Week 5 – Reshape Your Lifestyle and Behaviours for Easy Sleep

Create a lifestyle that makes sleep come easily

Introduction

Welcome to week 5! How are you doing? 

No really – how are you?

Has some weight been lifted off your shoulders yet? Can you see the light at the end of the insomnia tunnel? Or are you still feeling pessimistic about this whole process? 

If you’re the former, yay! Continue on your path of healing and your sleep will see improvement, week after week. 

If you’re the latter, I would like you to ask yourself why you don’t think this will work. 

  1. Is it because you’ve read all the tips and tricks and know what to do, but don’t believe it will work for you in particular? 
  2. Do you believe that sleep deprivation is a fact of life, and you will simply remain forever tired? 
  3. Did you “try” the things suggested, but they didn’t work? 

Truly dig down into the trenches of your mind to see if you’re building unnecessary walls for yourself. There may be some limiting beliefs there that are getting in the way of overcoming insomnia. 

Because when it comes to the points above: 

  1. Knowing isn’t the same as doing 
  2. You are just as human as every other human and have the ability to sleep 
  3. Have you actually tried? Like – committed, day in and day out, to getting on a regular sleep schedule? 

The things I describe throughout this course are not just some stuff made up by me (though it did work for me) – it’s literally based on scientific research on how our brains and minds are wired. It will work for you – if you put in the work.

Maybe you oscillate between the two states of mind. I know I did when I had insomnia. There were days of optimism, and days that were rife with feelings of defeat. Again, I want to remind you to be gentle with yourself, and to not expect perfection. There was a perfect storm that led to insomnia in the first place, so it can take some time to unwind from those thoughts and behaviours. 

Keep. Going. 

Put in the work, and you will see the rewards. I promise. And hopefully it’ll become even easier as you put the sleep puzzle pieces together and strengthen their connection in your mind. 

Speaking of which, this week I will be covering the final part of the insomnia puzzle – lifestyle and behavioural factors that help you sleep. 

Again, implementing lasting change takes dedication and resilience. You will want to give up some days, or simply skip doing what you know you need to do. The key ingredient here is to get back up again. Life will always be there to knock us down in some way, but it doesn’t mean you have to stay on the ground and bear it. In fact, if you do just that, nothing will change. Nothing. You have to create some counterforce in how you approach life to create meaningful change. 

I’m not talking about doing a total 180 here. It’s the small steps that make a huge difference.

If you walk 1km a day, which takes maybe 10 minutes, that’s not a lot. But do that over a year, that’s 365km more than you would have walked otherwise. If you save $20 every paycheque, it might not seem significant. But do that over the year and that’s $520. Replace a daily can of pop that contains 41 grams of sugar with a can of sparkling water. That’s 14,965 grams less sugar in one year – which is 14.965kg or 33 pounds. That’s an almost unimaginable amount of sugar if it were placed in front of you.

All of these examples don’t take a lot of effort, but the results compound over time. So this week, I’ll be discussing how you can adapt your lifestyle, even just a little bit, and make significant strides in overcoming insomnia.

🎯 Goal

This week’s goal is to rework your lifestyle so it is conducive to getting much needed sleep. This means instilling lifestyle and behavioural changes that should become second nature after a while. 

🏁 Mission

Change your day, right away. It doesn’t have to be drastic, and in fact, I hope it’s not. Because the more you think you need to do everything all at once, the less likely it’ll stick. Start with whatever you feel is manageable in your daily life, and add on as needed. 

Mindfulness for Insomnia

Let’s start the lifestyle and behaviour tweaking discussion with mindfulness.

Mindfulness is often presented as some esoteric thing that only new-agey types would engage with. However, mindfulness is actually quite simple: it is when you bring your attention to the present moment without judgement attached. What this means is, we get lost in our story-telling mind of thoughts and feelings much of the time without even realising it. When this happens, we don’t truly engage with our present environment. 

Not engaging in the present moment is an incredibly common mental state amongst everyone. I’m sure you’ve been reading a book and suddenly realise you didn’t really absorb what was on the last few pages. Or you were watching TV and zoned out thinking about your stress from the day. Or maybe someone is talking to you, and you’re not really hearing what they are saying – you are thinking of your response. 

Practicing mindfulness for a few minutes per day at least gives us a bit of space to fully experience what is happening, right now. And the more you practice it, the more you can fall into a state of mindfulness naturally. 

I covered some basics of mindfulness in week 1 including 4-7-8 breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and passive muscle relaxation. I included these because I find them to be the most useful to me personally. However, there are many other techniques, some of which may resonate more with you. Here are just a few others you can try.

5-4-3-2-1 Grounding

When your thoughts start to race or you start to panic, you need to bring yourself back to what is actually going on around you. That’s what 5-4-3-2-1 grounding aims to do – ground yourself in the present moment.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Name five things you can see. It doesn’t matter what they are, just pick. Focus on each object at a time and observe. Notice the colours, how the light reflects off of it, specific features, etc. For example, look at your TV. Notice the frame around the screen, and any sort of beveling it may have. Notice any words, lights, or buttons. 
  2. Now focus on four things you can feel. See how your pants feel on your legs, or the fabric on your shirt. Feel the couch or chair you’re sitting on, or your jewelry, or the pressure on your feet from having them on the floor. 
  3. Move on to three things you can hear. There is always something, even if it seems silent. Notice the slight hum of appliances, the fan on your computer, or a car driving by. Listen to what’s happening around you.
  4. Now focus on two things you can smell. Maybe you just had lunch, or there’s a coffee cup from this morning nearby. If you’re wearing a scent like perfume or cologne, notice it. If you’re outside, smell the air, grass, trees, or flowers. If you can’t smell anything, think of two scents that you enjoy like fresh baked bread, the ocean, or maybe even the lumber section of a hardware store. 
  5. Lastly, focus on something you can taste. Take a sip of a drink. If you have gum or a mint nearby, taste it. If you can’t taste anything right now, name something that you love the taste of.

