One for the “Troubled Sleepers”

My name is Sasha, and I’m an insomniac.

I am never more jealous than when sharing a room with someone who is able to snore soundly just as soon as their head touches the pillow, wherever they may be, and who wakes up at around the time they’re supposed to and not hours before. Honestly, you don’t know how lucky you are.

The articles that tell me “you need 8 hours sleep a night or you’re likely to DIE EARLY!” or “sleep makes you thinner, happier and BETTER!” don’t help. Believe me, if there were anything I could possibly do to get an uninterrupted 8 hours a night, I would pay any money in the world to do it. But sadly no such miracle cure has yet been invented.

I’ve always been what the Americanos call a “troubled sleeper“. When I was 4 or 5, I remember asking my parents how to shut my eyes when I slept, my eyelids scrunched up at the time – sleeping just didn’t come naturally to me. Around 8, a family friend found me sitting upright on the top bunk in her daughter’s room, crying because I was still wide awake. At school, sleep was sporadic so I was always grumpy in the morning and unable to get myself out of bed in time (a habit sadly unchanged to current times, much to the annoyance of flatmates and partners and bosses). I’m ashamed to say my poor mother found it easiest to bring me a cup of tea and breakfast IN BED every morning as otherwise I’d always miss assembly (thank you mum!!!). I know this makes me sound like a spoiled brat but getting out of bed is genuinely harder for insomniacs than most people*. And I was a bit spoiled. And now being brought tea in bed is now my ultimate luxury (HINT!!).

At Uni, normal sleeping hours went out the window. With little routine, I was often up, alone, until 4 or 5am and then slept until midday the next day. It was sad and lonely at times – insomniacs learn to cope with the loneliness of being the only person awake in a dark sleeping house. Some listen to the radio, another voice to join you in the silence.

I also had times when I slept like a log. Recently I sometimes go for periods of great sleep (sadly not more than a few days at a time), such as after the first few days of holiday, and my year round the world was a proper snoozefest.

I’ve also been known to sleep walk (scary as hell) and sleep talk (about pasta and pesto apparently).

Now, my sleep comes and goes. I’m better than I was but any stress or worries will prevent me from getting to sleep or make me wake me up early, and pretty much every night when I get to bed I worry about whether I’ll sleep or not. And sleepless nights cause so many problems to my days – lack of concentration at work, lateness, being grouchy and stroppy and quick to snap, excema and dry skin, back and neck ache, a propensity to eat chocolate (good excuse!).

For the uniniated, there are several types of sleepless night that an insomniac can enjoy:

  1. The “I’m just not going to get to sleep EVER” toss and turner, eventually leading to you staring wide-eyed at the ceiling and realising its highly unlikely you’ll get any sleep that night. Typically happens before holidays, in foreign beds, before exams, important business meetings, any important events, and dentist appointments. Really helpful to set you up for your busy day ahead.
  2. The “wake up! Its 4am/5am! Time to worry about something you don’t really need to worry about!” alarm call. Often due to work stress, where you wake up and spend the next few hours sleepily going through that work report, only realising in the morning you were going over and over something completely random, involving horses or some such nonsense.
  3. The “pretty much anything will disturb my sleep” syndrome. The princess and the pea? That’s pretty much me every night. Drank too much water? I’ll wake up needing to pee. Someone has come home two doors down? I’ll wake up with the noise. The heating comes on? Morning! A bird chirps? Yup, I’m awake. Unfortunately this means that poor person sharing a bed with me can but peep (or parp) and I’m wide awake which makes it very hard for them too.

Scientifically speaking**, your sleep goes in cycles throughout the night. You have the which bit of the pillow is coolest to sleep on nesting bit, the deep mouth-open mind-blank bit, then the REM dream cycle ooh my legs are made of chocolate bit and then you go round again – about 3 or 4 a night I think. When you’re likely to wake up is during the REM bit which is the lightest part of your sleep where you are vulnerable to small distubances (i.e. full bladder or noise) to wake you up. So if you wake up in the middle of the night regularly its likely to be around the same time. For me 5am almost to the minute every time.

