Which Techniques Work Best for Insomnia? | My Experience
Insomnia is the worst, let me put that out there. You lay awake, exhausted, hoping that at some point you will fall asleep. Sometimes you do fall asleep and you end up sleeping a decent amount of time, while other times you may get a few hours of sleep, and sometimes you won't get any sleep at all. Insomnia can have all sorts of causes. Mine were a myriad of anxiety, being on changing work shifts, having a circadian rhythm that doesn't match a normal 9-5 work schedule, and unhealthy sleeping habits.
My History of Insomnia
I've had insomnia off and on since I was in the military and I believe part of that was my anxiety. The other part was my work shifts (days, swing shift, and mid shift), which changed approximately every three months for two years. My normal circadian rhythm makes it so I naturally go to sleep around one or two a.m. and wake up at about 10:30 a.m., which is something I definitely couldn't do in the military. Once I moved to another base, my work schedule was more like a day shift schedule, but it took a long time for me to recover from how much my body was wrecked from working varying shifts for two years.
During the years I was working a normal work shift, I would sometimes go two to two and half days without sleeping, then crash and sleep for 10-12 hours. I went to the doctors on the military base and asked for help. They tried different medications such as trazadone, Ambien, and Lunesta, but they never worked for me. I'd just be groggy and confused the next day, worse off than if I had never taken them at all. I looked up natural remedies and tried melatonin. Melatonin did make me sleepy and I would fall asleep about half an hour after taking it, but it wouldn't keep me asleep. I'd sleep for three or four hours and wake up, not being able to fall back asleep.
This went on for another five years until I decided that I needed to try a different kind of therapy (I mainly tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for a few years and it sort of worked, but it wasn't enough for me). I talked to my therapist and we decided to try Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This therapy uses different techniques, but the one that I believe most benefited me was learning how to meditate. Normally when I'd fall asleep, that was the time when I had most of my anxious thoughts. I felt like I couldn't make them go away and I tried to ignore them, but at night it was like I was too tired to fight them off. Meditation taught me how to recognize that I was having anxious thoughts, but not to examine any of them closely.
My Experience with Meditation
I practiced meditation at first for about 15 minutes a day, the same time every day so it became a habit. I felt that I wasn't good at it at first, but my therapist told me it would get easier with practice. It really did get easier. It also helped me to focus more on everyday tasks and helped me to be present with every activity I did. It used to be extremely easy for me to focus more on my anxious thoughts rather than something I was trying to enjoy; my life had become so wrapped around my anxiety that I felt like I couldn't truly enjoy anything. Meditation helped me to feel more in control of my anxiety, instead of letting it control me.
After about a month of meditating, I noticed I was more relaxed at bedtime and didn't have nearly as many intrusive thoughts during the day. I still felt like it was taking me a long time to get to sleep, so I researched unhealthy sleep habits and I felt like I was doing almost everything wrong.
My Unhealthy Sleep Habits
My bedtime routine was pretty much non-existent at first when I started researching unhealthy sleep habits. I didn't go to sleep and get up at the same times every day. I would read on my Kindle Fire while in bed, keep my phone in the room with me, and I would keep the temperature in the house the same temperature it had been during the day. The things I was doing right were not having a television in the bedroom, not eating in the bedroom, and using blackout curtains to create an environment without light.
Most of the articles I researched said that your bedroom should only be used to sleep in and have sex in. This creates an environment that prepares your body for relaxation and sleep. If you watch television in your room, you create an environment for your body to be awake in, so keeping your television in your living is the way to go.
How I Changed My Unhealthy Sleep Habits
The changes I made were to make sure that I didn't read my Kindle Fire approximately an hour before going to bed. I could read my regular Kindle because it didn't emit blue light. Blue light tells your body to stay awake. Your television, tablet, computer, and phone all emit blue light. Some have a feature that allows you to turn off the blue light, but it honestly looks weird and made it hard to read the screen. I also kept my phone out of the bedroom.
Electronics emit an electromagnetic field. There are those that believe that electromagnetic fields can disrupt your circadian rhythm and the way your body emits melatonin, and those who believe there is no link between EMF's and sleep. My experience is that when I took my phone out of my room, I woke up less often (if at all), so I believe that EMF's affect my sleep. I think it's beneficial to leave your phone out of your room just to avoid the temptation of reading it and subjecting yourself to blue light, whether or not you believe EMF's disrupt sleep.
The other change I made was to drop the temperature at night. I used to leave it between 68 and 71 degrees. Now I drop the temperature to 64 or 65 degrees and I've noticed that I go to sleep faster and don't wake up due to being too hot. Dropping your core body temperature tells your body that it's time to go to sleep.
As far as eating and drinking before bedtime, I usually drink water for most of the day, but I've never had a problem with caffeine. Caffeine usually does nothing to me, and if I have enough of it, it just makes me tired. For the rest of the world who experiences wakefulness with caffeine, it is important to limit your intake before bedtime. I drink water at night, so that does wake me up once or twice a night, but I never have trouble getting back to sleep after going to the bathroom.
One thing you shouldn't do if you use the bathroom at night is to turn on the light. You want to limit your exposure to light or it will most likely wake you up. I plugged an emergency flashlight (a very small one) into the bathroom wall that has a nightlight option on it. I found that this emits enough light so that I can see in the bathroom without disrupting my sleep.
Ever since I was in the military, I've used blackout curtains. If you have the option to completely block out the light in your bedroom, I'd recommend doing it. Any light, whether it be from streetlights, your porch lights, passing cars, or even the moon can disrupt your sleep. If you turn out our lamp during the day and close the door, it's almost pitch black in our room. That's pretty much what your standard should be. Making your room as dark as possible tells your body that it's time to go to sleep and gets me to sleep much quicker than when I sleep in a room without blackout curtains. I sleep deeper and feel more rested when the room is devoid of light. The thing I also noticed is that I wake up after seven and a half to eight hours and I don't oversleep just because it's dark. Don't be afraid that you will end up sleeping for 12 hours because it's dark. I always end up sleeping later if I sleep somewhere where the light isn't blocked out completely.
My last technique is to use loud fans for white noise if noise tends to wake you up. I live in an apartment where the walls are thin, so you hear everything inside and outside. White noise helps me to not be woken up by loud neighbors, cars, or dogs. I'd recommend a floor fan since those tend to be louder and to get one with a remote so you can change the setting without having to get up. I find that white noise machines aren't loud enough to block out the noise and neither are those CD's or applications that play white noise (plus, you know, you want to keep most electronics out of your room that emit blue light). I have a Stanley floor fan and a Lasko Wind Machine fan, and both provide enough white noise to block out most sounds (and will cool you down quickly if you get hot at night).
These are all the techniques I've used to develop healthy sleeping habits and to learn to take control of my anxiety in order to get better sleep. I've noticed that I sleep better, longer, and wake up more refreshed than I ever had before. My recommendation is that if you try these habits and want to work on mindfulness meditation, keep at it. For me, these will be lifelong habits because I know they work for me and have made my life better. If you'd like more information, I've provided links below.
Here are some helpful links about healthy sleeping habits and meditation:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4130204/ (article about EMF's and sleep disruption)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3060715/ (article about meditation and how it helps insomnia)
Here is the meditation exercise I used:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGFog-OuFDM (guided meditation using a bell sound- five mnutes)
I hope this has helped you. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. If you have an experience you'd like to share, please share in the comments below!