3-3-3 Grounding

Just like the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, you focus on three senses: sight, touch, and hearing. Do the same process as the first three steps above, but limit it to three per category. 

Guided Breathing

Guided breathing is exactly what it sounds like – you rely on an external factor to help regulate your breath. I personally love Insight Timer (not affiliated) – they have a ton of options, and a few will surely resonate with you and your current experience. 

You can also find youtube videos or websites that have an animation that you watch and breathe along with. This can help you focus not only on the sensation of breathing, but on the imagery as well. Here’s one that you can try:

https://www.calm.com/breathe

Either option is a good way to ground yourself if you find yourself unable to disconnect from your thoughts.

Deep Belly Breathing

It is well documented that breathing and emotions are closely intertwined, and controlled breathing like deep breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression (Jerath et al., 2015). The reason for this is because mood disorders, like the ones previously stated, affect the whole body and whole brain rather than specific parts of the brain. By the same token, breathing targets the whole body and brain, whereas medication targets specific neurotransmitters, thus treating only part of the problem (Jerath et al., 2015).

When we’re anxious, we generally breathe in our upper chest. Much of the time, we don’t even notice it. However, breathing in our chests can be quite shallow, sending an unconscious signal to your brain to continue breathing in a laboured way. This keeps you feeling anxious. 

To slow down your breathing, inhale by pushing out your belly. Fill it with air, and continue inhaling through your chest. Exhale. Do three sets of 10 breaths.

Equal Breathing

Equal breathing is when you breathe in and out for equal counts. It is a particularly useful technique if you are panicking because when we panic, we take shallow breaths and it feels like we’re not getting enough air. This leads to hyperventilating, making the panic spiral that much worse. When this happens, your body can feel tingly, numb, or suddenly begin cramping, causing parts of your body to lock, among other things (Mayo Clinic, 2018). It’s an atrocious feeling where it feels as if you are having a heart attack or are about to die. 

To do equal breathing, simply breathe in for four counts (or five, or six) and exhale (vigorously) for an equal amount of counts. Like, really get the air out of your lungs. Do this until you find a natural rhythm with your breath. 

Drop Anchor

The term ‘drop anchor’ was coined by renowned psychologist Russ Harris who has written the most popular books on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) (Harris, 2016). What it essentially tries to do is disrupt your pattern of thinking during an emotional ‘storm’. This can also be done at any time under any mood, and in fact is easier to practice when you’re not swept away.

Here, you follow the ACE principle: Acknowledge thoughts and feelings, Come back into your body, and Engage in what you’re doing. 

For acknowledging your thoughts and feelings, notice what you are feeling, thinking, and any memories that pop up, etc. Try to do so with an inquisitive mind, like you are something fascinating to be studied rather than getting wrapped up in the specific feelings, thoughts, and memories. 

To come back into your body, focus on things you can control. Stretch your arms above your head. Stomp your feet. Push your hands together. Touch your elbow. Anything. Move your body in a way that makes you focus.

When it comes to engaging in what you’re doing, this is where the 5-4-3-2-1 or 3-3-3 exercise comes in handy.

Pay Attention to Body Sensations

Focusing on what you are feeling and what you are doing is a way to ground yourself. A great time to practice this everyday is while you are in the shower. Focus on the feeling of the warm water hitting your back. Feel your fingers run through your hair. Concentrate and name what you are doing, for example “I am now shampooing my hair” or “I am washing my face – cheeks, forehead, nose, ears”, etc. 

Other ways to focus on body sensations include cleaning, exercising, getting dressed, putting on makeup, getting ready for bed, etc.

📍 Quest #1

What act of mindfulness will you do everyday this week? Pick one from the above list and give it a go. Most of these take no more than a few minutes, so set a timer and try to start a new habit. 

Daytime Relaxation for Better Sleep

Simplicity, patience, compassion.

These three are your greatest treasures.

Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.

Patient with both friends and enemies,

you accord with the way things are.

Compassionate toward yourself,

you reconcile all beings in the world.

Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Part of overcoming insomnia is making sure you take care of yourself during the day. When I say this, I don’t mean rushing to accomplish things just because it’s “good” for you. I want you to allow space to truly enjoy yourself. 

By doing so, you not only savour your present moment but it also helps to ground you before anxiety or negative feelings can take hold. This sets the stage for easier relaxation later on at bedtime. Here are just a few suggestions.

Get Moving

Wow! Another website on the internet, and the second time alone on this one telling you if you want better sleep you should move your body. 

See the source image

I know, I know…

Look, we all know that moving our bodies helps literally everything. It helps our sleep patterns, muscles, brain function, blood flow, mood, and more (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2020). Again, this doesn’t mean you have to deadlift your max weight or do a crazy HIIT workout. Go for a walk around the block. Take your bike out for a leisurely spin. Do some light stretching. Tend to your garden. Walk to the store and get your favourite ice cream and savour the hell out of that ice cream (Bonus – you end up with ice cream). Anything to get you moving will help your mental state.

Light Some Candles (or turn on low lighting)

I don’t know about you, but there’s something calming about fire and/or low lighting. Just the gentle glow puts me in a different state of mind that makes it so much easier to relax. Light a candle, turn on some fairy lights, or dim some warm lighting that you have. Do this while you are showering or bathing, practicing mindfulness, reading, listening to music, or doing anything else. 

Engage In a Hobby

To me, a hobby is something you just do. There is no end goal, there’s no aim for it to turn into a profitable side hustle, there’s no stress. You just do it for the sake of enjoyment. You know when you’ve found a hobby that ‘hits the spot’ when you are in a state of flow. Flow is this perfect conjecture between your physical, mental, and emotional well being. It’s something that merges your sense of self with your actions, where you feel at ease and in control, and you get lost in time (Csikszentmihalyi, Abuhamdeh, & Nakamura, 2005).

If you don’t have a hobby, here’s a gigantic list of ones you can try.

Listen to Music 

flatlay photography of wireless headphones

When you listen to your favourite music, really listen to the music. As in, don’t do anything other than listen to the music. No driving, no exercising, no working. In other words, it should not be background music while you do something else – just sit there, and listen.

