Sleep for dummies

by Dave P.

I’m so tired, I haven’t slept a wink
I’m so tired, my mind is on the blink
I wonder, should I get up and fix myself a drink?
No no no
~ The Beatles (lyrics by John Lennon)

“I’m so stupid, I can’t even sleep! What’s wrong with me?!!” Those are some thoughts that used to go through my head when I’d lay awake at night, unable to sleep. I’d sometimes get so mad at myself, I’d punch myself in the head. I often wished I could cry myself to sleep, but wasn’t able to. It was pure hell.

Insomnia is a horrible condition. It leads people to drink, do drugs, and give up on life. Michael Jackson suffered from severe insomnia and required medically induced sleep. It eventually killed him. The great American blues guitarist Michael Bloomfield had the same problem. It destroyed his career. He turned to heroin for relief, which eventually killed him.

Unhappiness and discontentment often cause insomnia. When you don’t have something worthwhile in your life to look forward to, it affects your sleep. When you have strong meaning in life, you tend to sleep like a baby.

Everyone suffers from an occasional sleepless night, but when the problem becomes chronic, you begin spiraling downward — out of control. Every task becomes arduous. You can’t think clearly. You feel lousy. Your speech becomes slurred. You can’t remember anything. You don’t feel like talking to anyone. You become irritable. You can’t pay attention. All you can think about is going home and going to bed, but then when you’re in bed, you can’t sleep, and you think about all the things that are going wrong in your life. You dread the coming day.

People who suffer from insomnia often spend a lot of time reading books about insomnia. While proper sleep hygiene is important, spending an inordinate amount of time reading about insomnia isn’t going to help and can actually make your problem worse.

When people are unhappy, they often do things that reinforce their unhappiness, like reading about depression, insomnia, or other problems. They do so because they can relate to the material. We experience temporary pleasure when we connect with something. Even a good cry provides us with pleasure by stimulating the release of endorphins in the brain.

The problem with spending too much time learning about your problems is it strengthens the negative thinking part of the brain. What is needed is the opposite — the exercise of the positive thinking part of the brain! But that’s a bit difficult when you feel crappy due to lack of sleep. But there is hope.

First of all, take a step back at your life and ask yourself where you want to be in five or ten years. What are your goals and aspirations? Don’t factor in your insomnia because we’re going to solve that problem. What do you want out of life? Friends? Family? A career? A nice home? Hobbies? Don’t say, “a lot of money.” While it takes money to acquire some of the things we want in life, it in itself will not make you happy. And be realistic. Setting a goal to learn how to fly will only lead to disappointment or worse if you actually try to fly!

Goals provide us with meaning in life. Now, what would it take to achieve those goals? Set a course. Again, ignore your insomnia for now. What will it take? Training? Additional education? Just hard work? Map out your path. Remember to keep it positive. At this point, it may seem futile because it’s hard to do anything when you can’t sleep, but that is simply an obstacle that can be overcome.

Next, we’ll address sleep hygiene.

Wind down before going to bed. Write down anything that’s bothering you or problems that you need to address the next day. That will cut down on the ruminations and worry.

Meditate before going into your bedroom. Meditation actually gets you into a pre-sleep state with increased alpha brain waves.

Keep your bedroom cool. Your body releases tryptophan and increases serotonin levels as it cools, which cause drowsiness. A hot shower before bed will raise your body temperature, and you’ll feel tired when it cools down. Exercise also raises your body temperature, so don’t engage in any strenuous activities before bed. Sex may be the exception.

You can meditate while in bed to help you fall asleep. Simply observe the sensation of air flowing through your nostrils — the cool air entering and warm air exiting. Listen to the sounds of the night. Feel the comfort of your bed. Just observe.

If you live in a noisy area, some earplugs can help. A sleep mask can provide you with a dark environment — even during the day.

But what do you do when your brain won’t shut down when you’re trying to fall asleep? After all… it’s dark and quiet — the perfect time to think about things without any disruption! We seem to get some kind of satisfaction from rehashing our problems, but it also generates anxiety. There is also the worry about not being able to sleep, which, of course, prevents you from sleeping.

Many people resort to sleeping pills or alcohol to help them fall asleep, which often do help you sleep, but they affect the quality of sleep. You’ll spend less time in deep sleep and not feel refreshed when you awaken. Personally, sleeping pills always made me feel worse than if I didn’t sleep at all. I’d feel dizzy and spaced out the next day.

If you’re not really worried about anything but your mind just won’t shut down, often simply observing your breath can help. But if your thoughts are high in emotional content, extra strength thought-stopping techniques are needed!

I’ve written about this before, but it works well for those who have tried it. Get into a comfortable position and simply close your eyes and slowly and gently move them back and forth. You can combine this technique with mindfulness practice. Observe your breath, but when a thought enters your consciousness, move your eyes back and forth to erase it. Then return to your mindfulness practice. If you’re feeling anxious, move your eyes back and forth until you have calmed down. Then go back to your mindfulness practice.

If you’ve suffer from severe, chronic insomnia, you might benefit from SSRIs such as paroxetine (generic Paxil). They cause drowsiness and reduce anxiety. Ask your doctor if it might help.

Once you get your insomnia under control, you’re free to pursue your goals and reach your potential.

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2 Comments to “Sleep for dummies”

  1. Insomnia can make a person feel desperately alone. Your article helps to remind me that I do not suffer alone on this particularly long night. Thank you for sharing your information and thank you for the suggestions.

    • You are definitely not alone, Sharon. My insomnia destroyed my career, but I’m sleeping well these days. Now I need a new career. 🙂

      Let me know if the things I suggested worked. Life is meant the be enjoyed, but it’s hard to enjoy anything when you can’t sleep.

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