Live Through This

If Only Tonight We Could Sleep

Staying up all night is fun…unless it’s against your will. Here, some remedies for insomnia.

Illustration by Sonja

The first time I stayed up all night was not for fun. It wasn’t even intentional. I spent the night before my first day of eighth grade huddling beneath my comforter, squeezing my eyes shut and wishing they would stay that way naturally, effortlessly. But my mind wouldn’t shut down. I worried over a thousand tiny and not-so tiny things like my outfit, my new classes, the girls who’d picked on me over the summer, and, most of all, who would fill the void that my best friend had left when she moved away. These thoughts spun round and round while I tossed and turned. I got up to pee. I got up for a drink of water. And then to pee again. And then more water. And then it was too hot. And then my alarm was blaring and I totally had not slept a wink.

This might sound familiar to you. Maybe it happened once, maybe it occurs once a week, or maybe you struggle to get to sleep EVERY NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE, which was the case for me from the ages of 13 to 30. And none of the doctors I saw, not my general practitioner, my psychologist, or any of the sleep specialists, could tell me what caused it. I went in for one of those overnight sleep tests where they monitor you while you attempt to sleep in a hospital bed with a bunch of wires taped to you, and they said there was nothing wrong with me. I didn’t have restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, or any other physical issues. I also took a lengthy psychological survey, and it was determined that though I have struggled with depression, that wasn’t the cause of my sleeplessness either, since it went on even when I wasn’t depressed. My diagnosis was “general insomnia.” As one doctor told me frankly, “We don’t know what causes it and we don’t have a cure.”

When I was 18, I was prescribed Ambien, which was thought to be a wonder drug for sleep at the time. It didn’t leave you in a haze the next morning like older sleep aids. It hadn’t yet been discovered that it had weird side effects like sleep eating, though I did find it a little odd that the first time I took it, with a friend who had a prescription, we woke up to find my laundry balled up around my room and then vaguely remembered “making nests” for little creatures that we’d hallucinated. That didn’t bother me much because (a) I thought it was fun, (b) it didn’t seem worse than drinking myself to sleep with wine, which is what I’d been doing at college, and, most important, (c) I hadn’t slept so soundly in five years. Ambien worked really well for me. I mean, eventually I was up to three and a half pills a night, but the doctors told me it was OK. “You can take it forever” was an exact quote from one specialist, who also assured me that it wasn’t addictive, though I might experience “a little kickback” when I stopped.

It was all good until I turned 23 and was no longer covered by my mom’s insurance. Ambien, which was not sold as a generic drug at the time, was insanely expensive. That’s when I started trying to get off of it. Ultimately it took seven years to wean myself from the drug I was assured wasn’t addictive. Part of it was psychological, but that “little kickback” the one doctor told me about? For the first two weeks that I went completely without Ambien—a feat that took me five years to work up to—I slept four hours. And I don’t mean four hours a night, I mean four hours total. But eventually I achieved what I thought was impossible: solid, drug-free nights of sleep on a regular basis. I still struggle sometimes, but now I have an arsenal of techniques to try when I do, and here they are:

  • Exercise. Yeah, I know I’m starting the list with something that might not sound fun at all, but if you just sit on your butt all day it’s hard for your body to sleep at night. And it can be enjoyable if you pick the right activity for you. I started with Pilates. Both it and yoga have great meditative/relaxing qualities. Running or doing other cardio in the morning can give you a boost, too. P.E. counts, obviously, but you might need more to wear you out. However, don’t try to wear yourself out right before bed. Exercise in the morning or afternoon, because it can cause an endorphin rush and it gets your blood pumping and increases your heart rate, which needs to slow down when you’re falling asleep.
  • Closer to bedtime, eat a light snack—because if your stomach is growling it will keep you up, but if it is working hard to digest a lot of heavy food that makes it hard for you to fall asleep, too. Also, drink a warm beverage. Milk is a go-to for lots of people, but I prefer herbal, uncaffeinated tea. Just looking at the cozy little bear in his stocking hat on the Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea box is soothing. Good Earth makes a great nighttime tea as well. Chamomile is your friend when you can’t sleep. The only problem with the warm-beverage approach is it might make you have to pee like a maniac. If that’s too disruptive, try the next thing instead.
  • Take a warm bath. It’s relaxing; plus, when you raise your core body temperature, the cooling-off process helps you sleep.
  • Try an herbal remedy. Valerian root helped me, and so does Bach’s Rescue Remedy, which is a liquid made out of flowers. They have a type that is specific for sleep, but the regular kind works just as well. I buy the spray, and when I’m feeling anxious, three spritzes on my tongue calms me right down. You can get this stuff at natural-food and vitamin shops like Whole Foods.
  • Melatonin is another natural sleep regulator. It’s a hormone that is a part of your sleep/wake cycle, and a lot of people struggle with sleep because they don’t have enough of it. However because it is a hormone, you should talk to your doctor about before taking it, even though you can get it without a prescription again at places like Whole Foods.
  • Avoid caffeine. I know that this sucks. I liked coffee and soda a lot, too, and if you’re tired, it’s probably what you use to perk up. But when you do that, especially in the afternoon or evening, you are only making things worse for yourself. To get my sleep regulated, I had to quit caffeine completely. Eventually I was able to start drinking it again, but only in the mornings, and I became a tea drinker because in general it has a lot less caffeine than coffee and soda.
  • Regulate those naps, too. Personally, I can’t nap at all, because it makes me feel more tired, but if you like them and/or need them because you don’t get enough sleep at night, try to take short naps (no more than an hour or you could make yourself really groggy plus have a hard time falling asleep at bedtime) at the same time every day, preferably right after school so you aren’t napping too close to bedtime.
  • Regulate your regular sleeping hours according to what’s natural for you. This is by far the hardest thing to do. I read about it all the time and resisted it because it seemed impossible, not to mention totally boring, to go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time every day, but ultimately this was the thing transformed me from insomniac to normal sleeper. I discovered that I am by nature a night owl. I cannot force myself to go to bed before midnight or one AM, and as a result my natural wake-up time is nine, not six or seven AM like the world wants it to be. I actually changed jobs from office work to bartending just to match my actual schedule with my body’s natural one. One of life’s biggest cruelties is how early they make you get up for school—unfortunately, in most cases, you don’t have control over that until college. Then, if you are a natural night owl like me, go ahead and sign up for only 11 AM-and-later classes, and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re lazy. In the meantime, however, you really have to try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day—even on weekends. I know it’s tempting to sleep past noon on Saturday and Sunday, but that could be a big contributor to your problems during the week. To figure out your natural sleep pattern, I highly recommend a program called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). There are doctors who specialize in it, but you can use an online guide that is only 35 bucks. This is what finally worked for me after years of drugs and different doctors.
  • That program also emphasizes good sleep hygiene, which includes regulating things like caffeine and naps as I mentioned, as well as creating the right environment for sleeping. It’s easier to fall asleep in a cooler room with the right amount of blankets. If you are kicking your blankets off every night, ditch some of them. Also, evaluate your pillows. I splurged on good ones, plus a body pillow, to make myself comfortable. I also tacked a dark sheet over my blinds to keep the room dark enough. When I travel, I use a sleep mask. If noise bugs you, get a white noise machine or an app for your phone, or download some MP3s of whatever sounds soothe you, like rainstorms or ocean waves.
  • The experts agree that beds should be used for two only things: sleep and sex. Watching TV and using your laptop in bed makes your brain associate being in bed with being awake. Even reading can do this. Train your brain by taking that stuff to the couch or a chair.
  • This also means that you shouldn’t let yourself toss and turn for too long. If you are awake for more than 30 minutes, get up. Even if it’s three in the morning, get out of bed. Don’t start cleaning your room or surfing the internet, though. Do something that isn’t going to be too engaging. Reading a really dry textbook can work.
  • Speaking of surfing the internet and the TV, staring at any kind of screen an hour before bed can also mess with your brain. So whenever possible, finish up your homework, nightly television-viewing and Facebook-checking, and even texting an hour before bed and do something like read or write or draw in a journal instead.
  • But don’t write really emotional and upsetting things down right before bed, if you can avoid it. Vent in your journal or to a friend earlier in the day so you can put that stuff out of your mind when you’re trying to sleep. Also, if you are like me and obsess about things you’ve got to get done or even what you are going to wear in the morning, write a to-do list, pick out your clothes, and organize your stuff before bed. Then when you start to obsess, you can remind yourself that you are prepared to handle it in the morning.
  • Try not to freak out about not sleeping. I don’t know about you, but if I’m up late worrying about something, eventually my worries turn into Oh my god, I only have five hours left to sleep…four…three and a half… Don’t keep looking at the clock—in fact, it’s best to make the numbers on your clock as dim as possible, or use the alarm on your cell phone and put it out of arm’s reach. And remind yourself that if you don’t sleep well tonight, you will tomorrow, and that being tired is not the end of the world.
  • That old method of counting sheep can work, but it’s more effective to visualize yourself drawing numbers on a chalkboard, because it engages both the left and right sides of the brain.
  • If you need more than that, try meditation or guided imagery. My Pilates teacher recorded some meditations for me, and I also visited a hypnotist to learn self-hypnosis, which uses very similar guided visualization techniques. You can try Amazon or iTunes for stuff that might work for you, but here are the basics. Start with taking deep breaths to slow your breathing. You can also tense and then release your muscles. Then visualize a warming light slowly moving up from the tips of your toes through every part of your body up to your head. If you aren’t asleep yet, visualize yourself walking or floating to some place that relaxes you and makes you feel safe. It may be a forest, cave, beach, or whatever. For me, I’m floating in a pool, I see mountains on the horizon, and my cats are nearby. I can hear them purring and both smell and taste the crisp ocean air. Engaging as many senses in your vision as possible will help occupy your mind.
  • Regular massages can help with general relaxation, and I also recommend acupuncture if you are battling severe insomnia or if you have been taking sleeping pills and want to stop. Just like no one entirely understands how general insomnia works, they can’t entirely explain how those needles help, but they do. For most people, it just feels like a pin prick and isn’t painful. Acupuncture combined with all of the techniques above ultimately got me off of Ambien and into a regular sleep routine. I hope that something here will help you find relief, too, and I’ll see you in the Land of Nod. ♦