There’s something a lot more enjoyable and tangible when your only goal is to listen to and savour music. You hear nuances that maybe wouldn’t have otherwise. You truly engage with it, and feel it. Maybe you even feel body sensations, like muscle relaxation and slowed breathing. 

Explore

When was the last time you walked to a new area in the place that you live? I bet there are plenty of sights to see and things to explore in your vicinity. If you’re in a big city, go check out the area you’ve always wanted to see. If you’re in a mid-sized city, walk through neighbourhoods or head to a park area you’ve never seen before. If you’re in a small town, go to a shop you’ve never set foot in, or drive down a rural road. 

The change in scenery can bring a renewed sense of adventure and excitement, or at the very least, get you out of the house doing something new. 

Talk to Someone

Pick up the phone and call someone. Video chat with a friend. Text someone you haven’t in a while. Email an extended family member to let them know you are thinking of them. If you can, avoid online forms or social media (unless it’s a private message) – the personal connection keeps us happier and healthier, and even creates a longer life expectancy (Oppong, 2019).

Read

book near eyeglasses and cappuccino

From fantasy novels to steamy romance and murder-mysteries, and non-fiction books about your ancestry, ancient history, or psychology, there’s no shortage of books that will pique your interest. Pick up a book you’ve been meaning to read, but maybe haven’t had the chance to. Let yourself get lost in a book, and transport yourself to a different mental space. 

Clean

So very few people probably truly love cleaning. But! Once it’s done, doesn’t it feel good? Take a few hours and organize your closet. Wipe the cupboard doors and feel the satisfaction of clearing built-up grease. Scrub your toilet until it’s sparkling. If it’s nice outside and you have a yard or balcony, go do some maintenance. It doesn’t have to be some mad rush of a to-do list, just a nice feeling of relaxation that comes from things looking new again or objects being placed “back in their home”, like Marie Kondo popularised. 

Create a ritual

Creating a ritual is about regularly doing something meaningful to you, and it can be anything you want it to be. For example, have tea at a certain time and flip through the pages of a magazine. Shower and use your favourite products. Doing some morning stretches. Whatever resonates with you and feels like it’s an expression of your being is a good ritual. 

Enjoy Good Food

When you enjoy good food, it’s like it feeds more than just your stomach – it engages your senses. It not only tastes good, but looks pleasant and smells great. It creates an overall atmosphere of savouring and a sense of presence and appreciation for the food that sits before you. Enjoy it by yourself or in the company of those you love.

Even be mindful of the dishware you use. Maybe get some nicer dinnerware that makes ya feel all fancy. 

📍 Quest #2

Let’s go on a thought journey.

Imagine your ideal day

How you would wake up, where you’d be

What your morning routine would be

The kinds of activities you would do during the day

Who you would spend time with

The food you would eat

How you’d spend your evenings.

Really stop and think here. 

Close your eyes and envision yourself going through your day.

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Ok got it?

Pick a daytime relaxation activity to do this week to get you closer to that ideal day, either one from the list above or something else you thought of. Try doing that every day this week, or do something new every day that helps you relax. Do whatever works to help you enjoy each day just a little bit more. 

Mental Clarity For Insomnia: Protect Your Mental Health

If there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person

If there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the house

If there is harmony in the house, there will be order in the nation 

If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.

Chinese Proverb

I personally think something that generally isn’t talked about enough in public discourse is how to protect your mental health in the first place, rather than how to fix it later. There is some discussion around how to manage thoughts and emotions once they pop up, but it’s important to know that you can rearrange parts of your life to diminish stress before it has a chance to emerge.

As of this writing (March 30, 2021), COVID is still running rampant across the world. It’s obviously better in some places than others, and vaccines are giving some hope that there will be an end date. But the pandemic alone has caused a sort of collective trauma. Most of our lives were flipped upside down in some way, whether it was your job, marriage, kids, friends, health, family, finances, social support or others. The world changed and we had to adapt, literally overnight, to our new reality.  

And the pandemic was ON TOP of whatever you were already dealing with in life. It’s a lot to contend with. So let’s just take a second here to appreciate that life has been harder for over a year now, and it’s completely understandable if you’ve lost sleep and feel anxious. 

With that being said, let’s discuss how to reduce the impact of our environment so at the very least, you’re not dealing with an excess of external stressors.

Deactivate Social Media

Wild concept, I know. 

But if you really want to protect your mental health, purging your social media habits is a great start. And here’s why:

We as human beings are incredibly susceptible to emotional contagion. This is when we are swept up by the emotional turmoil that is going on around us, whether it’s conscious or not and whether we want to be caught up in the storm or not. And what better place to experience the full gamut of human emotion than on social media?  It’s near impossible to not to get wrapped up in the mob mentality if you’re a social platform – that’s emotional contagion for you (Schultz, 2017). As Bo Burnham sang in his song, “Welcome to the Internet”:

“Be happy, be horny, be bursting with rage, we’ve got a million different ways to engage”.

Social media is also no longer about social connection. And for many, it’s incredibly toxic to our mental health and well-being (Cigna, 2018). So to heal your mental health, step away and find your balance again.

Not ready to give up social media? At the very least, limit yourself to prevent depression and loneliness (Hunt, Marx, Lipson, Young, 2018) unfollow people who make you unhappy, turn off notifications on your phone, and set a definitive time restriction for yourself to wander down the dark rabbit hole that is social media. 

Turn Off the News

“Feelings of powerlessness are not punishments, they’re motivations to empower ourselves. Stand up for what you believe. Write letters, demonstrate, lobby Congress, and so on, remembering that you’ll be most effective (and feel better) when focused on the change you want to see rather than merely reacting to what you don’t like.” – Dr. Steven Stosny, who coined the term ‘headline stress disorder’. 

