Saturday, May 24, 2008


Right after I turned 21, I discovered I had insomnia while snowed in playing Trivial Pursuits with friends before exams. The question for me was, How long does the average American take to fall asleep? The answer was multiple choice, all of the choices were under 20 minutes, and IIRC the correct answer was 7 minutes. My answer for me at that time was 2 hours, pretty consistently, for as long as I could recall. Years of grad school, especially later with the time demands of grad school and a full-time job, trimmed that down to 30 minutes. Nowadays, even that would be a long time to fall asleep for me. How did I do it?Like everyone, I started with the standard suggestions for insomnia, also called good sleep hygiene. For further research, Wikipedia is a good place to start.

What works for me from the standard suggestions are a sleep mask / eye shield to block light and white noise from a fan. If there's any ambient light, I can't sleep without covering my eyes. I first starting sleeping with a fan on when I was an undergrad living in a dorm that was noisy all night. I used the fan to block the distracting sounds. In addition to insomnia, I'm also a light sleeper. Not the best combination! Back then, if I woke up, even just to pee, I needed yet another 2 hours to fall asleep again. Now I'm conditioned: fan on means fall asleep, using the bathroom in the dark means fall asleep as soon as I'm back to my pillow. If I'm not falling asleep now, going to the bathroom in the dark can help. What a change from when that was a guarantee to wake me up!

In addition, I have some of my own tricks, most learned when I was pregnant the first time. First of all, I need enough pillows to be perfectly comfortable in a neutral position. I can't fall asleep on my back, and I sure was not going to pick up tummy sleeping while pregnant! I have bursitis in my right hip, so I sleep on my left side. [The thought of bursitis in my left hip terrifies me!] I have a contoured pillow supporting my head and neck so that my upper spine is straight. When I'm not pregnant and I have a figure, I have a pillow under my waist to keep my lower spine straight and aligned. I have another pillow between my knees to keep my legs parallel to prevent strain on my hips. I sometimes put a long body pillow between my knees to hug so that my left shoulder moves forward instead of getting compressed. The waist pillow is only the second-best tip in this pile of pillows; the best tip is the neutral position. Once I learned how to feel when my hips were aligned, with the right hip neither higher (closer to my head) nor farther forward than the left hip, most of my sleep issues vanished. I didn't think I was in (that much) pain, but a non-twisted well-aligned sleeping position has made an enormous difference.

Another gem that is nearly impossible to follow now that I have kids but has made a huge difference is to go to sleep the very first time I feel sleepy. The little voice that says I'm tired is very, very quiet in me. However, if I listen closely and go to bed then, I fall asleep quickly and sleep very well. If I ignore that voice, I get a strong second wind and have trouble falling asleep. If I'm watching TV, I tape it; the sports game or the show is more fun to watch when I'm well rested. If I'm working on a project, I'll be happier to pick it up in the morning when I feel happy about being well rested. Really, everything will still be there in the morning after a good night's sleep!

I do have to tell my brain to shut up most nights (unless I heeded that little voice about bedtime). I clear my mind and refuse to think; that helps. GTD helps in general, as does keeping a PDA next to the bed so I can write down whatever is on my mind and go back to the blank mind with a clear conscience, knowing that I will remember to pick up that thought when I check my PDA in the morning. I don't think I'm anxious, but I understand that not being able to fall asleep because the brain is too busy tends to a sign of anxiety. Since GTD helps, I can't really argue otherwise except to say I don't think I feel anxious.

I can't fall asleep if I have cold feet. Once I learned that tip from my mother, I was amazed how effective it was! The first time, I could actually feel myself falling asleep just as my head touched the pillow, while I could feel waves of warmth from my slippers. I have some trouble falling asleep if my feet are hot, but cold feet make it almost impossible to fall asleep. Either one of those can be an indication of needing more exercise, to get the blood flowing properly so those extremities are not too hot or too cold.

Contrary to the established suggestions, I find exercise right before bed does help; in fact, if I can't sleep, I get up to do my evening exercise routine. However, I'm not doing heart-pumping cardiovascular fitness, or even sweat-inducing strength training. All the way at the other end of the exercise spectrum, I'm doing static stretching for flexibility. It gets the blood moving freely, lungs open, head cleared, with body relaxed and aligned. I usually work from Brill's The Core Program, and add in some of my stand-by static stretches. That routine relaxes me so much that I'm ready to fall asleep; as a bonus, it makes it easier for me to find that neutrally-aligned position in my nest of pillows.

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