44 Comments

  • lunatic84 January 24th, 2012 11:12 PM

    i love that sleepytime tea bear. even before i read this article i cut out the bear and hung it by my bed. so sooooooothing.

  • Adrienne January 24th, 2012 11:14 PM

    Ooooh yes this is much needed! Thanks for the tips, Stephanie! It’s especially hard for me to sleep because I share a bedroom with my twin and we sometimes we can’t stop talking!

    The point on regulating the sleeping hours is so hard to follow for me hehe! I know I have to get up and go to bed the same times but it’s difficult on the weekends. Going to bed at 1:00 or 2:00 am and getting up at 12:00 hahaha. Then, when the school week starts, I’m in big trouble when it comes to bedtime! I never fall asleep right away. ;)

    And here’s another trick: imagine yourself in a cloud, and then imagine yourself relaxing every single muscle from toe to the head.

  • Adrienne January 24th, 2012 11:18 PM

    Oh and the exercise tip is super important as well. I’m off-season for my sport, by my twin does year-round, and I notice how she is always the one who falls asleep first! :)

    Are there any tips for reducing the number of trips to get up and pee? (weird question lol)

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

    • Stephanie January 25th, 2012 10:47 AM

      I like your cloud trick. I think I will try it. As far as peeing, I feel your pain and the only tip I have is try to hydrate well through out the day so you are not super thirsty before bed and then avoid liquids an hour or two before bed. It’s really hard for me to do that though. I am always thirsty!

  • Jamie January 24th, 2012 11:41 PM

    masturbate

    *this message brought to you by jamie keiles, the official 1 personal lobby for encouraging teen girls to jerk off*

    • Jamie January 24th, 2012 11:41 PM

      but seriously. this is my go to method

      • Mags January 25th, 2012 1:21 AM

        This works for me sporadically. But when it works I get a really good night’s sleep.

      • Pashupati January 31st, 2012 8:33 PM

        Sometimes masturbating just make me more awake.

    • Stephanie January 25th, 2012 10:50 AM

      HA! But it is an excellent tip, Jamie! Works for me, too.

  • queserasera January 25th, 2012 12:09 AM

    i used to count sheep but never worked for me, now i just imagine the process of cooking a fried egg very very slowly. and imagine the sound and the egg whites bubbling and everything. always makes to fell asleep. that’s a bit weird now that i writing it…

    http://mercurialmanic.blogspot.com/

    • queserasera January 25th, 2012 12:09 AM

      *makes me fall asleep!

      • Stephanie January 25th, 2012 10:51 AM

        Hey, if it works, it works! Everyone talks about the counting sheep thing but for most people it really doesn’t occupy the necessary parts of your brain. If this works for you, it isn’t weird, it is awesome!

  • Narnie January 25th, 2012 12:20 AM

    Bach’s Flower Remedy. Best thing ever. I have the anxiety and the sleeping one, but really they’re kind of interchangeable. Just get them in your life, everyone.

