How I didn’t cure my insomnia, but it was sort of okay anyway

WWS-InsomniaWhat cannot be a surprise to any recent reader of this blog is that for the last two months I’ve been feeling not-the-best on an emotional level. Not the worst I’ve ever felt. But far from the best. And certainly below what I’d call average. This mood started off as a thing that had an actual form and cause, but since then it’s just become a shapeless grey mass. Every day, I’ll have at least one moment (usually between 11 AM and 3 PM) where I’m like, “Hmm, I think I’m getting better” and then another moment (usually at 9 AM or 5 PM or 11 PM) where I’m like OH NO, I AM NOT BETTER AT ALL*.

Today, though, I found myself thinking about my insomnia.

Probably no one remembers, but I used to blog fairly frequently about insomnia. It would take me hours to fall asleep each night, and as a result I’d either sleep in for hours or feel tired throughout the next day. Now that my insomnia has more or less abated, it’s surprising to remember how much it used to trouble me, but it was actually a major problem that gobbled up days and weeks of my life and drove me to wit’s end.

I tried a lot of things to cure it. I quit drinking coffee. I stopped looking at screens before going to bed. I quit smoking. I started waking up at the same time every morning. I took naps every afternoon. I took melatonin pills. And none of those things ever quite seemed to work. No matter what I did, I still sometimes struggled to fall asleep, and I still struggled to stay alert the next day. But, nevertheless, over time my insomnia stopped looming large in my life and, in fact, stopped feeling like much of a problem at all.

In the end, I realized that it wasn’t any one thing which helped. Waking up at the same time each day (even on weekends) helped a little bit, because my body got tired and then felt wakeful on a regular schedule. And I assume that quitting smoking and not looking at screens helped a bit too. Because of those things, I do believe (though I have no hard data on this) that I’m less likely to spend hours trying to fall asleep.

But just as helpful were the psychological adjustments. For one thing, I just accepted that I’m always going to feel drowsy during the afternoon. Rather than being the enemy, drowsiness is just a fact of life. Before, I used to drink coffee to try to erase the drowsiness, but I’d inevitably drink too much and be unable to sleep at night. Nowadays I just plan on watching TV or reading or writing blog posts or doing some other low-intensity activity during the late afternoon.

I’ve also realized that tiredness is something I can get through. If I’m feeling tired and I have to go somewhere or fulfil some obligation, I know that I can power through and do it. Sometimes I can even do it for a few days in a row. It’s not fun, but I find that if I just start doing whatever I need to do, I find that I eventually get a second wind.

And while I no longer nap every day, they still function as a safety valve. If I’m lying awake at night, I always know that I can make up the sleep debt by taking a nap the next day.

All of these adjustments reduce, in turn, the anxiety surrounding insomnia. Before, when I was lying awake, I’d think, “Oh my god, I’m going to be tired tomorrow. My whole day is going to be shot unless I fall asleep in the next half hour.”

Whereas now I don’t worry about it. I don’t look at my watch or count sheep or force myself to do anything in particular. Instead, I just lie there with my thoughts and let sleep take me when it wants to.

Because of this, I’ve lost the scarcity mindset surrounding sleep and wakefulness. I’ve made the physical changes that a person should make in order to sleep better. And that’s good. But I’ve also adjusted my lifestyle so that, whether I have insomnia or not, I know I’m going to get enough sleep, and I know I’m not going to be left in a desperate or unmanageable position. As a result, insomnia is no longer a disaster.

Not sure what the exact lessons are here regarding feeling-not-the-best, but the parallel is comforting to me.

*My usual warning on mood- or health- or weight-related blog posts applies here, which is that I get irritated when people pop out of the woodwork and give me advice like “exercise more” or “meditate” as if they’re delivering some kind of eleventh commandment that Moses forgot to bring down from the mountain.