HOW I OVERCAME MY INSOMNIA:
For most of my life I was one of those annoying people who could fall asleep anywhere.
I never imagined that sleep would one day become my nemesis – something so elusive I became convinced I’d never again experience the simple pleasure of feeling tired, going to bed and drifting peacefully off to sleep. Instead, my bed became my battleground, a place where I dreaded going each night, where I’d spend hours upon hour staring into a desolate, sleepless abyss.
It’s hard to explain exactly how awful it is until you’ve experienced true insomnia: I’m not talking those odd nights when you’ve got something on your mind and your sleep is shallow and unsatisfying, I’m talking about night after night of not being able to fall asleep at all. Of twitching awake moments after you do manage to drift off (these particular lovelies are called hypnagogic jerks). Of gratefully falling asleep, only to find yourself wide awake at 4am, your body literally buzzing with weird insomnia adrenaline.
The night is a desperately lonely place when you can’t sleep and your mind can go to some strange places. Your bedroom becomes a battleground – a place where you relentlessly fight your sleep demons, night after night after night.
The days pass in an exhausted blur – your temper is frayed, your reactions are dulled and your thoughts are thick and muddled. I found myself literally willing the days to end so I could – fingers crossed – go to bed and get some sleep (although, in a particularly cruel twist, the more tired you are the more psychological pressure you pile on yourself and the worse the insomnia becomes).
I felt like I was being robbed of one of life’s simplest and most underrated pleasures – snuggling up under the covers, and feeling that delicious descent into sleep. Even weekend sleep-ins were ruined as I woke up achey and exhausted, and desperate to get out of the place I’d just experienced so much torment (at one stage I even slept on the sofa because my heart would race with anxiety the moment as I lay down on my bed).
During my six-year war against insomnia I tried pretty much everything – meditation, scented candles, pillow sprays, wine, OTC sleeping aids, vitamins, hypnosis apps, deep breathing techniques, yoga, essential oils, CBT, going to bed early, going to bed late. I stopped short of sleeping pills (despite the doctors repeatedly recommending them) as I point-blank refused to risk falling into that deeper trap.
Occasionally I struck a truce with my sleeplessness and would get a few weeks, even a month, of reasonable slumber. But then something would inevitably end the armistice – a noise outside, someone closing their door too loudly during the night, and the entire process would begin again.
But now, finally, I think I’ve cracked it – this is how I overcame my insomnia:
Firstly, I don’t award it any more of my time. Because there’s a big psychological element to this condition, simply talking about it gives it more prominence in my subconscious and allows it to rear up again. The more I worry about it the worse it gets – a frustrating self-fulfilling prophecy. So I refuse to give it life by thinking about it any more than I absolutely have to.
I’ve figured out an evening ritual that requires me to ignore my Night Owl nature and stick to a specific window of time to get up in the morning and go to bed at night, even during weekends and holidays. I set the ‘Do Not Disturb’ function on my phone and iPad from 8.30pm and 7am, and avoid the temptation to answer texts and emails during that time. OH and I made a pact not to discuss stressful subjects late in the day, which means I can devote the evening to unwinding and allowing my thoughts to calm down.
I don’t drink caffeine past lunchtime (sob!) and take a daily magnesium mineral supplement to help regulate sleep. An hour before bed I take a valerian tablet (to be honest, I don’t know if it’s the vitamins or the placebo effect that makes a difference – I don’t really care, so long as it works!) and on weekends I have a glass or two of my favourite wine (not too many though – any more than three small glasses and I find the alcohol interferes with my sleep and can actuallyl trigger the insomnia).
One of the reasons why I decided to completely redecorate my bedroom was because it had come to feel more like a prison cell than a sanctum – I wanted to bury all the bad memories under a fresh coat of off-black paint. As well as the makeover, I invested in a new duvet cover and some decent pillows to make the bed as comfy and inviting as possible (see the pic above).
To make it even more inviting, I have a reed diffuser that subtly fills the room with my favourite scent – Jo Malone’s Peony and Blush Suede. It may sound over-the-top, but it all goes towards creating a calm, inviting space.
Daily exercise (I do a mix of cardio, yoga and pilates) helps keep anxiety levels under control, and I’ve also discovered a cold room helps me sleep better. I crack my windows open every night, even during winter (with an extra-thick feather duvet on the bed), and use a blackout blind to ensure the room stays nice and dark.
If I still feel that thrum of anxiety around bedtime I use deep breathing meditation techniques to slow my heart rate and calm my nervous system – breathing slowly and deeply in for four seconds, then out for four seconds.
Finally, I use the free Rain Rain app for background noise: I’ve always loved the sound of rain hitting my windows at night time, so this not only makes me feel relaxed, it distracts me from worrying about whether I’ll sleep or not, because the moment that thought pops into my mind I’m wide awake again.
Not only am I going to sleep pretty easily, I’m staying that way until the morning – something I was beginning to think I’d never manage again. I’m even sleeping long enough to have dreams, which is another thing the insomnia had stolen from me.
But I’m like Cinderella at the ball – my schedule has a buffer zone of around half an hour, but if I deviate much more than that, I miss my sleep cycle and the insomnia returns with a vengeance. When that happens I don’t drop off again for another six or seven hours, and it takes me a couple of days of unsettled sleep to get back into synch.
Yes, it’s annoying and restrictive to have to stick to such a rigid routine, and sometimes people don’t get why you have to be so militant (surely it won’t matter if you have ONE late night?), but it’s a thousand times better than the alternative. For the first time in nearly 12 years (before the insomnia it was the kids constantly stealing my sleep!) I’m waking up feeling rested and refreshed, and so very grateful for those precious eight hours.
I’ll never take sleep for granted again.
Think you may be suffering from insomnia? Try this NHS Sleep Self Assessment test
• if you enjoyed reading about how I overcame my insomnia, you might also like to read about journalling to reduce anxiety