  • Chloe Elizabeth January 25th, 2012 12:46 AM

    This is the first year I’ve had real trouble getting restful sleep. I’m started taking L-tryptophan, which I got at Safeway, and works better for me then Melatonin, which made me really dizzy. It works for me.

    http://www.othersuchshenanigans.blogspot.com/

    • Stephanie January 25th, 2012 10:47 AM

      I’ve never tried that. Good to know!

  • lovecat January 25th, 2012 12:55 AM

    The trick of counting sheep doesn’t work for me, I always imagine them bumping into the fence.

    Also, take a siesta after lunch! it’s the perfect nap, short but helps you recharging your batteries for the afternoon. If you don’t get enough sleep at night (for any reason) or simply are exhausted after a hard day at school, having a 20′ siesta will, at least, keep you from being sleepy the whole afternoon. (now I feel like a proud spanish girl, spreading my culture)

    • Stephanie January 25th, 2012 10:49 AM

      After lunch is the perfect time to siesta if your schedule allows it. I always get tired around then.

  • Mags January 25th, 2012 1:20 AM

    Weirdly, I’ve been having insomnia all week. I will definitely try these techniques. Thank you.

  • josiehodson January 25th, 2012 2:03 AM

    this is so appropriate as I’m sitting at my computer doing nothing productive at 2am. I guess I should take this as a sign to go to bed. Thanks for the wake up call, Rookie….. or shall I say good night call? That’s really how embarrassing my jokes get when I’m excruciatingly tired. Thanks for the great post and goodnight!

    weaponheadblog.blogspot.com

  • LittleMoon January 25th, 2012 4:18 AM

    Oh! This is just what I need! I’m currently up because I can’t sleep. Heh. Guess I shouldn’t be on the Internet…

  • Susann January 25th, 2012 6:29 AM

    Great tips, I agree especially agree on Bach’s Flower Remedy :)

    http://fashioninpepperland.blogspot.com

  • aliceee January 25th, 2012 7:05 AM

    I always take a really long time to fall asleep, but thanks to summer vacation I’m having an extraordinarily hard time now… last night I slept about three hours.

    One odd thing that’s helped me, though, is this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=XjsgoXvnStY I watched it before bed the other night & now running through the ten dimensions totally relaxes me for some reason.

  • I.ila January 25th, 2012 8:08 AM

    I accidentaly took a tea with valerian root in it at about 4, and I was unable to do homework. Then I got really really bad nightmares. Yeah, I going to stick to chamomile.

    • Stephanie January 25th, 2012 10:48 AM

      Yeah, different herbs work different ways on different people, so if one thing doesn’t work, avoid it and go with what does.

  • Sphinx January 25th, 2012 9:35 AM

    Or you could go to terminal illnesses support groups…

  • Josefi January 25th, 2012 10:51 AM

    Thank u for this!!
    I have serious problems with sleeping, and i drink tea and have a natural pills that are called “avena sativa”, which is good but a little slow.
    And it is true, when i exercise at nights or n the afternoon i sleep like a cat :).
    And a question: when you cant sleep and it passed like 2/3/4/5(etc) hours, don’t you feel empty your stomach?? or a stange pain?

    thanx!!! love u rookie mag!
    Josefa from chile

  • Izzy January 25th, 2012 10:57 AM

    I find it PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE to go to sleep without having read for at least two hours first. I always get so scared at night, i always have, so i use books as a sort of anasthetic to calm myself with.
    I end up lying on my side under my duvet with a book propped up next to me, until my eyes have drooped so badly i go to sleep. and then i can, but not until i have done all that.

  • giov January 25th, 2012 12:47 PM

    I started suffering from insomnia less than a year ago and after my boyfriend left for India I didn’t sleep for two weeks straight (meaning I slept once every three night). It was horrible! Ans also, somehow, fun! I felt a bit high the next day, and numb, which was good (in a bad way). Anyway, the methods you listed work wonderfully, I also burn some essential oils (lavander, bergamot and chamomile) and READ. something not too exciting or disturbing though.

  • azra January 25th, 2012 1:16 PM

    There’s this one trick I read in an airplane magazine that I found works really well: you close your eyes and imagine drawing a perfect circle on a chalkboard, and then keep the circle going. The only problem is that you have to concentrate really hard, and I’m usually just too lazy.

