This is not a kind of article I usually would write, but I felt I should share my experience with trouble sleeping and how I (somewhat) overcome it. Not being able to sleep is a horrible feeling. But here is how I fight it.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or a physician, and these are only based on my own experience. If you have continuous issues sleeping, better consult a doctor.
Let me first explain my sleeping cycle, so you’ll have a better understanding. I can’t sleep right after going to bed. I always envy people just fall asleep before their head hits the pillow. I never had that luxury. But probably it’s how I’m used to it. I don’t (usually) fall asleep randomly on chairs or during commute. Unless it’s a super boring lecture, I mentally decide when I want to sleep. It’s like a conscious switch-off. So, even when I go to bed during the day, I wouldn’t fall asleep.
I am usually busy or engaged with multiple things during the day: my job, talking my family, watching movies, playing games, binge-watching YouTube, and whatnot. Then I usually don’t have a lot time to think about life during the day, and I think it helps me to stay away from distractions as much as possible. They could be about the next project I work on, a girl I like, why that code was failing, or even what to cook tomorrow. I usually think about these when I go to sleep, unless it needs a lot of attention or it’s super critical. And I also I have a lot of fantasies, and I also spend a little time living there.
But the problem is, this can cause my brain to be still active and doesn’t want to switch off yet. My mind would be very busy with jumping from one thought to the other, which leads to another and this chain of thoughts would never end. The worst part was, there were times I couldn’t go to sleep even when I want to. That’s a horrible situation to be in and I wouldn’t wish it for anyone. There were times I was still on bed, but couldn’t fall asleep even at 3am! I tried going to sleep early, but it made me lie on my bed for more hours!
I felt horrible the next day, and it became worse everyday! I started forgetting things and I couldn’t focus on things while I was working. This also make me high tempered and always in an annoyed and irritated mood, which is not good more people around me either. So, I thought, I need to refactor my routines! I did some research, tried different things and these are the things that worked for me, and hopefully they will help you as well.
Have a sleep/wake schedule
Regardless of you not being able to sleep, you should try to wake up at a fixed time. For instance, I used to wake up at 9am and my entire day felt bonkers. Then I started waking up around 7.30am and now it’s less bonkers now 😋. It’s super hard to do it in the beginning, but eventually you won’t even need an alarm to wake up. Then always try going to bed at a fixed time, then eventually your brain will get used to feeling sleepy around that time. I usually finish my day around 11pm and go to bed. I don’t immediately fall asleep, and read the wind-down section to know more on that.
I have already explained in my previous article how this schedule will help you in many aspects including avoiding burn-out.
Don’t sleep again when you wake up. That will ruin the entire sleep cycle since your body will get confused. You’re brain will trigger Melatonin: the sleep hormone, when it’s time for you to sleep. And the effect will gradually fade when you’re about wake up. But when you sleep again right after you wake up, your body will make more Melatonin and it won’t go away for a couple of more hours! So, your 10 minutes comfort will cause your entire day to be sleepy! This will make you also feel tired, less energetic and unfocused. So, that 10 minutes of extra sleep is not worth it!
If you really can’t get out of your bed right after the alarm, at least don’t try to sleep. Just lie there on the bed thinking something. It is possible! Your brain controls your sleep and you can command your brain not to fall asleep, but this takes practice. Or you can simply sit on the bed and maybe read or listen to news or a podcast.
Reduce coffee consumption
I know you’ll hate me for saying this, but coffee is NOT good for our body, especially in high amounts. The effect of caffeine usually stays throughout the day. According to scientists, half of caffeine will still remain on your body even after six hours [clevelandclinic.org]!
So, it’s advised not to have any caffeine after 2pm! I know some people completely rely on coffee to stay awake throughout the day, and means they already have sleep deprivation and they’re addicted! Please don’t be like that.
I stopped having my evening coffee and it made a huge difference after a couple of weeks in my sleep and its quality. Now I have a black coffee in the morning, and a plain black tea with ginger in the evening. Now I’m trying to stop my morning coffee as well.
Get enough exercise
This is obvious, but many of us don’t do it. Some people, like me, don’t like systematic exercises, and getting used to that is a different story. But we must move ourselves in whatever the way we can. You can take a walk outside, go for jogging or even cycling. Also, don’t forget to get enough sun as well. As someone with a darker skin living in Germany, it’s super hard to satisfy the Vitamin D requirements. So, I have to stay outside for a couple of hours a week (it’s also not enough) to charge myself.
This will help you to balance out the other hormones in your body [acefitness.org]. These hormones help you to balance your entire body functions including sleep!
Have a wind-down period
I used to either watch TV, play games, or even work (code) until night, then try to sleep right after. I realized that this is not quite good because my brain was still on “processing” mode, especially if I was doing some activity which needs brain power (such as gaming or coding). Our brains need to cool down before we try to sleep, otherwise it will try to do so using the time we allocate for sleep.
I started going to bed around 30 mins or 1 hour earlier than my usual time. After a warm shower, my body is almost ready to sleep, but my brain is not quite there yet. So, I try to focus on something lighter than what I was doing. For instance, now I practice my German after going to bed. I know learning German is harder than coding, but this is a good warming-down exercise for my brain. After that, I also practice for my driving test for a while using their app. These activities can take up to 20-30 minutes, but then I put my phone away! No social media or whatsoever, I just put it away to avoid any blue-light (and I’ll explain further in a while).
