Why can’t I sleep?
Since I was a kid, I’ve gone on streaks of extremely difficult sleep. Sometimes I’m excited about a new project or feeling stressed out about a big challenge. Opposite emotions with the same result—no sleep. Over the last 6 months—armed with research and a strategy, I’ve been able to massively improve the quality and length of my rest.
According to Psychology Today, “more than half the patients consulting a primary care physician have a complaint of insomnia of some kind.” This is a massive problem and I couldn’t find one good authoritative source for.
I wanted to know how to sleep better, so I’ve experimented for years. I’ve found a strategy that has been massively effective. It uses medicine only as a last resort. if it helps you I just ask that you pass it on to family and friends that may benefit and share about it here.
My 5 Point Sleep Strategy
1. Go to bed when I want to.
If I try to stick to a schedule, I end up getting anxious and can’t sleep. Many people recommend a strict sleep schedule—this may just be a personality defect on my part, but this is stressful. As the sleep time gets closer my anxiety gets stronger, my cortisol levels go up, and my melatonin gets decreased. In the end, a sleep schedule is counter productive to me.
2. Eat something small with a low glycmic level before bed.
My favorite is a small handful of almonds and a tangerine. When you eat this small meal it fills your stomach without spiking your blood sugar. This helps your body relax and helps you feel more rested when you wake up since you’re not hungry.
3. Get a sleep mask—it’s amazing.
I can’t overemphasis the importance of this one. This particular face mask has a form to it so that it doesn’t touch your eyes—but it makes it completely dark. The added benefit is that the strap fits comfortably over your ears so that it dampens noise, too. Seriously—if this is the one piece of advice you take, go buy it.
4. Read a Fiction book before bed.
I’ve been reading Game or Thrones—the story is exciting and engaging. I find that it helps get my mind off the urgent and exciting things going on at work and helps trigger my imagination. Better dreams. Less stress.
5. Use medicine strategically when insomnia comes lurking.
At first I was really scared to use medicine to help me sleep. When I was a kid my grandma died from addiction related causes and I’ve always been on guard to not expose myself addictive things. I’ve found that this strategy has worked really well and after a few weeks of implementing, it has me now using it only a couple times a month:
- If I cannot fall asleep for more than 1 hour I take a dose of ZZZQuil
- If I wake up I listen to a monotone lecture (I dig Tim Keller)
- I wake up before 3 am I take 1/2 of a Xanax
- If I wake up before 4:30am I take 1/4 of a Xanax
- If I wake up before 5am I take 1/8 of a Xanax
My rules to avoid sleep medicine habits
If I took ZZZQuil or Xanax the night before I try to not have caffeine or alcohol the following day.
This ensures that I don’t get in a cycle of depending on substances to balance each other out—sure it might sound good to have coffee to wake up or a beer at the end of the day with friends, but if I used something to help me go to bed, I don’t mess with anything else the next day.
If I take either more that twice a week, I talk to my wife and a friend about it.
Again, this is probably me just being hyper vigilant, but I know that sleep aids can become a problem for people and I don’t want that to happen. So I talk to Jen and my doctor about it. I don’t want to get addicted to either of these things so I’m very careful to use them as a tool in a very defined way.
Observations after several months
1. I avoid bad sleep patterns. In the past I’ve gotten into 1-3 weeks of cycles where I would get really bad sleep, and it would compound night after night making it easier to fall asleep because I was exhausted, but I would wake up a few hours later with my heart racing in anxiety fueled panic. Using the sleep rules has made this almost disappear—I don’t get tired enough to go into fight or flight mode often.
2. I don’t fear not sleeping any more. To someone who sleeps fine, this sounds crazy, but to someone who’s gone through periods of difficult sleep you know how frightening this can be. Will it get worse? Will I be able to function at work? Am I going to keep being short with my spouse? These questions and fears come when I feel that I’m controlled by sleep and not the other way around.
3. By sticking to my strict rules I use very little medication. The first week and a half of trying this method out I used several Xanax and 1/4 of the bottle of ZZZquil. But soon my body learned a normal rhythm, I didn’t get stressed as much when I couldn’t sleep, and I don’t get overly tired. That was in February 2013—over the last 11 months I’ve only used a total of about 20 pills and most of the rest of that first bottle. In other words I only need help sleeping a couple times a month. I do recommend consulting your doctor prior to doing this.
I’d love for you to share your story if you’ve been able to use this or other methods to find sleep. If you’ve had insomnia you know how frustrating it is—it would be awesome to give someone some hope that there is a way out of it.