When you are stressed to the max, your body thinks you’re in danger and keeps you awake. Your logical mind knows, of course, that you don’t need to keep watch for boogey men or prepare to physically fight or run away. So, it keeps busy thinking the same thoughts over and over again, including the thought, “I NEED to get some SLEEP!” Here are ten things you can do right now to get at least a little bit of that sleep you need.
1. Get out of bed. Starting now, train your body to sleep in bed and to do other things, like watching TV or spending time on your computer, somewhere else. Print this article, then turn off your computer and dim all but a small reading lamp.
2. Make a list of a few things you will do differently tomorrow so that you can catch up tomorrow night on sleep you’re not getting tonight: reduce caffeine, get some good aerobic exercise, meditate, talk with a supportive friend or counselor, turn off screens an hour before bedtime, eat turkey for dinner, etc. Put this list on your mirror so you’ll see it first thing in the morning. Put a star by the one thing that you are DEFINITELY going to do.
3. Find some paper or a notebook and write down the thoughts that have been keeping you awake. Often these are swirling thoughts around solving a problem. Keep writing until every single thought is down on paper. If you have disregarded #1 and are typing these thoughts, try to keep editing to a minimum, and DO NOT send this writing to anyone. These are your notes, for you only. Midnight thoughts are often quite beautiful, but should be seen in the light of day before being shared. Okay, now that all of those thoughts are totally out of your head, really, turn off your screen and dim the light.
4. Writing down your ideas and thinking about the problem that has been keeping you awake may have stirred up some strong feelings. Close your eyes and imagine that you have an internal flashlight. Search for places in your body that feel heavy or pinched or painful with emotion. These might be in your jaw, your throat, your chest, your stomach, your gut. When you find a spot that hurts, just shine that internal flashlight on it. Don’t try to make it go away. Just notice it. Accept it. Allow yourself to feel it all the way, even if this is really painful. Image it’s a small baby and you are holding it close. It can stay. If tears come, then cry hard, as long as you need to. After a long, good cry, if you’re ready, go to bed and try again to sleep.
5. If sleep is still elusive, stand up and start some light calisthenics, just enough to hit every muscle group and cause your breathing to elevate slightly: 15 windmills, 15 arm circles, 15 squats, 15 leg-lifts, 15 crunches. This will rid your body of at least some of the stress chemicals which are working hard to convince your survival brain that it needs to stay awake and vigilant. This may be enough. Try, now, to go back to bed.
6. If you have a Gratitude Journal on your nightstand, get it out and read back over the things you’ve written in the past. If you haven’t started a Gratitude Journal, now would be a good time. You can start on the back of a grocery list with a much-chewed pencil if you haven’t got a fancy notebook and fountain pen. For this bit of writing, though, you absolutely must be OFF your computer. Close your eyes and think for a moment of something you are truly grateful for. You may have already written about people and situations you appreciate in your journal. Reach for something new. Perhaps something that happened yesterday. Picture it in your mind and try to use all of your senses in your imagination. You’ll know you’ve vividly evoked your gratitude when you start to feel a little lump in your throat. Write down your thoughts. If you like to draw, make a sketch. If you like to doodle, decorate the page.
7. If you are still not feeling even a little bit drowsy, use a dim lamp to read something very dull. The business page from the newspaper? A cookbook? The parts of the Bible with endless “begats?”
8. Turn off the light and lay on your back. Practice breathing slowly and steadily through your nose, with a little tightness at the back of your throat, as if you’re sipping your air and then blowing it out through a straw. This will make a small snoring noise. Count these slow breaths up to ten or until you roll over and fall asleep.
9. Still awake? Try creating a happy dream. In the future, when this stressful time is finally behind you, which bed will you be sleeping in? In what country? With whom?
10. If you’ve tried all of these techniques with no results, it’s okay to let it go for tonight. Get up and get some work done. Make appointments in the morning to see your doctor and a psychotherapist who specializes in helping people who are experiencing a major life transition. Chronic insomnia is a warning sign…AKA a kick in the butt... to get the help you need.