Are you feeling anxious about the constant onslaught of news? Stressed about the barrage of never ending terrible events happening? There’s actually a term for this now called Headline Stress Disorder. While it’s not an official diagnosis, it’s very real for many of us who experience heart palpitations, chest tightness, and yes, insomnia, as a result of the 24 hour news cycle (Dong and Zheng, 2020).

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Worried you’ll feel guilty if you’re not an informed citizen? A lot of us feel like we’re socially irresponsible for not being glued to our phones and refreshing our feeds (Mcmaster, 2020). But why is that? Why are you so hard on yourself to the point where you have to know every nuance of every angle of every situation that makes the news? 

You are not a bad person for not staying on top of world events. In fact, you’ll be a more mentally healthy person if you turn off the news in favour of doing something you enjoy. And don’t worry, the most important news will make it to you somehow. If you really need to get your news fix, try an app like Feedly (non affiliate, I just like it) and ignore everything else. Or get Appblock (also not affiliate) to block websites you constantly check for news.

Put Up Personal Boundaries

People come in all types of personalities, values, beliefs, and experiences and sometimes those types clash with your personality, values, beliefs, and experiences. 

That’s ok. 

That doesn’t necessarily make them bad people, and it doesn’t make you a bad person for wanting to limit your time around them. Sometimes, we have to make a choice of who we spend time with and that includes setting up hard limits on people we don’t connect with.

Can’t avoid someone you’re not particularly fond of because they’re a coworker, family member, or friend’s significant other? Stick to discussing neutral ideas and events. Sometimes, it’s futile to get into deeper topics. Because, as George Bernard Shaw once said, 

“… [never] wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

Put Up Time Boundaries

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Protecting your mental health means putting up firm boundaries around everything having to do with your time. There’s a million examples of how we choose to spend our time, moment by moment. One of them, as mentioned previously, is the news – you have the choice to doom scroll for the next half hour, or you can do a multitude of other things. It’s your choice. 

Are meetings always running late at work? Learn and exercise the term ‘hard stop’. Does your spouse want to talk your ear off when you really just need a minute to unwind? Tell them you’d love to talk at ‘X’ time, but for now you just truly need space. Do parents or in-laws drop by unexpectedly? Tell them now is not a good time and to please call next time to make plans. 

Yes, we can’t control all of our time – we have work or school, chores, cooking, children to look after, and other obligations. And that’s perfectly fine – a lot of these things are enjoyable. If they’re not, for the love of all that is holy, think of some things you can implement immediately to make your life more bearable. 

If you say to yourself, ‘nothing can make this better’, you are overloaded and need to prioritise getting back to a healthy state of mind beyond protecting whatever mental health you have left. If that’s where you are, please see the additional resources section at the end of week 6.

The key to taking back your time is to always ask yourself, “how can I choose, in this very moment, to make the best out of the time I have?”.  

Engage In Your Inferior Function

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If the following sounds a bit hippy dippy, it’s because it is. But hey, if you want to protect your mental health, it’s worth a shot.

Have you ever heard of the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory (MBTI)? If not, it’s a test that divides people into 16 personality types. You are either introverted or extroverted, intuitive or sensing, a thinker or feeler, and a judger or perceiver. It’s based on Carl Jung’s The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (The Myers & Briggs Foundation). However, it was never vetted by the psychoanalyst. It’s also not a very good idea to use the MBTI as the sole source of defining yourself or choosing a career (Gholipour, 2019). But I digress.

Still, I think the MBTI can offer some perspective on how your brain operates. For example, I’m an INFJ and find the descriptions suit me. It’s not all of who I am, but it is interesting to know there’s a ‘framework’ for my thought process.

The really interesting thing to note here isn’t so much your type, but the functional stack of your personality type. Here’s how PersonalityJunkie.com explains it:

Each personality type prefers to use four of the eight functions first described by Jung. These four functions comprise a type’s “functional stack.” The relative strength of preference for these four functions is expressed in the following manner: dominant, auxiliary, tertiary, and inferior.

Dominant Function: Your type’s signature strength

Auxiliary Function: Sidekick to the dominant function

Tertiary Function: Relatively unconscious / undifferentiated

Inferior Function: Least conscious / accessible.

In other words, you have a driver (dominant function), front passenger (auxiliary), backseat behind the driver (tertiary), and backseat behind the front passenger (inferior).

I have a theory (and yes, it’s just based on personal experience) that we have to engage with our inferior function in a constructive way if we are feeling overwhelmed. For example, my inferior function as an INFJ is extraverted sensing (Se), which is engaging with your five senses. When I’m mentally exhausted or overwhelmed, I tend to engage with my Se in a destructive way (drinking, over-indulging, overspending). 

But I feel a lot better when I engage in my senses in a constructive way that makes sense for me. For example, I love hiking and playing the violin. Both are very sensory experiences, and both are truly healing.

To take the MBTI test, here are a few sources:

https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test

https://personalityjunkie.com/

https://www.truity.com/test/type-finder-personality-test-new

To find your functional stack, including your inferior function, Personality Junkie seems to have the best write ups on the subject. To learn more about inferior functions in general, take a look here.

Do a Brain Dump

Sometimes, what we feel anxious about feels like a nondescript static in our heads. If someone were to ask us what we’re stressed about, you might be inclined to say “EVERYTHING”. But even if it feels like a jumbled mess, there are particular thorns in your side and sometimes you need to just pluck them out.

So open a Google Doc and start writing. Don’t edit as you go. Just write. Write what you are feeling. Sad, angry, anxious, stressed, hurt, frustrated, uncertain. Name it, and expand on it. Why are you feeling what you feel? Let it flow. You are safe from judgement here – no one ever has to read what you wrote. Just getting it off your chest can feel like a big weight has been lifted. 

Get Outside Your Head

Easier said than done, but there are two methods that can really help: savouring and reframing (Pogrebtsova, 2016). 

To savour something, truly appreciate what is in front of you. If it’s a meal, really savour it. Don’t look at your phone. Eat with someone and talk about the subtleties of the food. Savour how awesome it smells and how beautiful it looks. If you’re outside, look at the vibrancy of the colours around you. Listen to the birds and the rustling of the leaves. Literally stop and smell the flowers. If you have children, listen to them and appreciate the wonder in their eyes, or how they do something that is so uniquely them.