  • EnidEnvy January 25th, 2012 3:39 PM

    I think it is worth mentioning that while Valerian is amazing and works really well, prolonged use can not only make you feel sleepy and “hung over” during the day, but it can also cause crazy dreams and nightmares, which don’t make for a restful sleep. Also, it can interact with some medications and other herbs, so don’t take anything without consulting a doctor or doing some research! People are far too quick to take herbs without getting advice because they are “all natural.” Valerian can be a pretty serious sedative if you don’t know what you are doing!

  • Ballroom Pink January 25th, 2012 4:33 PM

    I have my bouts with insomnia. They usually hit me in the summer and I go like a week with merely four hours of sleep in total. I’ve found that regular exercise is the best cure. I also make a sleep schedule. I try to go to bed to sleep at the same time and get up at the same time.

  • Claudia January 25th, 2012 4:50 PM

    As a sufferer of Restless Leg Syndrome, I feel your pain. Thanks for the much needed tips!!

  • nina19 January 25th, 2012 5:00 PM

    I also have trouble falling asleep. I always feel tired, but once I get into bed I end up tossing and turning for hours. I think my biggest problem is that all of the things that are bothering me or that are on my mind start spinning through my head once I’m laying there with nothing else to concentrate on. I usually just end up reading a book or writing until I’m so exhausted that I fall asleep with the pen still in my hand. Hopefully these tips will help!

    http://heres-to-nina.blogspot.com/

    • Ballroom Pink January 26th, 2012 3:25 AM

      My brain just won’t stop. That’s what my insomnia is based on. I just have to tire myself out.

  • Emilie January 25th, 2012 5:57 PM

    Can I just say I LOVE the collages for each article, especially this one. Who makes them?

    • Anaheed January 25th, 2012 6:01 PM

      We have a bunch of illustrators and some of them do collages. We put their names in the captions! This one was by the fabulous Sonja Ahlers.

      • Emilie January 25th, 2012 6:09 PM

        That’s so cool, thanks! Me being a self-proclaimed collageaphobic, (scissors and glue are so frustrating! And dont even getting me started on finding good stuff to cut out!) I greatly admire those who are good at it!

  • Kaetlebugg January 25th, 2012 5:59 PM

    Occasionally I listen to the free Meditation Oasis podcasts you can get on iTunes, but I try not to do that too much because a) falling asleep with headphones on means really hurt ears in the morning and b) if I listen to it too much it stops being so relaxing and c) I wouldn’t want to depend on it too much. Also, I find using an eyeshade REALLY helps. No light is good! And I always pee immediately before I get in bed so I don’t need to get up later. One tip I learned from a children’s book called My Father’s Dragon (I think) think about a question, something like “why do wolves howl” or “why is the grass green.”

  • Emilie January 25th, 2012 6:05 PM

    Sleepytime is my favorite tea!!! Also SO many tips, thank you very very much

  • annagracie January 25th, 2012 8:56 PM

    SLEEEEPYTIME!

  • andrea January 25th, 2012 11:20 PM

    land of nod, that reminds me of my favourite bedtime story from when i was little, hope i can sleep tonight! thanks for the tips :)

  • Marissa January 27th, 2012 10:17 AM

    Okay, I am completely guilty right now. It is 2am, I can’t sleep and so I am reading this… I promise I will now close my laptop and read for a while, if I will ever get to sleep… I slept at a friend’s house the other night and because of the bad environment I couldn’t sleep until 6am, which has thus altered my sleeping hours for days. All it takes is one bad night, which is incredibly annoying. I’ve had sleep problems for years as well, mostly because I can’t shut my brain off and because I only find inspiration to write and be creative when it’s really late. So, instead of trying to turn off my brain I write down what I’m thinking, otherwise it will just pile up until I let it out. I know it’s a really bad cycle, but I feel I’ve also tried everything (except sleeping pills, I’m glad my mum never let me have them because she thought I’d be addicted) and I have sort of given up on making myself miserable by lying here going insane. I agree that herbal tea and exercise really helps, but my biggest problem right now is actually more about the general fatigue regardless of the amount of sleep I get. I haven’t had restful sleep in 8 years and am always tired.

  • phoebelouise January 27th, 2012 12:55 PM

    Rescue Remedy is great for sleeping. I used to be a complete wreck at night because I knew I’d be up until the early hours, but after using Rescue Remedy it totally knocks me out in like half an hour. Can’t say that it does much for anxiety, but for sleepytime it’s awesome!

  • fung-eyed January 28th, 2012 3:31 PM

    Jamie, that’s my method too !! I learned (from all people) ‘the Howard Stern show’ using bath and body raspberry flavored glitter lotion when I was in 11th grade, then proceeded to tell all my friends.