I don’t have any miracle cures but I have learned a few things that have worked for me over the years so I thought I’d share them here. I would LOVE to hear any other good tips so please feel free to share.

  1. Try to work on the latent stress you’re carrying. Try to deal well with work stress, do a bit of yoga or meditation, do exercise, resolve disputes with friends and family quickly. Have “mini breaks” throughout the day to think about and resolve any worries, and if you’ve got a lot on your mind make sure you babble it all out to a friend or partner before bed. Or write it down. Start a blog “Shit That Is Bothering Me Today”. If its really bad then think bigger – move to a quieter area, get a less stressful job. I think its worth it because HOW MUCH NICER are we when we get some sleep?!
  2. Don’t book appointments early in the morning as you might not be able to sleep that night.
  3. Don’t be tempted to lie in too long (although its so hard to get up I know) as it will mess up your body clock. Sleep in a little, get up and do your day and get to bed early the next night.
  4. Don’t get more upset and panic that you can’t sleep. Your body can go on for an amazing length of time on little sleep. I’ve done a sleepless 2 weeks once and got out the other side.
  5. Oh and buy LOTS of anti wrinkle cream and nice stuff for your skin, facials and such, to make up for your knackered appearance and make you feel better.
  6. Doing very little in the evening is brilliant and baths are great. Don’t feel bad about doing nothing.
  7. Don’t make phone calls, look at the TV or surf the internet for at least an hour before bed. No checking work emails just before you hit the sack either.
  8. Like a baby, get a routine: cup of hot chocolate, bed around 10.30pm, read for 20 mins or so, possible nookie, lights off.
  9. Read before you go to bed. Your mind is probably whirring like mine (especially if you are also worried whether you’ll sleep) so you need to be transported to another place, to be subsumed by someone else’s narrative. I am – no joke – currently reading “Stud” by Jackie Collins, because Eat Pray Love took me 7 months, Shantaram took me over a year, and I got it free in a magazine.
  10. Especially if you have an addictive personality, don’t rely on crutches (booze, sleeping pills) to get you to sleep. This can work if you’re really knackered and just need a good night’s sleep but in the long term you need to get a healthy strategy to cope. Oh and drunken sleep is rubbish.
  11. Sounds so childlike but don’t get excited around bedtime (no not like that). No starting arguments, telling jokes, bringing up stresses or worries. This should be got rid of well before. Cuddles and small talk is fine but leave any heavy stuff to another time.
  12. Don’t drink any liquids after 10pm to stop mid sleep toilet trips.
  13. A doctor told me once not to keep my mobile by the bed as the erm electromagnetic shizzle can disturb you. So I keep my mobile across the room. Also stops you checking twitter last thing. The Chef also believes this is totally true.
  14. Get aware of the time you are waking up as this is likely to be the REM light cycle bit and just check there aren’t obvious things going on to wake you up then – i.e make your heating come on later, your curtains thick enough to cut out sun at that time.
  15. It is soooo easy to take out your tired ass night on your partner who has been happily snoring throughout, but try not to as its not their fault (there, I’ve said it, sorry). You are totally right to be angry at the universe for giving you such crappy sleeping genes but get your anger out a healthy way. Any ideas for how much appreciated!

And finally, one little bit of solace that I have is this: while friends moan about having babies and never getting any sleep, I think PAH! Sleepless nights? I’ll show you sleepless nights! I like the thought that for me, it will be a walk in the park…. 🙂

*I’m going to get a lot of stick for this aren’t I?!

**based on very little actual knowledge

26 responses to “One for the “Troubled Sleepers”

  1. This is an interesting post. While not an insomniac like you, I do go through periods of insomnia for a few weeks at a time a few times a year. And a couple of the suggestions you make for a good night ring a bell.

    I am an inveterate internet user (both at work and at home), up to 18 hours a day sometimes. And you are so right about screens causing sleeplessness. Once I stopped perusing the webz about an hour before bed and returned to my first love, reading, I have been sleeping a whole lot better.

