Like my depression and anxiety, I’ve had small bouts of insomnia all my life that got progressively worse as I got older. It wasn’t until I stopped self-medicating (which I advise against, because it’s only kicking the can down the road and it’ll catch up to you tenfold) and taking my mental health seriously did I learn that poor sleep and lack of sleep were seriously triggering my anxiety.
Everyone has the sleepless night here and there, whether you’re nervous about work or a special event the next day, or worried about finances or other kinds of stress, or your body just doesn’t want to call it a day. But for those with insomnia-triggered anxiety, it’s worse than just staring at a dark ceiling for hours before the alarm goes off. Allow me to let you into my bedroom so you can see what it’s like for me.
I have to lie down and turn the TV on… but at a volume level just loud enough that I can hear it but not quite understand it. It’s my “white noise” machine. After setting the sleep timer for an hour or an hour and a half, I’d roll over… and that’s where the fun begins.
My brain goes into its own television mode, replaying the entire day for me while making me want to question everything I’ve done. Did I do a good enough job at work? Was what I said to someone on Facebook offensive or out of line? Is my partner being honest with me? Did I lock the doors and shut the windows? And some of the highlights/lowlights would get replayed several times, almost until I’ve convinced myself everything’s either OK, manageable or something that’ll have to wait until the next day to figure out.
But it doesn’t stop there! “The Next Day” becomes the theme of what’s cycling through my head. If I’m the main character in the sitcom, rom-com or dramedy that is my life, then worry, indecision and misunderstanding after playing every upcoming scenario out in my head are the costars worthy of Best Supporting Actor/Actress Emmys. Imagine how tiresome that is… then imagine not being able to do anything about it in the moment.
That’s where everything goes into hyperdrive. My breath quickens, and as I start to notice that I can feel my heart begin to beat faster and faster, as though I’m a cartoon character in love with the exaggerated heart popping out of my chest. That’s the point of no return. The TV has clicked off by now, and starting that process over is almost futile. There’d be nothing else to do but get up and pace around a little, deciding if it’s worth it to go back to bed or just stay up and screw around online until the will of sleep hits the eyelids. Trust me… you don’t want to be found face-down in front of your laptop.
Of course, the alternative (should you find yourself unable to sleep) is sleep paralysis, and there is no way I can stress enough how terrifying that is. Your body is exhausted. Your mind is exhausted. You know you need and want to sleep. And your body is there, but your brain has found this amazing second wind. You want to roll over, but you can’t. You try to get up, but your head has you in a Chinese finger trap that you don’t remember how to get out of and you just keep pulling as it tightens around you. You’re sweating, you can hear your breathing, yet you’re afraid opening your eyes will kill all ambition to sleep while alerting you to the physical fact your bed is holding you hostage. While that’s been rare for me lately, that’s not to say it hasn’t happened enough times to actually shock me (and I’m not shocked easily).
So anyway, there I am, lying in bed, aware of my surroundings. If I can move, I’ll pull my laptop over rather than turn the TV back on so as not to disturb my partner. Sure, it’s easy for the overtired brain to get sucked into binge-watching on Netflix or falling down a YouTube rabbit hole, but at this point, the stimulation is what’s keeping you up. And that was me for a few months straight — finally passing out around 6 a.m., and by 10 a.m. — with the daylight creeping through the crevices of my bedroom — deciding sleep was no longer an option. That is no way to live.
I’ll say it loud for the people in the back: That is no way to live!
To say I became skittish around people is an understatement. I thought everyone was staring at me or plotting to harm me just by noticing me. I became unreasonably angry at minuscule things going wrong or not going to the plans I’d figured out in my insomniac state. I was living in a nightmare I couldn’t escape from. With heavy paranoia and no self-awareness, I freaked out in my mental health clinic until I could see my doctor and get myself right. I’m not proud of it, but there are times you have to be your own best advocate.
Once we got the medication situation under control (and I can’t say it was a breeze; trial and error is the norm with managing sleep), I was able to settle into a routine. While it’s still unconventional, it works for me, is minimally disruptive to others and has lessened a lot of my personal anxiety. Socially, I’m still a bit awkward, but at least I’m not panicking or making a total fool out of myself negatively because I haven’t slept well for days.
I’ve also since taken a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) class based on insomnia, geared toward better habits that’ll help improve sleep. I’d love to pass some of them along.
1. Body and room temperature.
You naturally yawn when you’re a bit chilly, and your body naturally lowers its temperature if your circadian rhythm is right. It’s a signal that it’s getting close to sleepy-time. I don’t notice that so much, so I try to keep my bedroom cooler than the rest of my apartment. Yeah, I’m that guy who sleeps with a fan on all year ‘round.
2. Your bed is for sleeping.
Your mind likes to play tricks on you, and staying in bed doesn’t do you any favors. Going to bed with the intent to sleep is great, but staying in it for long periods of time when you wake isn’t healthy. When you start to stir and wake in the morning, try not to linger under the covers for more than a half-hour or so. Same when you’re trying to fall asleep; if you’re struggling, it’s OK to get up for a half-hour — just don’t overstimulate yourself too much. And that leads me to…
3. Embrace a routine.
Waking up around the same time and going to bed around the same time is incredibly important in establishing and maintaining your circadian rhythm (which is your body’s sleep clock, basically). It becomes easier to fall asleep when you’re listening to your body’s schedule and when it tells you it’s about that time. Trust me: there’s nothing good that happens at 2 a.m. anyway, so you’re not missing anything.
4. Check your diet.
First, avoid late meals if at all possible. Even snacks can cause problems when you’re trying to sleep. Second, if you must snack, there are certain things you should avoid: sweets (including fruit), fatty foods and dairy (sorry… I love cheese so much, but it’s so bad for you if you want to sleep). The reason is your body is working harder than it’d be if you’d went with other options, and when your body’s trying to digest fats and sugars, your brain isn’t giving you the proper attention you need for a good sleep. It’s like shutting your car off but the radio never stops playing; at some point, it’s going to drain your battery.
Don’t be the enemy of your body, especially when it’s looking to agitate you while you’re trying to sleep. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to develop a good regimen between meds and how I take care of myself. I know what works for me may not work for everyone, but this is how I keep my anxiety in check. It starts with a decent night’s sleep, and I hope you’re able to get that for yourself as well.
A version of this article was previously published on Stigma Fighters.
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Author: Norb Aikin