As someone who has struggled with sleep for over 17 years now, I suppose you could call me an insomniac. I don’t spend days concerned that I might not sleep. I don’t lie there at night worrying that I should be asleep. But I am concerned about the long term ramifications of not getting enough sleep and I am painfully aware that during days following a bad night, my memory is poor and I struggle to think clearly. My clients will no doubt recognise this during a class when I get my left and rights in a muddle!
Worrying about not sleeping will be causing a stress response which ironically is more likely to cause disturbance. So I have cultivated a practice to help me switch off; to let go of worries and negative thoughts and to soothe my nervous system before bed.
I know for me it will be a slow journey because my nervous system is hyper-sensitive following mental illness, but so far, it has been worthwhile. I can get a solid six hours some nights! I wanted to share my plan with you and I’d love to hear how you get on. This is an ideal routine which in reality I can’t commit to every night. But I do the best I can to keep it up. And all you can do is your very best too.
1) JOURNALLING - I have found it useful to keep a note of my quality of sleep, what time I woke up, what I ate and what activity I did during the day. This gives me some idea of what aspects of my lifestyle are impacting my sleep. I have also kept a note of any important emotional experiences that day as I know this is likely to effect my nervous system and therefore my sleep. Writing down any negative thoughts or worries gets them off my chest and ending with gratitude sets a positive note on which to end.
2) BODY BRUSHING - this practice is cleansing. It brushes away dead skin cells, brings blood to the skin’s surface and helps reduce cellulite. But it has another more important benefit in that it tones the vagus nerve; the major parasympathetic nerve in your body. The more activities you can do to promote vagal tone, the better!
3) MINDFUL SHOWER - Mindfulness doesn’t have to be done sitting cross legged and concentrating on your breath. Any regular practice can be done mindfully. I step into the shower and switch it on, noticing the sound, watching the water running towards my feet and am alert to the sensation of the cold water touching my skin and splashing my legs. It feels lovely as the water heats up at which point I step underneath the shower. I am aware of all sensations as I wash and dry myself. I try to see and listen and be curious. The benefit of a warm shower at night is that it is relaxing. But do this in the morning if you prefer and after your warm shower, turn the heat down! A cold shower improves vagal tone.
4) BRUSHING TEETH - This can also be done mindfully in the same way mentioned above; be alert to the senses. I recently read that Bergamot oil has germ fighting properties. It boosts mood and reduces stress. Add a drop to your toothpaste and enjoy the smell and fragrant taste.
5) MASSAGE - I choose an essential oil that is soothing and relaxing; Lavender, Clary Sage, Vetiver or Bergamot for example and add a drop to a carrier oil. As I rub the oil into my skin, I continue to be aware of sensation and the scent of the oil. I try to give my feet a good massage in particular and I even work on my face with some gentle tapping (although I switch to my face oil for this).
6) STRETCH - Unless I have just taught a yoga class, I get into bed or on my mat beside the bed and spend about ten minutes stretching. It is ideal to stretch hips and hamstrings, so occasionally I will spend time in king pigeon pose; either supported with pillows or not. Restorative poses are superb for soothing the nervous system, especially Viparita Karani - legs up the wall pose. Long hold stretches enable the body to enter the relaxation response which is when heart rate decreases, metabolism lowers, breathing rate decreases and the body is brought back into a healthier balance. Child pose is soothing and I will often feel myself nodding off so I prefer to do this pose when I am already in my bed!
7) DEEP BREATHING - Using Ujjayi breathing during the stretches will further calm the nervous system, whilst elongating the exhalation stimulates parasympathetic dominance, i.e the rest and digest branch of the autonomic nervous system.
8) YOGA NIDRA - I’ll be honest, I will often forget this stage because I am relaxed by the deep breathing and ready to sleep! But if I am still struggling, I will ‘talk’ myself through a yoga nidra practice. I love listening to a story or a relaxation practice but I have found that I will jump awake if the sound changes suddenly or if a bell is rung. So I find this practice better for my mind. It is easy to go through the body parts and I usually drift off before I’ve reached my right knee! But if not, I continue throughout the body.
If you really want your sleep to improve, it is vital to practice self care. Not just before bed, but throughout your day if you can. So here are some other tips to help you:
Adjust your sleep/wake cycle, otherwise known as your circadian rhythm by getting daylight in the morning if you can. Walk to work, or at least get out at lunch time if possible. Stick to a strict routine; be in bed by 10.00 ideally and get up at 6.00.
Try not to wear sunglasses before midday unless you have particularly sensitive eyes; a hat would be better. But wear sunglasses in the afternoon to begin the process of melatonin stimulation; the chemical that induces sleep.
Dim the lights at night and replace any blue light with yellow. Try not to look at a screen after 8 p.m. If you must, dim the screen. I use f.lux on my computer which develops an orange tint over the screen. Set your gadgets to automatically dim the light accordingly. You can buy goggles that screen the blue light in your home.
Eat foods containing Tryptophan often. Tryptophan is a natural remedy for getting better sleep and reducing problems associated with sleep disorders. Find out more here.
Exercise daily to rid the body of stress hormones, but don’t go to a well lit gym at night! A brisk walk every day at lunch time would be better than nothing.
Keep your bedroom at a lower temperature than the rest of your house; preferably with an open window. If you are menopausal, wear cotton nightware (if any at all), use cotton sheets and consider a lighter duvet with a blanket so that you can remove the blanket if you have a night sweat, rather than the entire duvet! Perhaps it’s time for two single duvets. It won’t last forever.
Leave gadgets out of the bedroom and try not to clock watch throughout the night. If you’re a true insomniac, you’ll know how often you woke up and roughly what time it is. Looking at the clock or your phone will just shine bright light into your eyes and is more likely to make you worry, triggering the stress response again.
If you wake up at night, it is advised that you get up and leave the room. Do something relaxing and calming with as little light as possible. Another good opportunity for some yoga! This is difficult but if your brain associates your bed and bedroom with wakefulness, you won’t win the battle. It’s about breaking the cycle and tricking the brain.
Overall, insomina is yet another symptom of stress. Reduce stress and you will more than likely improve your sleep. But it is not always that simple. Sometimes your nervous system needs serious work (like mine) and it may take a prolonged attack from multiple support systems to manifest lasting change. Feel free to reach out for advice.