  2. I used to be a terrible sleeper (a number 3 type) and tried all sorts of stuff to help. I remember I once got these tiny plastic cones from Boots which I strapped to each wrist – pressure therapy or something. Didn’t work. Neither did valerian pills.

    I’m getting better though occasionally pretty crap, but I’ve found that what works for me is pillow mist (designed specifically to help you sleep).

    Penhaligons does one, as does Boots, and they’re all based on lavender and geraniums and other lovely things. Just a little spray on my pillow and around the air and I feel better. Probably a placebo thing but it makes me feel happy and safe and, yep, sleepy.

  3. 16. If your partner wants to go to sleep immediately after reaching personal completion, let him (or her, I guess) do it. They will be out like a light in seconds which is an extremely effective use of their time.

    Accordingly, do not take it as a slight if they don’t want to cuddle – they are simply avoiding insomnia, which you of all people should appreciate. Shame.

    Stop being a selfish snuggler – suffer your insomnia alone and let them overcome theirs with this clever technique. Ear plugs may be useful after about 8 minutes (source: the fantastic iPhone app ‘Sleep Talk’).

  4. I’ve had chronic insomnia for 5 years and still people tell me to try lavender or warm milk or whatever. While these things are comforting and soothing, they don’t actually help me sleep.

    I once had a full on tantrum in the middle of the night, flinging my bedclothes all over the place and slamming my pillow on every surface… I have since managed to calm down and resignedly accept my fate. Although I don’t sleep any more hours, at least I am better at controlling my panic and anxiety while I’m not sleeping!

    • Oh man I’ve been there and I completely agree. I’ve had the “try x, y, z” chat so many times, but I just think either you’re a sleeper or you have problems with it and it’s hard for people to understand if they’ve not experienced it.

      I have had several tantrums – kicking off the bedsheets, punching the pillows (wanting to punch the snoring boy next to me). At times like that I think you need to get up, go to another room, have a cry, and then try again in an hour or so. And I agree you need to resign yourself to the fact that ok I may not sleep tonight, but I’ll be OK. When you get back to bed you may even drop off, if only for an hour or two… xx

  5. I’m a pretty crap sleeper myself. I can’t sleep if it’s too cold, too hot, too noisy or too bright. Late Spring/Summer’s particularly bad for me as I tend to hide my head under my duvet, which makes it too hot, but the early rising sun makes it too bright.

    I also can’t sleep if I’m in a new bed or if there’s someone in my bed.

    And the times I do manage to get enough sleep, I wake up with a bit of a headache.

    Sigh. Fussy much?

    What helps me, I find, is not drinking beverages which contain caffeine after 5 pm, and, on nights I want to be pampered, having a mug of Horlicks before I sleep. I don’t do the latter too often though because I’ve a figure I’m attempting to maintain!

    • Ha! You’re very similar to me. I don’t do new beds and I do find it hard to sleep when I have ahem company. I think (hope) you get used to that foreign fluffy hot water bottle in your bed. Or at least buy a big enough bed that they don’t disturb you! x

  6. I have four different types of sleeping tablets in my nightstand. The best for me are melatonin and nytol. I also put in earplugs, even if it’s not the least bit noisy. Am considering a lavender eye mask, like you use in yoga.

    Also, I think there ought to be an insomniac hashtag on twitter, so we could find each other and keep ourselves company.

  7. I have bouts of the lying awake, staring at the ceiling ‘if I fall asleep now, I’ll get 4 hours sleep… If I fall asleep now I’ll get three hours sleep’ kind of insomnia. I also didn’t sleep well as a kid, often sleep walking, or half waking up, going for a wander, and then getting really confused. I’ve now realised this disturbed sleep is due to having nighttime panic attacks, where a surge of adrenaline wakes me up, racing heart and a completely irrational fear that I’m going to die.

    Having said all that, I moved house recently and we have a much clearer, more peaceful bedroom, and I find this is helping me sleep a little sounder.

    • Oh yes sleep waking / walking is incredibly scary. Waking up and not knowing where the hell you are and then realising you’re standing up – horrible. And I agree on the counting hours of sleep – they say you shouldn’t look at the clock but I don’t agree, if I didn’t check I might think it was almost getting up time and at least if you know its only 4am you have a few hours. Its nigh on impossible to get back to sleep though – your brain telling you that you must sleep for 3 hours somehow makes you worried enough to stay awake – frustrating!

