Before we get started: this is a long and almost exhaustive post about my experience improving my sleep. You’ll get some really good tips about how to regain healthy and quality sleep. Make yourself a cup of tea and make sure you’re sitting comfortably. Let’s dive in!
When I graduated and started working a few years ago, I experienced a long period of stress resulting in very poor sleep quality. I’d almost never experienced sleepless nights before and I felt clueless about what was going on. Insomnia was such a harsh experience for me that I want to share with you how to get through it without spending all your money on sleep consultants nor falling into the trap of taking sleeping pills.
I really hope I’d knew everything I’m going to talk about when I was feeling so helpless but at least you can now benefit from it. It took me a lot of research and a lot of efforts but I made it! And so can you. I still have a bad night from time to time but I think it is ok, especially when one is going through a lot of changes. As I write these lines, precisely 10 months have passed since I’ve arrived in Canada (and we’ve just moved into a new place) and before that I’ve been living in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Moving in a foreign country is not easy and I believe the key message of this blogpost is this: have compassion with yourself.
Suffering from insomnia is very painful and can affect your mood, your efficiency at work and your relationships. I urge you to take care of yourself and to find a restorative sleep again. Insomnia can be caused by stress or by diseases and I’m only going to deal with stress-related insomnia here. I’m not a doctor so when in doubt, check with your physician.
Stress-related insomnia can take different forms: in my case, I had troubles falling asleep but insomnia can also translates into troubles of staying asleep – basically you wake up in the middle of the night without being able to get back to sleep – or waking up too early. I believe my tips will help you get rid of whichever type of insomnia you’re dealing with and improve the quality of your sleep. Make a commitment now that you’ll make it work. Well done, you’ve just taken the first step towards sleeping better.
When researching how to get rid of insomnia, I read tons of articles that repeated the same banalities over and over again. I was very aware that it wouldn’t change a thing to my problem that was much deeper and complicated than the simple orientation of my bed or the quality of the sheets. Looking back, I wish I had taken those hints more seriously as they are the bedrock of a healthy sleep. So don’t underestimate the following tips:
1. No tea or coffee after 2:00pm: don’t mess with that one as you want to put all the chances on your side to get a good night’s sleep. I used to be quite stubborn with hot beverages but the thing is: you need to improve a lot of things and get into new habits to get rid of insomnia. There isn’t only one factor that determines if you’re going to sleep well or not sleep a wink. A healthy lifestyle and a calm state will make wonders for you. So cut down on coffee and tea after midday and replace them by herbal tea, water or fruit juice.
2. Recreate the nest of the Marsupilami. Do you know the comic book? Let me explain: the Marsupilamis are wild creatures with this super long tail and something that distinguishes them from the rest of the animals in the story is that they have the coziest, most comfortable nest/bed ever. I encourage you to do the same for your room. Chose a quality mattress, opt for light colors for your walls and declutter your bedroom. Your room should be your peaceful sanctuary, a place that you associate with calm and serenity. Make sure you air your room once a day to get fresh air. Which brings me to the next point.
3. Set the right temperature for your bedroom: when I couldn’t find sleep, I used to get very hot and having the windows wide-open during the night – whatever the season – helped me find some peace. Everybody has different needs regarding temperature because our blood circulation, body structure and amount of fat isn’t the same. I suggest you study what works best for you. But by and large, you want to keep a room temperature below 20°C to breathe in fresh air. If it is too cold for you, add a few blankets.
4. Watch your diet: heavy meals at dinner are your number one enemy. With a stomach about to explode, you won’t find a comfy position when lying in bed, you’ll get very thirsty and you’re belly is going to hurt. Usually, I avoid carbohydrates and fat meals for evenings, preferring soups or vegetables. Remember: breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and have dinner like a poor.
5. Practice sports: When it comes to regulating your sleep, there is nothing like physical exercise. Whatever it is that you like doing, do it! There is a huge difference between nervous fatigue (basically when you come home after a hard day’s work) and physical tiredness (a healthy fatigue that comes after a great workout). Have you ever noticed the difference?
But when you’re exhausted because you’re not sleeping enough, how can you go to the gym without collapsing, you may ask? Well, that’s a tricky question. I suggest you listen to your body first. If you’re feeling very week and your blood pressure is low, don’t push it. You don’t need a bad experience like that on top of the insomnia issue. But if you feel that you have a bit of energy left, go for it. I’ve noticed that the later I do my workout in the evening, the more difficulties I have to calm down. I suggest stopping all kinds of trainings after 8:00pm. Time to rest!
6. Create a calm and relaxed night-time routine: the purpose of evenings is to s.l.o.w…..d.o.w.n. All day long, we’re on high voltage, running errands, always thinking about the next thing on our to-do list and worrying about God knows what. Switch off! Or you’re brain’s going to be on autopilot mode and will continue minding his own business without your permission. Read a book, cook dinner, and take a bath, anything relaxing!
