About two years ago, someone suggested that if I wanted to hire other therapists into my practice, I should change its name. As a solo practice, my business name had always just been “Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC”. But for obvious reasons, that wouldn’t work if the business was more than just me. I needed to come up with something more creative.
But the name didn’t come to me right away. Quite the opposite, actually. Everything was too trite (Authenticity Therapy Center!) or too dark (Eye of the Hurricane Therapy Center!) or too confusing (Act 2 Therapy Center! Like the second act of a play… you know, act two… not “act to therapy…” oh, nevermind).
So over the course of a year and a half, I wrestled with it. That’s a long time to puzzle over something, but the fact that it was a year and a half wasn’t by any means the worst part. The worst part was that inevitably, once every few months, my brain would decide to try to solve this puzzle at about 11:00 at night… and not let up for hours. By 2:30 AM, I’d be gripping a pen and legal pad, scribbling every idea that popped into my head, surrounded by crumpled pages of rejected ideas like the archetypal writers-blocked brainstormer.
Most people have nights where sleep is elusive.
The thing is, generally, I sleep very well. I’m out shortly after my head hits the pillow, I clock 8 hours, and then wake up to my alarm clock without issue. So if sleep problems can happen to me, they can happen to anyone. And I’m sure that from time to time, they happen to you.
Maybe you’re worried about something. Maybe you have some physical discomfort that’s keeping you awake. Maybe you had an argument with a loved one. Or maybe, like me, your head is just trying and trying to wrap itself around a problem that it’s determined, 3 AM be damned, to solve.
For some people, this is chronic. For most people, it’s just something that happens once in awhile. Regardless, here are some things you can do about it when, inevitably, it happens to you.
1. Tend to Your Sleep Hygiene
“Sleep hygiene” is a phrase used by doctors and therapists to describe a bundle of factors that make for better sleep. These are evidence-based things you can do to improve both your ability to fall asleep, and the quality of the sleep you get. Here are some of the most important items on the list:
- The bed should be used only for sleep and sex. That way, climbing into bed becomes a cue that it’s time to wind down.
- Don’t drink caffeine after 2 PM.
- Don’t drink alcohol regularly. This may help you fall asleep, but the quality of your sleep will be lower than average.
- Stop using screens 1-2 hours before bedtime.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule.
- If you can’t sleep, get up, do something relaxing, and then try again. Don’t toss and turn for hours.
It’s a long list, and these are just some of the key pieces. Here is a more exhaustive set of tenets of sleep hygiene.
I want to acknowledge that some of these things can be hard – especially the part about setting boundaries with screens. But if sleep is something you struggle with, it might be worth trying this for a few weeks and seeing if it helps.
2. Put Your Thoughts Somewhere Other Than In Your Head
We’ve all been there – you’re lying in bed and your thoughts won’t stop spinning around. There’s so much to do tomorrow. Don’t forget to buy milk, eggs, apples, and toothpaste at the grocery store tomorrow. Why did you say that thing to that person earlier today, when it was so clearly the wrong thing to say? And dammit, what should I name my business??
As long as these thoughts only live in your mind, your brain will feel that it’s vital to cling to them. So signal your brain that it’s okay to let go by putting those thoughts somewhere else. Make a list, or journal about your thoughts and feelings. Do this on a piece of paper, because there’s something visceral about the physical act of writing (and remember, screens aren’t great for sleep hygiene). Then you know you can go back to what you’ve written and check it later – and your brain can relax and go to sleep.
If you’ve recently been spending a lot of time lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, with your thoughts spinning and spinning, it might be because you need to talk to someone about what’s on your mind. Lean on your friends and family a little bit, and talk to them about the thing that’s keeping you awake. Talking to a neutral third party, like a therapist can also be immensely relieving.
3. Reverse engineer your breathing.
You may have noticed that when you become anxious or stressed out, your heart pounds very quickly and your breath gets quick and short. Conversely, when you’re calm, your heart rate slows down, and your breaths get deep and slow.
Here’s what you might not know: you can reverse engineer this. If you decide right now that for a full minute, you’re going to take a lot of quick, shallow breaths, your anxiety will skyrocket. If you’re not reading this as you’re trying to fall asleep, and you’re not prone to panic attacks, go ahead and give it a try.
The opposite is also true. If you feel anxious and want to calm down, put both of your hands on your heart. Feel your heart beat. Take a deep inhale as you count slowly to 5. Exhale slowly while you count to 5 again. Feel your heart beat slow down. Keep focusing on your breathing.
You can do this lying in bed in order to calm down enough to sleep. You can also do this during the day, any time you feel your stress or anxiety escalating.
4. Attend to your other basic needs.
Have you ever found yourself lying in bed thinking, “I’m really have to pee, but I’m too tired to get up and walk to the bathroom”? Having unmet physical needs makes it nearly impossible to go to sleep.
If you have other basic needs that are making it difficult to sleep, such as feeling hungry or thirsty, or needing to use the bathroom, tend to them. If you’re physically uncomfortable, do what you can to mitigate your discomfort. For example, if you have a headache, take a painkiller. If you have problems with chronic pain, you probably can’t resolve it – but is there anything you could do to make yourself less uncomfortable?
If the basic need you’re struggling with is the ability to relax, drink warm milk, or a cup of herbal tea. Take a hot bath if that’s something that you know helps you. You know best what has helped you to be calmer in the past; use that font of knowledge to inform how to manage your current challenge.
6. Stop fighting it.
Here’s a common inner monologue of someone who is having trouble sleeping: “Ugh, what is wrong with me? Why can’t I just get to sleep? If I fell asleep now, I’d still get 6 hours… that’s not great, but it’s not terrible.” Then, after two hours of tossing and turning: “Great, now I’d only get 4 hours. I’m such a screw up. I’m totally going to blow this meeting tomorrow. Then everyone will think I’m incompetent, and my boss will be disappointed, and I won’t get that promotion.”
This is self-perpetuating. The more you dwell, the worse you feel. The worse you feel, the harder it is to sleep. The harder it is to sleep, the more you dwell… and on you go until sunrise.
Instead, get out of bed. Choose a task – ideally, one that doesn’t involve your computer, phone, or television. Read a book, make tomorrow’s lunch, write in a journal, make a to do list, organize a closet. Make a conscious decision that even though it’s the middle of the night, you’re going to stay awake. And most importantly, be self-compassionate, not self-critical.
Worst case scenario, this will result in you being kinder to yourself, and you’ll feel better. And, just maybe, now that you’ve stopped ruminating about how little sleep you’re going to get, your brain will relax enough for you to get some sleep.