Mental Health October: Insomnia and Sleep Hygiene

A few weeks ago, I played Among Us with friends until 12:30AM – and wasn’t able to sleep until 4 hours later.

Fun and also bad for your sleep hygiene (image from play.google.com)

This is a really great example of how fragile my sleep schedule is! I was on my computer a lot longer than usual, playing a game that raised my heart rate quite a lot, and paid the price for it in lost sleep.

Though Among Us has gotten popular fairly recently, my sleeping problems have persisted for many, many years. In high school and college, I pulled many, many all nighters, and probably had a lifetime and a half’s worth of caffeine. I even worked night shifts that lasted until 2:30 AM at one of my work-study jobs. Once I left school, however, my schedule became a lot more predictable, and I struggled with new temptations, like staying out at a bar with friends until last call, or watching YouTube videos until the wee hours of the morning.

Over time, I’ve had to adjust my own habits in order to make sure that I get a full night’s sleep, which in turn allows me to function like a normal person upon waking up. It’s taken a lot of trial and error, but I think I’ve landed on the rights habits that work for me – read about them below!

Sleep Hygiene

During summer breaks as a teenager, I used to wake up at 2PM, chug bottled Starbucks frappucinos, sit at my computer all day, then lay in my bed all night, fuming with frustration, not knowing why I couldn’t fall asleep. I was doing everything wrong!

image from unsplash.com

First off, I wasn’t exercising. If I was waking up and immediately plopping myself in front of my desktop, my body never got tired enough to want sleep at the end of the day. As I got older, I started exercising by going to the gym or going for walks around my neighborhood. Not only did having a regular exercise routine help with other aspects of my health, it also made sleeping a lot easier.

As I got even older and fell more in love with exercise, I realized more and more that moving around made me tired enough to fall asleep more soundly at night. Now, especially during quarantine, when I’m not really leaving my house otherwise, I make it a habit to do some sort of exercise almost every day to ensure that I can sleep properly at night.

image from unsplash.com

Secondly, I sincerely had no idea that Starbucks frappucinos have caffeine! And that caffeine keeps you awake! I did learn this later on and became very, very thankful for caffeine in college, when I had to pull way too many all-nighters. When I started my first 9-5 job, I drank coffee all day to keep myself productive. It took me much too long to realize that I couldn’t drink coffee until 5PM and expect to have a good night’s sleep.

After a lot of reading up about caffeine and experimenting with my own consumption, I came up with fairly strict guidelines around caffeine – no more than 2 cups, as early as possible, nothing later than 1PM. After suffering through some gnarly caffeine headaches, I learned the importance of cutting back on caffeine on days where I don’t need a full jolt of energy, like drinking tea instead of coffee on the weekends or days when I don’t have meetings. Though I relax these rules for special circumstances – like vacations or race days, remember those? – I’ve found that they work very well for me on regular, working days.

image from unsplash.com

Third, as my Among Us games have proven, my body needs a break from screen time before bed. I even have an alarm that goes off at 10:30PM every night to remind me to wind down, including getting me to shut off my computer, if I’m still using it. For the next hour or two, I’ll still watch TV but stay off my phone and journal, clean, or read instead of scrolling through my phone.

The most important step I’ve taken is keeping my phone out of the bedroom. This was tough for a while, especially because I relied on it for guided meditations and relaxing white noise (Sleep With Me, anyone?) at night and as an alarm in the mornings. However, once I got an external alarm clock (that is, my watch), it became much easier to avoid my phone at night. Reading my Kindle in bed before sleeping has become a great signal for my body that it’s almost time to go to sleep.

image from unsplash.com

Finally, I also get my body physically prepared for sleep. Every night, I try to drink the perfect amount of water to keep me hydrated but not enough to wake up in the middle of the night for a bathroom break. (Try being the most important word there!) In colder weather, I love sipping on a hot herbal tea before bed.

If I’m in a pinch, I also take a melatonin pill (around the time of my 10:30PM alarm) and/or a CBD tincture. I try not to rely on them too much, but they do provide an effective one-two punch when needed!

What Hasn’t Worked for Me

In my research, I’ve come across and tried many other sleep strategies that I’ve tried but didn’t really stick.

image from unsplash.com

The classic one that is mentioned on every other list of sleep remedies but never actually works for anyone is warm milk. I tried it once or twice as a teenager, but never got the hang of it. Drinking a full glass of anything right before bed will inevitably trigger a bathroom break! I never picked it up in adulthood – part of it is that I don’t drink much milk anymore anyway, and another part is that I’ve taken to drinking tea instead. Maybe drinking warm milk in the same way that I now drink tea – slowly sipping, over the course of an hour or so – would work, but why change a habit that already works?

image from unsplash.com

I also haven’t really tried using essential oils as an additional aromatherapy cue because of my allergies. I’m already the type of person who can’t walk into a Bath and Body Works without feeling a tickle in my nose! I don’t think a sneezing fit before bed is particularly relaxing!

Finally, speaking of my nose, I’ve also tried meditation techniques to lull myself to sleep, but I’ve had mixed results. I actually initially got into meditation by using guided body scans to relax myself into sleep. However, I unfortunately no longer have this option, now that I share my bed with my partner and don’t bring my phone to bed anymore. I’ve tried doing self-guided meditations, but they don’t work in the same way. Because of this, I’ve been relying on other methods, as outlined above, to get me to sleep instead.

That said, if you don’t share your bed with someone else and have another way to play a meditation or white noise before bed – they did work very well for me for a while, so I encourage you to try them out!

A Final Note

image from unsplash.com

At the end of the day (pun intended), though I try my best to be strict with my sleep hygiene, there are still days where I toss and turn for hours before actually falling asleep. My habits work when I follow them perfectly, but when does everything go perfectly all the time in the real world?

My ability to sleep at night is tied pretty closely with the rest of my mental health. I’ll be talking about some of the coping techniques I use during my waking hours in future posts – so stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Mental Health October: Insomnia and Sleep Hygiene

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