To reframe, try this: think of your life situation now. All of your relationships, work, hobbies, values, interests, and beliefs. Create a clear picture of who you are at this very moment.

A series of decisions over the years have led you to this point. Maybe you chose one job over another, moved to a certain city, traveled to a certain country. Now think – if you didn’t do those things, where would you be now? Who would you have not met? How did this shape the person you are today? 

Reframing will at the very least take you out of your current frame of mind and help you appreciate where you are, and maybe, remind you that you are exactly where you are supposed to be.

📍 Quest #3

Do at least one thing every day this week to protect your mental health. 

Unconventional Ways to Support Good Sleep

We’ve all heard of the most common ways to help you sleep. However, as I have hopefully made clear by this point, you need to treat the underlying anxiety surrounding sleep.

There are many methods to get your worries out during the day, and I wanted to highlight five unconventional ways to do so. The solutions below are borrowed from customs all over the world and might seem strange. Keep in mind though that they have helped others alleviate anxiety associated with chronic insomnia so I encourage you to look into anything that piques your interest. You never know what might make you feel better!

Massage

white plastic pump bottle beside pink tulips and gray towel

We’ll start off easy with the alternative suggestions. If you are feeling stressed, anxious, and tense, massage therapy is great. Deep tissue massage (or a Swedish massage if you want a more relaxing massage rather than ‘work the knots out’ massage) will relax your body. Just as a tense mind can cause a tense body, a relaxed body can signal your mind to relax too (HealthLinkBC, 2019).

Hypnotherapy

Hypnosis, or hypnotherapy, is when someone guides you into a trance-like state of mind (Mayo Clinic, 2020). When hypnotised, you generally feel more relaxed and have a deeper state of focus. It is used in a variety of situations, including pain management, easing side effects of cancer treatment, and implementing behavioural changes like overeating, smoking, and insomnia. 

It’s important to note that hypnotherapists are NOT psychologists and are not required to be certified (in Canada). However, if you do try one I recommend someone who is registered with the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists. One study showed positive but inconclusive results for treating insomnia with hypnosis because of the small sample size (Lam et al., 2015). Another study found that hypnotherapy can be a good tool alongside other therapies because of its success with “… relaxation, increased suggestibility, posthypnotic suggestion, imagery rehearsal, access to preconscious cognitions and emotions, and cognitive restructuring” (Becker, 2014)

If you do not want to pay for hypnotherapy, you can try listening to the many free hypnotherapy videos on Youtube. 

Reiki

ways to help you sleep

Reiki is a healing technique that was developed in Japan about 100 years ago. It’s based on the principle that the reiki master can “…channel energy to activate the natural healing processes of the patient’s body and restore physical and emotional well-being” (Murfin). The reiki master transfers “universal energy” through their palms to the patient in order to encourage physical, emotional, and mental healing. The reiki master does not typically touch you to “move energy”.

I have tried reiki therapy three times. I did feel more relaxed after each session and it did help me sleep that night. I would recommend trying it if it’s something you’re interested in.

Ayurveda

Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing practices that was developed thousands of years ago in India. It is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a balance between the mind, body, and spirit (Ratini, 2021). 

In Ayurveda, insomnia is known as Anidra. According to the Ayurvedic perspective, the doshas (energies) that are responsible for insomnia are Tarpak Kapha, Sadhak Pitta or Prana Vata (Telles et al., 2015). 

  • Tarpak Kapha is a sub-dosha of Kapha (Water). It nourishes the brain cells and facilitates a good night’s sleep. Imbalance of this dosha causes poor nourishment of brain cells, leading to insomnia.
  • Sadhak Pitta is a sub-dosha of Pitta (Fire) and is located in the heart. It controls emotions, desires, decisiveness, and spirituality. Its imbalance makes a person demanding and a workaholic, thereby leading to situations that may cause lack of sleep.
  • Prana Vata is a sub-dosha of Vata (Air). It is linked to insomnia, worry, anxiety, and problems like depression. Prana Vata makes the nervous system sensitive; this sensitive nervous system coupled with an aggravated Prana Vata lead to insomnia.

-From everydayayurveda.org

Ayurveda states that insomnia is due to malnutrition, emotional imbalance, or anxiety. Makes sense! While the western world treats insomnia with prescription drugs, Ayurveda suggests the following home remedies to help you sleep:

  • Rub oil on your scalp and the soles of the feet before going to bed. Use sesame oil, jasmine oil, or coconut oil and massage gently for a few minutes.
  • Drink 1 cup of warm almond milk before going to bed
  • Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of cumin on a sliced banana. Eat at night regularly.

Reflexology

ways to help you sleep

Reflexology goes back to ancient Egypt, where inscriptions describing the practice were found in a physician’s tomb (Keet, 2009). Reflexology is the application of pressure to specific areas on the feet, hands, or ears. The pressure points correspond to different organs and body systems, and pressing them has been said to be beneficial to organ functioning and improving overall health.

When it comes to chronic insomnia, you may be under a lot of stress from the insomnia itself or from whatever is causing your insomnia. Stress can then cause many of your organs to go into overdrive and other areas of your body to become tense. Reflexology works on the trigger point to help ease these points of tension and help you sleep. 

Whether or not you believe in the theory behind reflexology, I found it quite relaxing to have my hands and feet massaged and recommend you try it out.

Floating

sensory deprivation

In its simplest form, floating is when you float in salt water and the room is completely dark and silent. It is also called ‘flotation therapy’, ‘isolation tank therapy’, and less commonly ‘sensory deprivation’. 

Modern sensory deprivation tanks are shaped like a big egg and are generally large enough so you can stretch your arms out. The room and water temperature are the exact same as your body temperature, so you don’t feel a difference from the back half of your body that is submerged in water and the other half that’s exposed to air. And don’t worry about sinking – you can’t because the water is saturated with highly buoyant Epsom salts. 

