I know this is typically a writing blog, but for years I’ve suffered from a condition that plagues many writers: insomnia.
For more than ten years, I’ve struggled with sleeping well at night — if at all. 2017 was particularly bad for me. Sometimes I’d go more than 48 hours without falling asleep.
Finally, I’d had enough.
If you’ve suffer from insomnia, you know that everyone will tell you, “this is how to fix it.” Usually, their intentions are good, but their advice often leads to frustration on behalf of the insomniac if these recommendations don’t work.
One thing I had to learn when trying to curb my insomnia: do not get frustrated. This only leads to more stress (and more sleepless nights). I know it’s hard, but just try to shrug it off. “Well, this didn’t work for me but maybe something else will.”
Attitude is important.
Lots of things didn’t work for me, including common “cures” – various exercises, light boxes, warm baths, herbs, teas, avoiding “screens” before bed (TV, computer, phone). I also tried prescription and non-prescription sleeping pills with limited success.
There are three things that made all the difference. Since I made these changes in my life, I’ve had six months of nearly-perfect sleep. Of course, I’ve had hiccups here and there, but nothing compared to what I dealt with over the last several years.
As always, this should not be substituted as medical advice. If you are suffering from a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor or health professional about your symptoms.
Now, here’s what worked for me.
1) No caffeine after lunch.
This was a hard habit to break but made the biggest difference. I only drink one glass of caffeine before noon — if any at all — and then drink non-caffeinated beverages for the rest of the day.
(Note: many teas, coffees and pops offer caffeine-free alternatives with no difference in taste)
I started cutting back slowly in January 2018, not drinking caffeine after supper, then 4 PM, 2 PM, and then noon. By June 2018, I hardly drink any caffeine at all.
While I was cutting back, the fatigue was rough — so be prepared. For two months, I’d get killer headaches around 5 PM in the evening. Both the fatigue and headaches eventually subsided, but it shows how dependent I’d become on it.
2) Waking up at the same time every day.
This was also very hard since I’m such a zombie in the morning and sleep through most alarms. It required recruiting other humans to drag me out of bed or call my house repeatedly until I got up.
Note: don’t try to change your sleep schedule, unless you must for school, work, or another obligation. Instead, try working with your natural sleep cycle.
For example, I love writing in the afternoons and evenings, and oftentimes into the night. Afterwards, I usually need an hour or two of reading or other activity to distance me from the story — or I’ll be thinking about it all night.
My typical sleep schedule is from 2 AM to 10 AM. A solid eight hours. Really, it should be all I need, but my body constantly fights to stay in bed longer (usually by turning off my alarm while sleeping).
However, whenever I stayed in bed for more than eight hours, I always had trouble falling asleep the next night.
This is where the other humans come in (mostly my husband). Every morning, he makes sure I’m out of bed shortly after 10 AM. Now, if you live alone or don’t have someone who can help you stay on schedule, there are specialty alarms you can buy.
Before I was married, I often relied on an alarm made for people who are partially deaf. It was about twice as loud as my fire alarm. I’d put it under my bed or in another room so I’d have to physically get out of bed to turn it off. Once I was up, I could (usually) convince myself to stay away from the bed.
For your shopping convenience, Amazon has a wide variety of “super loud alarms.”
3) Exhausting my mind through the day.
I’m a creative type and often when I’d lay down for the night, my mind would start writing. Writing is my job, but there are some days where I’m doing everything else but my books: website maintenance, interviews, answering emails, updating social media, etc., etc.
Now, no matter how busy I get, I make sure I give myself enough time to write, read, research or study through the day until I’m “mentally exhausted.” When I say “research and study,” I mean specifically learning more about the craft of writing, not studying subjects outside of my novels.
Think of it like a rowdy child: the more I’d drain all my mental energy, the easier I’d drift off to dreamland at night.
Like I said, this is what worked for me but won’t necessarily work for everyone else. If you’re an insomniac, keep trying different things, and different combinations of things, until you find your “cure.”
The biggest thing I learned from this experience: it takes time. It takes time to figure out what works for you and it takes time to form new habits (or break old ones.)
However, once you start to take control of your quality of sleep, it is also an incredibly empowering thing. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m in control of my sleep, not the other way around.
Chances are, your insomnia probably won’t disappear permanently — but getting good sleep most nights of the week can make the rough ones much more manageable and much less stressful.