For about 5-6 years, insomnia has been a big part of my life. Sleep troubles started in college and continued into my marriage, slowly getting worse and worse over time. I’ve tried just about every supplement under the sun to induce deep, lasting, nourishing sleep, but only a few things worked temporarily. I’ve even tried Trazodone for sleep and Citalopram and Wellbutrin for my anxiety and depression. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars trying to cope with this ever-worsening problem. But only until recently did I realize the cause and “cure” to my longtime standoff with sleep. And it wasn’t what I expected.
If you are also someone who has sleep difficulties or is an insomniac, or even if you’re caring for a newborn baby, you understand the damper that sleep deprivation can put on your days. Fuzzy, foggy, forgetful, sour, self-pitying, on the verge of a breakdown, physically exhausted, sometimes to the point of nausea. And this is only the beginning, as it is known that sleep-deprivation can lead to long-term, significant problems, such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke, to name a few. If you’re very tired, you might not like some of my recommendations, but I suppose that is unavoidable. Here is why: at least in my case, the cycle of insomnia must be broken by using your own willpower…which is something you might not have much of if you’re super drained. I’ve finally learned–after years of struggling with this–that purposely disrupting the cycle of non-sleep requires me to get even more tired. Or does it?
- Aerobic exercise in the morning: For me, this means that I get up every morning and go for a relaxing jog. Even if I’m really tired. But here is the key word: relaxing. Having been heavily involved in aggressive sports for most of my life, I realized that having such a competitive attitude towards sports (always trying to win and be the best) actually was not a good thing for my long-term relationship with fitness. So, I’m viewing cardio as an act of self-care for my sleep needs and mental health. This mindset shift has allowed me to look forward to my morning exercise instead of trying to get into the exhausting “suck it up and win” attitude that any athlete needs while competing. I am doing this so I can sleep at night. I am doing this so my days are more energized–yes, expending energy gives you energy! So that I can be a better mom, wife, and person. It turns out that light cardio for 15-20 minutes in the morning works much better than all the pills/supplements that I’ve ever taken. Not only does this pretty much guarantee a good-night’s rest, but my anxiety and depression are much less noticeable during the daytime. It doesn’t have to be a jog–for you, it could mean a brisk walk, biking, cross-country skiing, or doing cardio machines at home or the gym. Just make it enjoyable and relaxing for yourself!
- Morning light: Along with jogging in the morning, morning light exposure helps reset the circadian rhythm so that our brains will make melatonin at night. But because my jogs often happen before the sun comes up, I use a SAD light for a few minutes after my jog. In the summertime, I’m sure the SAD light won’t be necessary as I’ll get to watch the sun rise as I run.
- The Wim Hof Method: This scientifically-backed technique includes breathing exercises, cold exposure (cold showers), and a mindset shift. It is easy, free, and not time consuming. The breathing exercise can take anywhere from 5-20 minutes, depending on how much you want to do. The cold exposure is uncomfortable, but you get used to it and it only lasts a few seconds (it’s just a cold shower!). Actually, at this point, it doesn’t bother me at all anymore and I look forward to it. The mindset shift is similar to the one mothers make while in labor: being aware of our breathing and bodies, we are fully present in the here and now. The full method has been an empowering tool for me and I plan to continue using it for my mental health, sleep, immune system support, and meditation practice. Both the method and extreme-athlete Wim Hof himself are extremely interesting and I highly recommend checking them out! Some of “the Iceman’s” accomplishments are: claiming over 21 Guinness world records related to athleticism, running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle while barefoot and only wearing shorts, swimming underneath ice for 66 meters, climbing the highest mountains in the world while wearing shorts (he also takes people on excursions to learn his methods and climb mountains with him), and running a full marathon in the Namib Desert without drinking anything. Yes, this does sound crazy, but his methods are proven to work on any average person in a short amount of time…so why not try them? *Note: this method, especially the breathing method and extreme or prolonged cold exposure, should NOT be used by pregnant women. Please review the method with your doctor before attempting.*
- Hydration: dehydration will keep you awake at night and crabby during the day. I learned this because staying hydrated while breastfeeding can be difficult…and it makes a huge difference for my sleep quality when I drink enough water during the day. Just remember that chugging water before bed is not a good idea unless you want to make multiple trips to the bathroom at night. 🙂
- Affirmations and visualizations: This might seem silly. But without this, my insomnia would continue to be relentless. Part of my problem was that the idea of sleep made me anxious because there was no guarantee I would get any! So, by using affirmations, I was able to imagine what it would be like to get a good night’s rest. How that would make my mind and body feel. How I would conduct myself around my family. I take these good feelings and my affirmation throughout my day and use visualization at night when I go to bed. I try to imagine what good sleep feels like: it feels heavy, deep, unmoving, quiet, healing, and peaceful. My arms and legs feel light. My eyes stay closed easily. My neck and back are completely relaxed. This visualization trick usually knocks me out in 10 minutes or less, especially if I’ve made sure to do all of the above recommendations. Here is the affirmation I prefer: “I get deep, nourishing, healing sleep every night.”
Waiting around until you feel well-enough to try my suggestions will not work because as we insomniacs know, most of our days are spent not feeling well, so waiting means that we will essentially never feel better. Trust me. I’ve tried so many things to fix this problem that I probably would never be able to remember them all. I’ve spent–and wasted–so much money on this. But I am so grateful to finally have realized that my problem is in my own power to fix. No pill can fix a victim-mentality mindset. No pill can fix the endless problems caused by a fitness-free lifestyle. The best news in all of this is that I can OWN myself, my body, my mental health, and the quality of my life, no matter what the circumstances. Sometimes, things are more in our control than we realize–we just have to have the willpower to try everything– including taking our health back into our own hands. As Wim Hof says, “Life doesn’t change, but your perception does. […] If you can grab the wheel of your mind, you can steer the direction of where your life will go.” It is true that some illnesses must be managed with more than just some free methods, but without a doubt, these methods can help anyone’s health increase, no matter how sick you feel. You are very, very strong and powerful!! And you can do this!
Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself by Dr. Lissa Rankin, MD This is an empowering and enlightening book. I recommend it for anyone struggling with depression, anxiety, and helplessness in sickness. It is a light and enjoyable read.