7. Switch off and put your smartphone in the drawer: Keeping your smartphone within reach is not quite the way to relax and recharge your batteries. The problem with screens is that they maintain our brain very active and make us waste so much time. Set your own rules: decide when it is time to put your smartphone away and stop scrolling mindlessly through your social media feeds, which most of the time, makes you feel bad. Before 8:00 or 9:00pm would be great! I speak for myself too here J
8. Adjust the lighting: they say you should go to bed before 10:00pm, but let’s be honest, it’s quite “mission impossible”. Having said that, your biological clock is still very sensitive to lighting. At night, we should progressively diminish the luminosity in our homes to initiate the transition of our body into sleep mode. I’m not only talking about the lamps but also the screen brightness. You can adjust it too! I’ve watched this video a few years back and it is still very relevant regarding bed time and lighting, have a look here: How to optimize your health with Ameer Rosic.
9. Go to bed and wake up every day at the same time, week-ends included: your body needs to get on a healthy schedule. I know it’s hard but as you implement a consistent wake-up and bedtime routine, you’ll witness great improvement. I haven’t used it yet but there is a free App called “Bedtime” on the new iPhones and the bedtime reminder helps you go to bed on time. As for me, I make sure that I had a shower and I made my meditation before 10:00pm. Even if I don’t want to sleep right away, I go to bed at 10:00pm and read for a while to make sure that by the time it’s 11:00pm, I’m sleeping in the arms of Morpheus.
Ok. I’ve covered the basics, the ones I talked about at the beginning of this post that didn’t quite solve my problem but that are a great start in taking good sleeping habits. The following tips are more personal ones, I’ve experienced them all and in the long-run they helped me get quality sleep back. Stay tuned!
10. Identify the cause of your anxiety: The one and only reason why you can’t sleep is because you’re worried about something and/or because you’re constantly in an adrenaline rush. For your body, it’s just impossible to calm down because adrenaline is a stress hormone. “Adrenaline triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. This reaction causes air passages to dilate to provide the muscles with the oxygen they need to either fight danger or flee. Adrenaline also triggers the blood vessels to contract to re-direct blood toward major muscle groups, including the heart and lungs”.
Before you run a marathon, it’s useful! Not so much before going to bed. In order to find a tailored solution for your stress, you need to investigate on what causes such a state of anxiety. Look for patterns, observe what makes you angry, analyze your thoughts, and really go for it.
My reason for being anxious was pretty obvious but it took me quite some time to identify it: when I started working, I just wanted to continue doing all the things I did as a student, which included: doing a lot of sports (3 to 4 times a week), learning German, English, Italian and do a lot of other things. My agenda was so packed that I never had a time off. It was only when I accepted that I had to choose one or two activities at the most that I began being calmer.
11. Don’t freak out about the consequences of insomnia: Yes, sleeping well is super important for your health as your body restores every night. Your brain, your cells, your eyes, your immune system and a lot of other things benefit from a good night’s sleep. However, worrying about the fact that you don’t get enough sleep all the time won’t improve anything. I remember training myself to be grateful for the few hours of sleep I got each night and focusing on my progression instead of feeling sorry for myself. Very helpful!
12. Staying or not staying in bed, that is the question: when you can’t find sleep, what do you do? Do you stay in bed tossing and turning or do you get out and start doing something in the living room? I suggest you act depending on your plans for the next day. If you have a jam-packed day, you can briefly get up, drink a glass of water and open a window for a few minutes to catch fresh air and then go back to bed. When I do that, I try to stay upright in bed and I repeat my mantra slowly “I love being calm, I love being calm, I love being calm …” (I don’t fully lie in bed to concentrate on the meditation which tires me). If you have a normal day, then I wouldn’t stay in bed and I would try to do an activity that is calm and simple but that still tires me. For example, I read a book or I start an article for my blog. You could also do a crossword puzzle, a Sudoku, organize your photos… After one hour or two, I’m usually cooked.
13. Sleeping pills are not the answer: When I was experiencing chronic insomnia, I was so exhausted that my doctor prescribed me sleeping pills. It helped me get a good night’s sleep during a week and get back on my feet. But it didn’t solve the root problem, hence my crazy routine. I continued taking sleeping pills for a month or two and soon realized what I had got myself into: a downward spiral. As I was trying to reduce the dosage, I just kept thinking at night “I only took half of the pill that’s why I can’t sleep” realizing that I had associated good sleep with the pills. My advice to you guys: don’t even get down that road. Needless to stay, I stopped taking the pills altogether, still looking for a better answer.