      I agree a nice peaceful tidy bedroom with lovely bedsheets and curtains is the best way to go – worth spending money on. Good on you for finding a fab new place! x

  8. Writing close to midnight after an hour’s trying to get to sleep – ironic??

    This is sooo old ladyish, but I’ve found that lavender oil on my pillow helps quite a bit. And the hot drink/cocoa you suggest.

    Right, beddy bo byes – nighty night, sleep tight xx

  9. I’ve never though of myself as an insomniac before, especially as I now have a friend who REALLY doesn’t sleep, seemingly ever. However, I’ve have always been a “funny sleeper” and a lot of your post chimed with most of my life.

    Luckily I’ve never been a type 3, but type 1 and 2 probably describes about 80% of my nights. Once I’m asleep it can be next to impossible to actually wake me up, unless my body randomly decides to do so itself at 5am, 6am, 7am and so on (type 2). Getting to sleep though can be horrible (type 1), especially when partners just drop off and you’re left staring at the ceiling, head whirring. For me it is strongly linked to stress and depression. When I was doing my MA I went through about 3 months of barely sleeping at all until friends eventually forced me to get help before I went completely mad.

    It doesn’t help that I’ve always been semi-nocturnal if left to my own devices too. I’ll happily stay awake until 2am, 3am, 4am, later and later each night, and wake up later and later each day. It’s never bothered me being awake at night, I like the quiet and I find it can be my most creative time; some of my best essays at uni were written between 2am-8am, but then I did do philosophy so…

    The problem comes when I have to get up for something in the morning, i.e. work. So now instead of sleeping through the day I just end up surviving on 3-5 hours sleep a night and then sleeping half the weekend away which is crap.

    I’ve also had the occasional sleep walking incident (once at uni which my friends found amusing) and commonly sleep talk/sit up in bed and point at stuff. I also suffered terribly with night terrors, horrific waking nightmares that you can’t escape from, when I was little and still occasionally wake up screaming and hallucinating something I’m convinced I can see, like a giant spider or gremlin until my boyfriend manages to calm me down. I’m sure he loves those nights!

    Things that have helped me in the past have been:

    1) Reading right before falling asleep; absolutely, and exactly what you said about letting your mind drift into another narrative. The only problem here is if I get myself engrossed in the book I can stay up for hours trying to read more and more which basically defeats the point.
    2) Lavender oil, either burnt in the room before sleeping or a few drops on the corners of my pillow. This was a standard trick my mum used when I couldn’t sleep as a child.
    3) Chamomile tea or even better Sleepytime tea before bed. Everyone I’ve ever introduced to Sleepytime tea has become utterly infatuated with it too.
    4) Sex. Sorry if it’s an over share but, partner or no, post-coital sleep is some of the best sleep I’ve ever had. Almost guaranteed to stop my head whirring and help me pass out. This is my absolute fail safe and works better than anything else.

    In contrast to your suggestion I purposely book early morning appointments sometimes though, because I know it will mean I have to get up and so I’m more likely to and so more likely to have the rest of my day. Otherwise if I don’t have anywhere to be I’ll just end up sleeping later and later, hitting snooze again and again, until I’ve lost half the day.

    I find it interesting how many bloggers/web-folk seem to be the ones struggling to sleep. I’m another one who’s terrible for staying on the internet right up until bed on my laptop or checking Twitter/Facebook on my phone in bed. Might try that hour before electronic embargo.