Then, I read a book for around 30 minutes. If the book is an interesting one, such as the one I’m reading these days: The Witcher – The Last Wish, then sometimes I end up reading around an hour. But I try not to overdo it, otherwise I will lose my sleepiness and the whole point of the wind-down.
After around 30 minutes of reading, now my brain is cold and I usually feel the words on the book doesn’t make sense anymore. Then I realize it’s the time to go to sleep. This process of winding down is super important for our brain to calm down. Of course you can replace these activities with your own, but make sure they don’t need a lot of brain power.
Think before sleep
I used to think about a lot of things when I went to bed, and I enjoyed it. I didn’t realize that it was causing my brain to still work and delaying my sleep. So, now I try my best to think/plan anything I have while having my evening tea. Then I can write down outcomes if I need, then I don’t have to keep on thinking the same thing.
After a several days, I felt that my brain is quite calm when I’m going to sleep, and it helped me to fall asleep faster!
We must try to avoid blue-light as much as possible! These are emitted from almost all the devices with screens, such as TV, monitors, and especially the phone. The blue-light tricks our brain to think it’s still sunny and avoid producing sleep hormones. This will have a really bad long-term effects, such as sleep deprivation, and worse: dark circles! That’s why I put away my phone as early as possible and try to read physical books. If you were in front of a screen, you must wait some time until the effect fades away. It’s said to avoid blue-light for 3 hours before sleep, but at least we should try to make it one hour.
I usually sleep with lights off, and I don’t know if there are people who doesn’t. However, I don’t switch off lights until I’m done reading. Sometimes, when I know I’m super tired and will fall asleep soon, then I switch off all the lights and use a bed-side lamp for reading. But because I have fancy gadgets, I use my smart lights over my bed to dim from full brightness to completely off within 30 minutes. This tricks the brain to slowly wind down itself because our bodies are sensitive to light (and the absence of it). I have set this as a Routine for my Google Home, so I will just trigger it when I’m ready to sleep.
Some people use wake-up lights to mimic the sun rise, especially during winter where the sun rises way later. I tried one of these, but it didn’t quite help me to wake up fresh as they advertise. But I have setup my Philips Hue lights to act as wake-up lights and sync with my Google Home alarm, so it will start lighting up gradually from 0 to 100% brightness ’till my alarm goes off. But I myself don’t find this super helpful either. But it might help you though.
One of the best ways to calm your mind is meditation. It doesn’t need to be religious or spiritual, just focusing on something good is enough. You can use any sleep meditation exercises, and here is the one I usually use on Head Space. It’s available as an app or even via Google Assistant. If you have any other meditation techniques, you can try them as well.
- Get comfortable
Go to your bed or any place you want to fall asleep. Get under the covers and turn off the lights if you need to.
- Lie on your back
It’s always a good position to fall asleep. Even if you don’t usually go to sleep like that, try to stay in this position as much as possible. Bend your knees if needed.
- Take a few deep breaths.
Inhale through nose and exhale through mouth. Do this for around 5-10 times.
- Think about your day
Think about the highlight of your day. Start from the beginning and fast forward to the current moment. Do it a couple of times and take deep breaths every time you come to the present moment.
Relaxing your body
- Let go
Start taking deep breaths and let your body sink into the bed on exhale. Let your body just relax on the bed until you feel light.
- Don’t fight back
Your brain might still be busy with thoughts. Don’t fight back. Just let those thoughts flow through your mind. Don’t spend time thinking/processing them.
- Start turning off
Mentally give permission for your body parts to switch off. This is the conscious decision and very important if you want to control your sleep. Start from your feet, then legs, hip, arms and so on. Consciously give permission for your limbs to fall asleep. It will make your body properly switch off and you will stop feeling them. Try not to move.
Focus on your breath and your body. You must feel very relaxed now.
Your brain might be still busy, but then we need to focus on something which doesn’t take a lot of brain power. The best way is counting.
- Start counting from 1000 to 0 (reverse)
Spend around 1 second on each number and then move on to the next. Don’t rush.
- If you lose track
Start from the last number you remember being on.
You might be counting to even 500 in the beginning, but it will eventually reduce a lot. I usually fall asleep even before 800s.
You can also try some sleep music playlists or stations, but you have to be careful when picking one. We should try to use some calming music, probably some you’re not super familiar with. Otherwise your brain will start to follow the music and won’t let you sleep. So try to find something very neutral or shuffle the playlist everyday.
I usually use nature sounds such as sea waves, rain or forest. These help me sleep way better than sleep music tracks on YouTube. If you want, you can invest on some sleep-buds as well. For example, sometimes I use AmazFit Zenbuds and they’re quite comfortable and effective.
Sleep deprivation can be horrible! I faced a lot of difficulties in my life because of that, and I’m glad I made the change in my life style. If you read through this article, you’ll notice all these things are possible. We just need to actively spend some time practicing it, and it will automatically become a habit.
I hope this article helped you in some way. If you did, make sure to share with someone who might be having trouble sleeping.