Floating is said to help with insomnia for three reasons: 

1. Magnesium Absorption

The epsom salt used in float tanks is actually magnesium sulphate, which plays a role in helping you sleep. Magnesium can help with muscle relaxation, deactivate stress responses, and improve nerve and muscle function (Kormos, 2016)

2. Pain Relief

A stressed body can cause a stressed mind. The lack of external pressure and the experience of weightlessness with floating can alleviate body aches and pains so your muscles can easily relax. 

3. Just Being

As someone with chronic insomnia, I would bet that you get stuck in your head. It’s hard not to always think about sleep: if you’ll sleep, when you’ll sleep, how hard it can be, etc. Your life revolves around sleep and your brain never gets to take a rest. As you know, the harder you try to sleep, the more difficult it can be.

Floating helps you to just be, even if for only an hour. 

Supplements

Natural sleep aids, a.k.a., vitamins and minerals, aren’t a magic potion. They are legitimate stuff that your body needs and can very much affect your sleeping patterns. Here are a few you can try. 

Disclaimer: check with your doctor or pharmacist before you take anything. They can potentially interact with existing medications.

Zinc

Despite the fact that our bodies only require a very small amount of zinc, this trace mineral plays a very important role in our health. Some of the 300+ functions that zinc performs in your body includes building and strengthening your immune system, keeping your reproductive system healthy, and decreasing the risk for diabetes (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2021). Zinc also plays a part in regulating the brain and body’s response to stress.

Studies have also shown that the more depressed someone is, the lower the zinc level (Rondanelli et al., 2011). So it may be something to look into if you are feeling depressed. You can take zinc in pill form, or find it in oysters, beef, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, and egg yolks.

Magnesium

Magnesium, like zinc, regulates over 300 functions in your body. One of these functions include muscle relaxation and deactivating your stress responses (Cuciureanu and Vink, 2011). While magnesium will not solve your underlying cause for insomnia if it is related to mental health, it is necessary for your brain to be able to wind down for a good night’s sleep (Kormos, 2016).

Good sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, avocados, bananas, and almonds.

ZMA Supplements

ZMA (or zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B6 combined) is a supplement to help athletes recover from strenuous training. Though research on ZMA as a natural sleep aid is limited, it showed that 43 adults who took ZMA with melatonin achieved better sleep quality (Rondanelli et al., 2011). 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a hormone naturally produced by our bodies when we expose our skin to sunlight. It helps keep bones strong and our immune system healthy. It seems reasonable to assume that the hormone that links us with the sun would affect our sleep, and there is a study that links vitamin D deficiency to sleep disorders (Gominak and Stumpf, 2012)

If you are in the northern hemisphere where sunlight is greatly limited for several months, here are some foods that contain vitamin D: sockeye salmon, egg yolks, and dairy products (milk, yogurt, margarine) that are fortified with it. It is also available in pill form.

Iron

Iron is an essential building block for red blood cells to transport oxygen around the body. And an iron deficiency has been shown to disrupt sleep, regardless if someone is anxious or depressed (Murat et al., 2015). Iron can be taken via over the counter pills, and it’s found in many foods including  mussels, beef, and edamame beans.

Valerian root

Valerian is a common natural sleep aid that has been used to treat sleep disorders and anxiety since the time of ancient Greece. One meta-analysis of 16 studies concerning valerian root found it may improve sleep quality, though the data provided from these studies was not standardised and many people had issues with methodology (Bent et al., 2015).

It comes in pill form, and smells absolutely awful. Think sweaty feet awful. But it has been used for centuries, and may be worth a try.

Manage and Challenge Unhelpful Coping Behaviours 

Chronic insomnia can be incredibly jarring. You want so desperately to sleep but can’t. You’ve tried all the things that people have told you to do to change or fix poor sleep. Maybe you tried venting to others about how horrible all of this is, or maybe you just resigned yourself to poor sleep, or maybe you tell yourself that you’ll be ok over and over again. But these coping mechanisms don’t seem to work for you – your brain still doesn’t turn off.

Coping can be defined as behaviours that are meant to bring relief to your life. It’s how we naturally deal with stressful situations. How we cope usually depends on the situation, and it likely includes more than one type of strategy.

There are a few models around coping behaviours, however, one that pops up frequently was developed by Bruce Compas and his colleagues and is called the Response to Stress model (Skinner, Zimmer-Gembeck, 2016). It’s a multi-dimensional model that assesses how someone copes with stress and how effective they may be at actually mitigating the initial stress. 

The first parameter of the model distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary responses to stress. So anything that is within your conscious awareness where you try to regulate your emotions, behaviours, and thinking is voluntary. Conversely, involuntary responses may or may not be fully understood by the conscious mind – these are conditioned reactions like numbing yourself to mental pain, ruminating, and having intrusive thoughts (Connor-Smith, Compas, Wadsworth, Harding Thomsen, and Saltzman, 2000). 

Both voluntary and involuntary responses are further divided as either an engaged or disengaged response. Engaged responses mean you are responding directly to a stress, and disengaged means you are orienting your response away from the stress (Connor-Smith, Compas, Wadsworth, Harding Thomsen, and Saltzman, 2000). 

It is important to note that disengaged does not necessarily mean it’s unhelpful – you can disengage with stress in helpful ways through things like acceptance or emotional regulation. You can also engage in unhelpful or helpful ways, e.g., rumination versus emotional expression.

These can be further categorised as either primary control coping strategies where you aim to directly alter the conditions of the stressor, and secondary control which is adapting to the stressor (Connor-Smith, Compas, Wadsworth, Harding Thomsen, and Saltzman, 2000). .

Many coping mechanisms, such as emotional regulation, acceptance, and problem solving can work quite well when dealing with stress. However, not all forms of coping are beneficial to our overall well-being. When the healthier coping mechanisms seem to fail us and nothing really changes, we turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms. These are things like: 

  • voluntarily disengaged (denial, avoidance, wishful thinking)
  • involuntarily engaged (rumination, intrusive thoughts, emotional or physiological arousal), or
  • involuntarily disengaged (inaction, emotional numbing, etc.) 

