!)
So how do I sleep? Lately, I don’t. But I have a strict sleep hygiene protocol that I used to follow religiously. They were like my ten commandments. I’ve fallen off the habit but I’m hoping this blog post motivates me to get back on track.
How do you know if you need to practice better sleep hygiene? Well, honestly, everyone would benefit from healthy sleep hygiene practices! But if you find that you’re having a hard tine sleeping or staying asleep, if you’re waking up feeling unrested or having sleep-related anxiety (“oh man, how am I gonna sleep?”), you should probably follow a few sleep hygiene practices.
There is no real order of importance when it comes to sleep hygiene; some things will work better for other people, obviously. We’re all so different. But I’m ordering it in importance to me.
Make sure your room is comfortable.
Ideally, your room should be dark, cool and clean. According to many researchers, a clean and organized room promotes calmness in the mind. I know this to be very true for myself. If my room is messy, I can’t organize thoughts in my mind. Likewise, if I’m getting stressed or depressed, one of my biggest tells is my room is messy. Keeping it clean and organized, keeps the mind from jumping to anxiety and keeps it calm (which is obviously what you want for sleep).
People will, of course, vary on how much light they want in their room. Again, make sure it’s comfortable for you. If you are afraid of the dark, having complete darkness might trigger anxious feelings. Soft lights are okay. Bright white (blue, cold) lights keep you awake. If you need a light, get a soft, warm (orangey) for some illumination. I have 3 lights in my room. A sun light, a main light and a night time light. At a certain time, my main light turns off and the night lamp gets turned on. Personally, I love the dark. When I buy a digital clock, I make sure it has brightness settings and I set that shit to the lowest possible brightness. I have black out curtains. I love the dark.
Temperature. I think everyone knows that the science points to having a cool room. Between 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit (15-18 degrees Celsius). For most people, this is true. Having a colder room helps your body regulate its temperature during your sleep cycle, keeping you asleep. I call bullshit, lol. At least for me. I like it hot. I find that when I’m cold, I wake up constantly. I like having my heater at 27 degree Celsius (80°F).
2. Your bed should have limited, designated activities.
By this, I mean sleep and sex. That’s it. Do not watch tv in bed. Do not do homework in bed. Do not lay in bed awake all day. Unless you’re sick or dealing with some chronic pain, don’t stay in bed. When I lived on my own, I used to rent out a 2 bedroom basement apartment. One room was my bedroom, one was my living room. I spent all day in my living room and only went to my bedroom to sleep. At my mom’s house, I had two bedrooms. One for sleep, one for being awake. I understand that not everyone can have that kind of set up though. Right now, I spend all day in my bedroom. I try to spend my day on my couch and save my bed for sleep and sex. But it’s definitely affecting my sleep. Ugh.
3. Watch what you eat and drink!
It’s best to eat a good dinner a few hours before bed. When your body is digesting food, it’s being active and awake. That makes it harder to get to sleep. Even if eating a large meal makes you feel sleepy, it ends up disrupting part of your REM cycle and that’s the most important part of sleep. You should also avoid very sugary and rich foods before bed (like chocolate and gummies). The most obvious thing to avoid? Caffeine. Lately, I’ve been doing a very bad job on this. All around. I smoke mj at night and get the munchies and eat in bed while falling asleep. And I’ve been drinking more coffee than I ever have in my life. I used to have a strict rule of one medium coffee a day before 3pm. If I realized at 2:59pm that I hadn’t had a coffee yet, I skipped coffee for the day. I took it very seriously and I’m trying to cut down on my intake currently.
Alcohol also disrupts sleep. That seems weird to say because being drunk makes it easy to sleep. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never used alcohol medicinally to sleep. But, like a heavy meal, it ends up disrupting your REM cycle. I don’t know about you, but every time I drink I wake up unrested and, like, stupid early.
4. No Naps.
I already know this is going to be the least favourite tip. But I live by this. I’ve been under strict doctors order for about 7 years to not nap. Not that I can anyway, since I have to be drugged to sleep every night. Sometimes, a nap is totally needed to kick start a boost of productivity but it should be taken before 3pm. Like caffeine, naps after 3 start to affect your night time sleep. When and if you do nap, it should be 30 mins or less. The best and most restful nap you could get is to power drink a coffee and then nap for 15 minutes (it takes 15 minutes for the caffeine to absorb into your system). That’s assuming you can fall asleep easily. I’ve never successfully had a caffeine nap. If you’re falling asleep uncontrollable, you might have narcolepsy- go see your doctor.
5. Phones, computers and screen time.
Phones and computers give off bright white, cool lights. These lights trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime. It’s good practice to put your phone away or get off the computer about an hour before sleep. I do think this is a very important tip and I do follow it but not as well as I used to. Once I say I’m going to sleep, my phone is down for the night. I don’t look at it. But, I also have my phone and computer on nighttime mode all day. My computer and phone are always warm light that way I can sleep (and it helps my chronic migraines).
6. Have a bedtime routine.
If you’re wondering what the f you’re going to do for an hour without your phone before bed, start a routine. This helps your body learn when it’s time to relax and wind down. When I had an active routine, it started with turning off my phone, putting lavender oil in my diffuser, doing a meditation (download the app Headspace, it’s wonderful), smoking some pot and then washing my face, brushing my teeth and maybe reading.
Boost your routine by doing it at the same time every night. Train your body to try to sleep at the same time every night, if you can.
7. Stay calm.
This one maybe shouldn’t be all the way down at number 7 but, shit…. It is what it is. This is the one I struggle with the most and always have. The past couple of months, I have improved but I still have a long way to go. When you’re in bed and you can’t sleep, don’t panic. Easier said than done (I know, trust me, I know). There’s two skills that help when this happens. Radical Acceptance, which I covered in my depression blog and fact checking.
Fact checking and radical acceptance used together is a powerful tool. Fact: I’ve gone a day without sleep before and I survived. Fact: I’ve gone several days without sleep and survived. Fact: If I don’t sleep tonight, I’ll survive that too. Accept: right now, I can’t sleep. Stressing about it won’t help you sleep faster, unfortunately.
8. Don’t stay in bed.
This kind of ties into the designated bed activities. One of the worst things you could do if you can’t sleep, is to stay in bed trying. Get up, walk around your house or apartment for 20 mins. Watch a short episode of something. Then try again. Do it as often as you need to. Sometimes I get up 3 or 4 times before sleeping.
9. Go to the doctor.
Honestly. Sleep is a basic function but it’s important as hell. Don’t be like “oh I’m used to getting no sleep.” It affects everything. Your mental health, physical health, mood, brain functioning, reaction time, processing ability. If you can’t sleep, see your doctor.
As of today, (Monday January 20, 2020) I have an appointment with my doctor. I hopefully will get a referral to a sleep clinic. I’m very hopeful that the waitlist isn’t too long because right now, I need to get it back on track. But for now, maybe I’ll just read this blog post to remind myself of all the information I know and need to put into practice.
Do you struggle with sleep issues? Do you practice sleep hygiene? Is there a super dope tip you use that I didn’t touch on? Let me know in the comments!