14. Solve the problems in your life as soon as you can: The longer you wait to solve a problem, the more your stress level rises. If it is manageable, I recommend solving problems as they come or learn consciously to forget about them when you come home and promise yourself to tackle them the next day. Which brings me to the next point.
15. No e-mail reading right before going home: I like to start the day with the most important and/or most difficult things to do: important phone calls, briefings, researches and so on. I plan easier tasks for the end of the day. Also, I avoid reading my mails every 5 minutes because it prevents me from being effective. But what I try to avoid above all is reading an important e-mail just before I go home because I won’t be able to fix the problem until the next day but my mind is going to be monopolized on how to solve it. I’ve been solving problems during entire nights and you know what? The problem had solved itself the next day! My advice to you: plan a smooth transition from the office to your home.
16. Reduce the amount of e-mail you send and receive: when working as a brand manager, I used to receive as much as 500 emails a day during rush times. It made me very angry because I felt assaulted. Do not use emails like a chat and decide when it is better to give a call or to organize a meeting to discuss a specific topic. 3-pages email will only annoy the recipient who will just skim through your lines. Communication is an art and if you do it well, you’ll see your amount of emails decreasing. That’s what happened to me after I applied this method 🙂 If you are not convinced, read the book “The 4-hour workweek” by Tim Ferris.
17. Drinking milk: If you’re looking for a night’s drink and you’re not allergic to it, I suggest drinking a tall glass of milk, hot or cold. Is this just an old wives’ tale? Yes and no. Milk contains two substances: the hormone melatonin and the amino acid tryptophan that are related to sleep and relaxation. But milk contains them in small amounts and it can’t really induce sleep immediately. The effect of milk is more psychological. It may reminds us of happy memories of our childhood which may help us relax. For me, milk is soothing and it has contributed to make me feel calmer. If you like it, go ahead! To know more about milk and sleep, have a look at this article.
18. No sleep diary: I used to write each morning how many hours I had slept and describe shortly how my nights had been. When I noticed how poor my sleep was, it just made things worse: it made me feel desperate. You don’t want to focus on the fact that you can’t sleep, instead, you want to concentrate on your well-being and the small progress you’re doing. Throw away that sleep diary!
19. The fear of sleepless nights: Have you heard about self-fulfilling prophecies? It means that what you think about, comes about. At some point, you will probably fear the fact of sleeping poorly. You’ll imagine in your head how unpleasant it is and how fed up you are about it. Well, that’s exactly what we want to avoid here. Just like I explained in tip #18, you want to focus on the positive things. When you feel that your thoughts are getting out of control, try to ground yourself by focusing on your breathing. If it’s not working, try the tapping method (very, very powerful) that consists of tapping/pressing with your fingers specific acupuncture points. I’ve used this very helpful video which is a sort of guided tapping therapy session. Before we move on to the next point, I just want to stress out the fact that your sleeping problem won’t go away in one swoop. Nope. You have to be persistent. Just because one method doesn’t work the first time doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. The same applies to tapping therapy. You may need 3 to 5 sessions before feeling the positive side-effects. Hang in there!
20. 3 deep breathing sessions a day at work: Sleeping well is a matter of preparation and you can do so during the day by making sure your stress level remains low. When you have a very demanding job or if you’re interacting with a lot with people, it might be tricky to find some time to calm down. Use the time you go to the bathroom to relax. During the whole time (on your way to the bathroom and back and when doing what you’ve got to do) walk/sit consciously by focusing on your breathing and by repeating in your head “inspiration” when you breathe in and “expiration” when you breathe out.
21. Talk about it: Keeping our problems to ourselves can be devastating. Find a person that cares about you and who you can trust. Talk about your sleeping problems, maybe that person can coach you and encourage you to implement all the tips I’m talking about in this post.
22. Meditation, relaxation & yoga: If you only take away one tip from this post, I recommend starting meditation. That’s what personally saved me. I do 2 meditation sessions a day, one in the morning and one in the evening. If you want to learn more about my meditation routine, I’ve dedicated an entire post about that subject. You can read it here: my meditation routine.
23. Listen to Zen music: I love listening to Latin American music, house, techno and so forth. That’s great, except that it makes me want to dance very baldy. Does anyone reacts the same?? Unless you’re getting out in a night club and you won’t sleep anyway, I suggest to incorporate some delicious relaxing Zen music in your night time routine. There are tons of playlists available online, you don’t need to buy anything.
If this post made you sleepy, I’ve done my job J Seriously though, I really wish that you’ll improve the quality of your sleep very soon. Let me know in the comment section down below if this article helped you and most importantly how you’re doing now. I’d be more than happy to hear your story and which tips worked best for you. Thanks a lot for reading and see you soon on the blog!