These can not only get in your way of truly dealing with insomnia, but actually reinforce insomnia’s place in your mind. I’ve already touched on confronting some less-than-beneficial coping mechanisms (see here and here and here), so let’s continue to talk about them to see if there are more you can pinpoint. Because the sooner you acknowledge these in yourself, the sooner you can truly and utterly eradicate insomnia from your life. 

Avoiding Social Interactions

How many times have you avoided a social situation just because you didn’t sleep well the night before? Maybe it was canceling on a friend, or cutting a family gathering short because of the anxiety built up around sleep. It could be as simple as avoiding small talk in public places.

The thing is though, when we cut our interactions short or avoid them all together in an effort to get to bed, we can stress ourselves even more. This makes sleep that much more difficult to come by. 

One study tested the overall happiness of participants with how they interacted with strangers on the train during the daily commute. People were divided into three groups: 

  • the first was told not to socialise at all and keep to themselves
  • the second group did what they normally did
  • the third group was instructed to talk to another passenger on the train and learn at least one thing about that other person

You may think that keeping to yourself and not having the possibility of a negative interaction would make you the happiest, right? 

Well it turns out, the exact opposite is true. We are actually really bad at assessing how happy we’ll feel if we talk to a random person, and we underestimate how badly other people want to connect with us. As humans – as naturally social creatures – we almost always feel better when we connect with others, even if it’s just for a brief moment in time (Epley and Schroeder, 2014)

Thinking “oh I’m just an introvert”? Introversion does not mean anti-social. It means that you recharge by being alone, but still enjoy social interaction – even if it’s less than an extrovert. I’ll say it again, introvert ≠ socially anxious or hermited (Hendriksen, 2016).

So what does interacting with a stranger on a train mean for you and your sleep? Well, it means  that if you socialize, you’ll be filling your brain with more positive things. And filling your brain with positive thoughts, emotions, and memories can start a snowball effect where you want to do it more because it feels nice and reduces stress.

Remember my beautiful graphic on stress and how an excess can overflow into your insomnia cup?

Socializing is a direct way to reduce that overflow.

Stress Eating

Who doesn’t love good comfort food when they are feeling stressed?

The problem with stress and insomnia is that it is near constant, so you tend to crave sugary or fatty foods more regularly. This isn’t a lack of will power thing – sleep deprivation throws your cravings completely out of whack. Your hormones shift in a way that may make you suddenly feel the need to eat things you normally wouldn’t be drawn to. Or maybe you’ve always liked candy and fatty foods but now it seems impossible not to eat it. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Cortisol: long term stress from not sleeping causes the release of the hormone, which in turn makes you crave fatty and sugary foods  (Chao et al., 2018)
  • Leptin: this lil buddy tells your brain when you’ve had enough to eat. According to Taheri et al., 2004, sleep deprivation decreases leptin and therefore causes you to eat more.
  • Ghrelin: The same study from Taheri et al., 2004 shows that sleep deprivation increases ghrelin which stimulates your appetite.
  • Insulin:  The body’s reaction to sleep loss can resemble insulin resistance, and insulin’s job is to help the body use glucose for energy. So if you’re not sleeping, your body can’t regulate blood sugars as it should (Mann, 2010). 

So how do you combat this? It’s tough. But the only real solution is to keep unhealthy foods out of your house. As a result, you’ll have to feed your cravings with healthier alternatives. And the less you eat high (unhealthy) fat, high sugar foods, the less you crave it. So at the very least, cutting back on the unhealthy stuff gives you less of an uphill battle from a hormone regulation standpoint. 

Drinking Alcohol

As an attempt to deal with the stress from insomnia, some people turn to drinking alcohol to help calm their nerves.

While alcohol can provide a sense of relief and relaxation because of its sedative effects (for a short time anyway), drinking can actually add to the stress in your life on a hormonal level (Roehrs and Roth). It releases cortisol, which, again, is the stress hormone. And the more you drink in quantity and frequency, the more your base-level cortisol stays elevated. 

This new hormonal balance then targets specific organs, triggering that lovely F3 response. Isn’t evolution grand? 

Plus, as I mentioned previously, the rapid eye movement (REM) and deep stages of sleep will be disrupted when the alcohol starts releasing stimulating enzymes that need to be metabolised after 3-4 hours (Cleveland Clinic, 2020). These are the stages that happen to be the most regenerative for your body.

You’re already dealing with insomnia stress, so I encourage you to give up alcohol (or greatly limit it) while you are tackling chronic insomnia.

📍 Quest #4

Identify your negative coping strategies. I’ve identified a few common ones here, but there are more that you may be able to identify in yourself. How can you combat these negative strategies? What can you replace them with instead? E.g., meditation, mindfulness, daytime relaxation activities, etc.

When Babies Control Your Sleep

This section is specifically for new parents, so if this doesn’t apply to you, feel free to skip ahead!

Congratulations on your new addition! Whether it’s your first baby or your fourth, a newborn baby brings plenty of joy, smiles, and changes – especially to your sleep schedule. Here are some ways to cope with sleep deprivation with a newborn baby in the house.

Sleep When the Baby Sleeps!?

This is likely the worst piece of advice that parents get. I mean, if you can sleep when the baby sleeps, by all means go for it. But many new parents feel as if they should be doing something else while the baby sleeps. A good portion of your newborn baby’s waking time is spent feeding, changing diapers, and interacting with them. So unless you have a minimum of five arms, you won’t be able to do laundry, clean the kitchen, and scrub toilets, let alone shower and get ready, when your baby is awake.

But, a lot of those things can wait. Your laundry can (and likely will) pile up – who cares. Toilets don’t get infinitely grubbier if you go an additional day or two without cleaning them. And don’t want to deal with dirty dishes? That’s what one-pot meals or take out is for! 

So parents everywhere – I hereby give you permission to not do anything, do whatever you want, or maybe even sleep while the baby sleeps.

