A few years ago, whilst in my final year of University, I was suffering. Not only from anxiety and panic attacks, which I could handle, but also from sleepless nights. Or, more specifically, I would fall asleep like a baby but wake up every night at around 2am, and remain wide awake for the following few hours, before falling into an exhausted, fitful slumber until the morning, when I would rise yawning and tired before the day had even begun.
I reacted the way most people experiencing insomnia for the first time would: repeated tossing and turning, checking the clock every ten minutes to see how long I had been awake, frustratedly crying and behaving horribly the following day – mooching around in half-wakefulness and snapping at those around me. It wasn’t a good look and it was driving me half mad.
Eventually, I decided to take action in the form of booking an appointment with an on-campus counsellor. The office was inundated with students arranging appointments for anxiety, stress and the like (it was exam time), and I was lucky to get a slot. Having visited a phycologist once before and being thoroughly unimpressed with her methods of fixing panic attacks with a very clear trigger by exploring daddy issues that I didn’t have, and first-born complexes that had never occurred to me and caused me to laugh out loud about, I was skeptical about any kind of therapy, to say the least.
Luckily, the sleep counsellor was overworked and hyper-focussed, she was interested in fixing one thing only: my sleeping problems. The advice she gave me not only helped me, and prevented such patterns from repeating themselves to this day, but also helped others with whom I shared the information. Not being able to sleep is a terrible feeling, and if these words can help even one more person to dream peacefully, I will be content.
Sleeping well begins before your head hits the pillow. Just as you would stretch before setting off for a run, so too you must prepare your body to sleep. If you spend most of your days at a desk, it is likely that whilst you will be mentally exhausted, your body will not follow suite. So, partake in some form of physical exercise – be it an intense gym session, or a stroll in the park – a couple of hours before bedtime.
Take a long, hot bath or shower half an hour or so before you plan to sleep, preferably using a relaxing soap or bubble-bath, such as those containing camomile. This serves to relax your muscles and give you that droopy/happy feeling that makes you want to flop onto your bed.
Then, turn off your mobile phone, your computer, your television and any other screens around you. The lights and rapid movement cause your brain to awaken and become far too active to accommodate for a good night’s sleep plus, social engagement and the stresses of social media can often work you up, or induce stress, so best to switch it off and have some You Time. Instead, turn to a good book read by the light of a bedside lamp (again, bright lights will activate your brain), will lull you into a peaceful sleep. Listening to soothing music is an even better option, as it truly allows your body and brain to shut down.
Waking up in the middle night should not be a cause of panic. To avoid the often instant reaction of imagining all the ways that this missed sleep will impact the day ahead, or counting the minutes of wakefulness but constantly glancing at your clock, understand that this happens to many people, and it is totally OK.
Do not turn to your cellphone, as this will awaken the brain, but instead try listening to music and breathing deeply to relax. Should this not work, and you have been awake for fifteen minutes or so, turn to a book and read for as long as it takes to feel sleepy again. The main secret is not to panic, as this will further delay sleep. These things happen, and you will be fine tomorrow, just take it easy.
If you feel wide awake and know that sleep is simply not on the horizon, then give up on the idea of it altogether. There is nothing worse than lying in your bed, urging yourself to feel tired. Accept that you don’t and instead turn to a task that you really don’t want to do. In my case, it was studying a particularly boring part of the syllabus, but it could be anything from entering data into a spreadsheet, to answering emails that you have been avoiding.
This will not only make you feel calmer because you are being productive and thus getting a head-start on your working day, but it will also lure you into the idea of sleep, due to the dull nature of the task. When you feel ready to try to slumber again, do so with a clear head and dismiss any worries.
Remember that however frustrating and tiresome an interrupted night of sleep is, it is temporary and it will change. If the techniques listed above do not help, don’t be afraid of seeking professional help. Try to not sweat the small stuff, and not put too much weight on a good night’s sleep. Whilst it is ideal, you will function just fine without it, for a while, and a positive attitude will work wonders!