It can’t just be me.
I can be exhausted for hours, barely able to keep my eyes open and my body moving, but the minute my head hits the pillow…
I’m bombarded by a wave of thoughts, all of which demand my immediate attention. I toss and turn and worry and plan. And the more I do, the further away sleep seems to get. Finally, about an hour in and wide awake, I get up for a few minutes and give myself a break. Sometimes this cycle repeats itself once. Other times I spend the whole night this way, never catching more than a few minutes of sleep.
I’ve struggled off and on with insomnia since my oldest son was born, but to be honest, I’m not sure I really understand the connection. Maybe the habit of getting up in the middle of the night to care for an infant simply took root and stayed, long after the baby stopped needing me. Maybe the worry that comes with being a mother took over and I didn’t have the tools to deal with it effectively. Maybe I filled my days so full that my brain had no choice but for some of it to spill out in the night.
Whatever the cause, I realized several months ago that I really needed to get a handle on this problem. Insomnia was stealing my nights, and wrecking my days. I looked bad and felt worse. I was tired of living life this way.
Get Clear on the Cause
The first step to moving forward was getting clear on what was causing my sleeplessness. I eliminated anything that could be contributing physically. No more caffeine after noon. No more television in the background. I even set the thermostat to a previously unimaginable low before climbing into bed.
I created a new routine for myself around going to sleep. Steps that would signal my brain it was time to dial back a bit. There were dimmed lights, lavender lotion, even new sheets (which were amazing).
Unfortunately, while these steps made me feel better, none of them actually solved my problem. Because the problem was not that I was hot, or wired from too much caffeine – the problem was that my thinking was out of control.
My brain had simply gotten in the habit of focusing on a running list of fears, worries, and undone tasks when it was time to sleep. There wasn’t much I could do about these things in the middle of the night, so I felt like I had no choice but to wait for them to pass.
But, a funny, horrible thing can happen in the dark. These troublesome thought patterns can feed on themselves, getting bigger and more worrisome. They take on new shapes and seriousness. And, they rarely seem to die off on their own.
I was desperate for a change and knew I had to take control of my sleep. So the next time insomnia struck, I pulled out a journal and wrote down everything that was swirling through my head.
The undone tasks.
When I was forced to put them on paper, I noticed two things. First, there weren’t nearly as many of them as it had seemed. And second, when reduced to words on a page, they seemed much smaller.
The Secret Sauce – Action
While this journaling helped, it didn’t completely stall my sleeplessness. Even after writing down the swirling thoughts in my head, I would still have trouble turning them down enough to sleep.
Then one night I decided that, rather than just writing down the problems and leaving them dangling on the page, I would commit to take at least three actions the next day to resolve them. If I was worried about an upcoming project, I committed to spend fifteen minutes planning out the required tasks the next day so I felt more in control. If I was upset about a troubling conversation with a friend, I would plan to call her and set things right.
Only when I had decided on a first step to addressing the issues in my mind was I able to finally convince myself I could drop them and go to sleep.
I still struggle with sleep from time to time. (My doctor says this is one of those fun things that comes with age…) But, I feel less helpless when insomnia hits me now. I have a plan to start to address the things that keep me up, and a much better sense of control over my own sleep.