Take a Time Out

A lot of parents of newborns, especially first time parents, feel like they need to be constantly attentive and on their A-game lest they want their child to not reach their milestones on time. Rest assured, your life doesn’t have to be a 24/7 Wiggles concert in order for your baby to laugh and roll and walk one day.

If you are sleep deprived with a newborn, take a time out. If you can’t bring yourself to do much today, that’s ok. Try again tomorrow. The day is much more tolerable without putting additional stress on yourself that you ‘should’ do this or that. 

Plus, it’s good practice, especially as a parent, to remember that not everything is within your control, and sometimes you just don’t get enough sleep. It doesn’t feel great, but you’ll be ok. If you need to just sit there and zone out for a sec while your baby rests on you, go for it. 

Partner Up

If you are fortunate to have a partner to lean on, take shifts during the night. For example, one person can take the 9pm-2am shift and the other the 2am-7am shift. If you breastfeed, pump milk if you are able to so your partner can feed your newborn. 

Alternatively, formula feed if you aren’t into the pump (if you have opinions about the right way to feed a baby, good for you – but I don’t care, and neither should you about what others do to feed their children). If night shifts don’t work for you, alternate nights where only one parent gets up for all feeds. 

At least if you take shifts, you’ll each get a chunk of sleep which can feel a lot more refreshing than both of you having interrupted sleep every few hours.

Set a New Routine For Yourself

Ok, so you know how they say parents don’t have any time to themselves? It’s true, especially for the first bit of a newborn’s life, but you can carve out more time by crafting a new routine that works for you. Sometimes, you will have to give up your nightly ritual of watching TV so you can squeeze in another hour of sleep at the beginning of the night. 

And if you weren’t into good sleep hygiene before, it’s a good idea to get into it now. Things like going to bed at the same time, keeping your room cool and dark, and maintaining a clutter-free environment (even if that just means throwing the laundry in a different room) can all help with creating an environment conducive to a more restful sleep.

Create a Routine For Your Newborn

Babies are never too young to start a nightly routine. Putting on pajamas, reading a story, and/or giving a bath all help to develop a sense of consistency that will help them later when they can finally sleep through the night. In the hours leading up to bedtime, dim the lights and have quiet time. It helps with developing the baby’s circadian rhythm.

Do Something You Enjoy

Sometimes, we can’t get adequate sleep with a newborn. That’s ok. The day will feel like you’re dragging your feet a bit more (or a lot more) but try to do something you enjoy. Life doesn’t have to be dreary when you are sleep deprived with a newborn. Cook a wonderful meal for yourself. Write about your day. Take your baby for a walk. No, it won’t cure the fatigue, but it’ll hopefully add some more joy to your day and give you a more restful night.

Give Yourself Some Grace

Having a newborn cracks your heart wide open. Like, holy crap you love this little kid so much but it’s like a cute little bomb went off in your life and family dynamic. When we experience big life changes, one of which is a new baby, of course our brains are overactive! It’s trying to recalibrate to a new normal. 

Try to give yourself some empathy and understanding. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something peaceful like meditation, writing, drawing, or reading under a dim light. The tough newborn stage will pass, your baby will sleep one day, and so will you.

Give Your Baby Some Grace

On average, a newborn baby literally doubles their body weight in two months. So think to yourself – if you had to double your body weight in two months on just milk or formula, you’d have to wake up multiple times during the night to eat too! 

Plus, babies are brand new to the world. Just imagine not having any context to your surroundings and waking up in a dark room. Not yet knowing familiar voices, or a familiar soothing touch. We’d be scared too. While it might be hard when you are sleep deprived with a newborn to have some empathy, babies do deserve it from us. And the more empathy we can give along the way when they are learning how to ‘human’, the easier it will be for them to go to sleep or get back to sleep.

Keep In Mind…

You won’t have to deal with sleep deprivation forever. According to renowned baby sleep expert Richard Ferber, all babies are capable of sleeping through the night (defined as 11-12 hours per night) by the time they are six months old (2006). If you are sleep deprived with a newborn right now, six months might seem like a lifetime. But rest assured, the time will come faster than you think. 

Your baby may even sleep through the night sooner! According to another baby sleep author, babies can sleep through the night as long as they have doubled their body weight and are at least 12 weeks old (Giordano and Abidin, 2006).  

Also, if you are not sleeping beyond the normal interruptions that a newborn provides, it could be due to your hormones, which go absolutely wild after delivering a baby. Approximately 80% of women have postpartum blues after giving birth due to the literal bag of hormones (the placenta) leaving their bodies (Postpartum Depression, 2019). And up to 20% develop postpartum depression, which makes it even more difficult to sleep (I know, because I’m in the PPD camp). Postpartum depression also isn’t exclusive to the one giving birth – partners can get it too (Scarff, 2019). 

With consistency, good routine, and an active effort to de-stress yourself, your baby’s sleep will improve over time and you can get back to a night of restful sleep.

Week 5 Checklist

This week is all about reworking your lifestyle and behaviours to support good sleep habits. Keep in mind that this is only the starting week – these things take time and persistence to make into habits. And they don’t all have to be at once. I encourage you to do at least one thing from each of the four quests this week, but if that’s too much, just do one from one quest. 

To cure chronic insomnia, taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional well being is vital. I’m not here to pile more shit on you and make you feel bad for doing something/not doing something. For example, I mentioned stopping drinking or cutting back. For some, this might be an easy proposition. For others, alcohol may have been a major thorn in your side for years that you can’t just say “alright neat!” and be done with it. 

Only take on what you can handle at the moment. There’s nothing wrong with pushing yourself a bit of course, but you know yourself best and what you can take on without feeling overwhelmed. Some of the things that I suggested throughout this week will resonate with you – start with those. I, for one, found it remarkably easy to give up social media, create a bedtime ritual, and stop buying junk food. For you, it might be something completely different. 

Start somewhere – anywhere. It’ll be great.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Lao-Tzu

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