So, this is the first entry in what I’m calling “A Muggle’s Guide to Dementor Defence”, which is based on my personal battle with mental health problems, my notes from therapy and my own research/experience of trying to live a happier life (for more background on The Guide, click here).
One of the aims for this series is to present some practical advice on a range of mental-health-related subjects and today, I wanted to look at what was, for me, one of the most challenging things to manage; sleep and insomnia.
As with other posts in this series, I have done some research on the subject but this is based mainly on my personal experience. This stuff won’t necessarily work for everyone but, hopefully, some of it will be useful.
I used to be a champion sleeper. I could sleep for days, wherever and whenever I needed to. But even before my life crashed and burned back in 2011, I had been starting to struggle with sleep and I continue to struggle to this day. But, I do at least have a range of coping strategies that may be useful, particularly during this challenging time. Some of them are common sense or widely known, while others are more obscure and personal, but hey, if it works, it works!
Here, in no particular order, are some common tips to help get off to the land of nod, some given from my GP, therapist or from other trusted sources.
- No food after 9 pm – eating affects your circadian rhythms and digesting food can keep you awake.
- No caffeine after 5 pm – pretty self-explanatory!
- No exercise in the late evening – adrenaline is the enemy of sleep.
- Limit screen time – if you can’t, then use an app like Twilight or F.lux to reduce blue light exposure, as this also affects your circadian rhythms.
- A warm, milky drink (hot chocolate or decaf tea) – seems to help more often than not.
- Don’t lie there indefinitely – if you can’t get to sleep within, say, an hour, get up and do something else for a while, then go back and try again (but avoid the activities mentioned above).
- Avoid alcohol – drink less or don’t drink too close to bedtime. You might fall asleep easier, but you’re more likely to have disturbed sleep.
- “And, of course, the all-time number one!” (Semi-obscure, Red Dwarf reference!) – There is, of course, something that you can do, alone or with a partner, that will help you to feel sleepy. It might help if you are struggling to… ahem… get off, but, like alcohol, this won’t guarantee an undisturbed night’s sleep and it’s probably not something that you want to become dependant on!
For more, including why this stuff works, check out ‘Recommended Reading’ below.
Anxiety and Insomnia
Remember that I am not that kind of doctor; I have no medical or psychology qualifications, I’m just blogging about my experience. It’s important to be aware that insomnia could be a symptom of something else, so keep an eye out for warning signs.
One thing to look out for is Anxiety. I often become preoccupied with stuff, obsessing and worrying over things that are often beyond my control, which prevents my brain from shutting down at bedtime. I remember obsessing for weeks over the battle with our old landlord to get our deposits back, for example, and that was a fairly minor thing; now I’m bringing a child into the world in the middle of the first global pandemic in a century!
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness exercises can help break these cycles, but there’s no quick fix and it takes some perseverance to banish those negative habits.
– Audiobooks (and Sleepphones)
That said, I have found that listening to audiobooks as I drift off often distracts my brain long enough for my body to fall asleep.
I prefer a soothing voice and something I already know. For me, that’s Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter or Steven Briggs reading Discworld. Personally, I do most of my listening through Audible. The Audible app has a ‘sleep’ function that stops reading after 30 minutes or the end of the chapter. Then if you already know the story, you can carry on the following night, even if you miss part of it.
If you share a bed/room/flat with someone, I can recommend SleepPhones, which are comfortable enough to wear through the night and in any sleep position.
Depression and Insomnia
For me, lack of motivation from depression meant that, even when I was getting some of my PhD work done, I was still sitting around most of the day being inactive. So, in a way, it’s no surprise that I wasn’t tired enough to sleep when nighttime came. This improved when I got a job and started going into work more regularly, but it was definitely a lot worse when I was stuck at home all the time(!!!).
– Stay Active
Again, there’s no easy fix. The only advice I can give is to force yourself to get up and do stuff, to exercise and get fresh air where possible (though I realise that’s not so easy right now). I’m not necessarily saying that you should go jogging or do 100 push-ups, but don’t just sit at your desk or on the couch/bed all day. Open a window, move about regularly and be sure to eat healthily and drink plenty of fluids – basic self-care, essentially.
Get into a Routine
Some of the tips above are useful as short-term solutions, but what about more long-term problems? Well, the best advice is to get into a routine. Aim to sleep for around 8 hours each night, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (including weekends). You simply cannot “just catch up” by having a lie-in on a Sunday morning. The only way to “top-up” your sleep without messing up your circadian rhythms is by having a nap – the best time to do so being around 3 pm when there is a natural dip in your hormones levels.
A wearable device, such as a Fitbit (while it cannot track your sleep reliably and accurately) will at least give you an idea of how you’re doing without having to keep a sleep diary.
A good book on the subject is ‘Night School’ by Richard Wiseman. He cites various papers and studies as he discusses the things that can affect sleep, including some of the advice I’ve listed above (and, if you’re interested, the science behind it). He is also a funny and engaging writer, which always helps!
So, that’s a summary of my advice on sleep and insomnia which, in my experience, was a significant part of my struggle with mental health. If you can get a good night’s sleep, you’ll be in a better mood and in better shape to face the day, so it’s definitely a good place to start.