  10. Woah…that comment was MUCH longer than I realised…sorry :s

  11. i too, am an insomniac, suffering up to 6 month bouts of near sleeplessness.

    the thing that works best for me is getting up. i can’t control the panic if i lie there *trying* hard to sleep. so if i don’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, i get up and go into another room to read and listen to soft music in dim lighting, then try again in another hour or so. valerian root doesn’t help me fall asleep, but it does help keep a lid on the sleepless anxiety. i also try very hard to keep to a routine bedtime, even when on holidays or weekends – i like to be in bed by 11, which seems like an old-fogey thing, but pays off with better sleep. i also try to listen very hard to my body’s cues – the minute i start to yawn, i turn out the lights and let myself drift. this has helped to train my brain to fall asleep faster and more naturally. finally, i have a great eyeshade that is cozy and blocks out all light.

    last: i have a few prescription sleep tablets from my Dr. just knowing that i have them available if things get really bad, helps me to let go of some of the panic that prevents me from sleeping, and an occasional tablet can help break up a bad-sleep rut. but i rarely rely on them.

  12. my ex was an insomniac and went to a sleep clinic at St Thomas’s for advice.
    basic advice included a) keep a sleep diary to identify triggers that disturb your sleep (eg smoking, drinking, what you ate, stress etc) b) hide your clock so you don’t fixate on the time when you wake up in the middle of the night c) reserve the bedroom for sleep and sex only – so no tv, reading etc – you must only associate the bedroom with sleeping d) hot milk before bedtime etc etc

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  15. A fellow cycling Scot

    As many of the postees above – that is people who have posted not actual postmen! – I am also don’t sleep well. Any slight disturbance and I’m awake. But what has really, really helped me get to sleep more quickly has been doing regular exercise during the day. A three mile run three times a week has tired me out enough to help kick start sleep. And the more I run the better I sleep.

  16. Have you looked into the Chillow? It’s like a freezer pack you put in your pillow. I read this article once about cold sleepers and warm sleepers and I am definitely a cold sleeper…I turn the heat in my flat down to nothing in the winter and snuggle up and can sleep for hours. Put me in a friend’s flat where I can’t control the temperature and it’s awful. I just toss and turn. (That being said, I’m also sure I have better sheets than most of my friends. Years of hotel rooms have taught me to find that sort of fabric that will hold on to a chill. Nothing I love better than good bed linen! Don’t let ANYONE talk you into flannel sheets. Too warm!)

    Other suggestions would be seeing if getting a massage in the evening before bedtime helps.

    Lastly…with traveling and time zones and stuff, I read this book years ago about hypnosis. I can’t say I’m perfect at it, but I definitely always do a little self-hypnosis when I’m in a strange hotel room on a strange time zone. Normally it’s just relaxing my breathing and body parts and counting slowly back from 100. Now adays, I’m usually asleep by 82! Even if it’s just for an hour, it’s worth it.

  17. Yes, definitely #15!

    Most of the time I have very little trouble sleeping. Back in my over caffeinated, non-routine holding, high stress majoring Uni days, I had a trick of telling myself “It’s OK if you can’t sleep, you can at least just lie here and let your body rest.” This generally helped cease panic and sometimes I could even drift off for a while. These days I try a bit of meditating in bed. The old, “relax the toes, relax the foot, relax the calves…” By the time I get to my midsection, I’m usually snoozing away.

  18. Oh god, I’m exactly the same as you. NEVER get enough sleep, permanently sleep deprived, always feel tired, can get a little..erm..snappy. Have the same memories of always being knackered and bleary eyed before school. I usually feel the most awake at 6pm. Ridiculous.

    Anyway, same tips as you really – make sure room is dark and as quiet as possible. (I actually have to wear earplugs every night.) No late drinks. No caffeine in the afternoon. Comfy sleep clothes. Eat a little if I’m hungry. Carb heavy in the evening is good for sleep but bad for ass size. Oh, and I keep a bottle of bach’s rescue remedy by bed to take if I’m awake in the middle of the night and stressing out about not getting enough sleep. It works, at least on a placebo level.

    You’ve articulated exactly all of my issues! It sucks, doesn’t it. Really affects quality of life. And yes, skin. Urgh.


  19. OH. I haven’t told you about my ridiculous sleep set-up. I have two single mattresses in a king-size bed frame, and two sets of bed clothes. So, no gentleman caller can wake me up if he’s wriggling around. It really makes a difference. (I *need* my own duvet. The slightest disturbance and that’s me awake again. Oh, to be normal.)


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