Saturday, February 3, 2018

Sleep strategies for a racing mind

(This is cross-posted from Medium, where it's formatted better)

My mind doesn’t stop thinking.
Or at least, it really doesn’t like to stop thinking, so it’s always very reluctant when my body says “hey mind, guess what?? it’s sleepy time!”

At that point, my mind needs to slow down enough for my body to be able to accomplish its goal of resting. I’ve been trying different strategies to slow my mind down since I was a kid, and I finally found a few that worked.
I know there are 5 billion posts of ways to fall asleep, because I personally have read 1 billion of them, and well, here’s one more! Bonus points if you’re reading this while trying to sleep.

Pre-req: No phones in the bedroom

I have proven to myself time and time again that I absolutely cannot have a phone within easy distance of my bed. Why? Well, when I can’t sleep, my mind says “Oooo, let’s just figure out how to do thing X or solve problem Y, a few Google searches won’t hurt!” 2 hours later, 20 browser tabs, and 2 Pinterest boards later, I’m even farther away from being able to sleep, as I’ve gotten my mind all excited about something.
Now, each night, I plug my phone into the only charger in my house, conveniently located not in my bedroom.
What about the bedroom-y features of a phone, like an alarm clock or soothing sleep-inducing sounds? I’ve replaced those with Amazon Echo Dot, which provides all those features yet does not make it easy to browse the internet for hours. Phew!

Pre-req: No chocolate after 5pm

The only form of caffeine that goes into my body these days is chocolate, which means my caffeine tolerance is super low. If I eat any after 5pm, the caffeine will still be in my system when I’m trying to sleep, since caffeine has a half-life of 5 hours. Even a hot cocoa at 8pm can keep me up until 2am.

Pre-req: Bedtime Supplements

I was resistant to trying supplements for a long time, as I wanted to try to accomplish my mind-calming without any external dependencies, but then I realized getting a good night’s sleep is so beneficial that it’s worth it to try anything.
My current favorite supplements are NightRest and Magnesium. I’ve also used Melatonin, a fairly popular supplement for sleep, but it’s a little too powerful and changes my wake-up state significantly.

Bed Setup: Heavy blanket and furry sheepdogs

I do not believe I have autism, but I keep discovering that I benefit from products originally designed for those on the autism spectrum. My sensory system seems to work similarly, methinks.
One of those awesome products is heavy blankets. They’re blankets that are weighted down with pellets equal to ~10% of your body weight, and are often made with fantastically fuzzy material. A sensory delight! Researchclaims that they calm the body down via “Deep Pressure Touch” which releases serotonin. Personally, I find that they help me get to sleep, and if I’m bawling, I’ll stop crying as soon as I lay underneath my cozy heavy blanket.
Another sensory delight in my bed is my “sheepdog”: a stuffed elephant with an IKEA sheepskin lovingly hand-sewn on top. I rub my face on the fur for 10 seconds and get so overwhelmed by happy tingly sensations that I forget everything I’d been thinking about it before. Furry calmy time!
I must confess: I no longer have either the blanket or the sheepdog in my bed, as I sleep with my partner now and find that his presence has a similarly calming effect on my system. His hair also has the same texture as the sheepdog. 😁 My brother is happily using the heavy blanket now!

Sleep-inducing Strategy #1: Counting Breaths

As a kid, I was always told to count sheep to get to bed. Every time I tried it, my mind would get itself into a tizzy instead. While counting, my mind was desperately trying to decide what color each sheep was, what the fence looked like, how gracefully they jumped, every last detail of the scene!Generally, my mind overanalyzes whenever it attempts visualizations, so I very rarely find visualizations helpful for calming it down.
However: counting breaths is totally doable, because my breaths actually exist (no offense, sheepies). Just as I do in meditation, I go for deep belly breaths and I count on the exhale. My mind still totally has thoughts, but its less likely to get stuck in thought loops.

Sleep-inducing Strategy #2: Progressive Relaxation

Progressive Relaxation is a super useful technique that you can use for releasing tension at any point during your day and to give your mind a break from thoughts for a hot second.
The basic idea is that you tense parts of your body for 8 seconds, then release that part, and you keep tensing and releasing different parts of your body. You can start at the bottom with your toesies and work your way up, or vice versa. For a quickie, you can tense every muscle at once, and then release it all.
I often find I don’t have the willpower to guide myself through a progressive relaxation, because my mind really-really-really wants to think about something else. In that case, I listen to a recording that will guide me through. There are hundreds of recordings on Youtube that you can sample, including my very own version here.
Still feeling tense? Do it again! In the right situations, it can work wonders.

Sleep-inducing Strategy #3: Bedtime Stories

Little kids know where it’s at. If I get told a bedtime story that actually interests me, I’ll happily nod off to sleep, often mid-story. A former partner of mine is a brilliant improvisational story-teller, and I was always happy when I managed to convince him to make up a story for me. He wasn’t always happy when I’d fall asleep before the end of the story, so we started recording them for posterity. We even turned one of them into a real(-ish) children’s book.
I’ve tried finding engaging bedtime stories on Youtube, but most of them are too targeted at children. If only Pixar made bedtime stories, aye?
Relatedly: I sometimes read short stories before bedtime, like from Asimov, Bradbury, or Dahl. That doesn’t work quite as well, as they often engage my mind a bit too much. They do at least distract my mind from trying to solve problems in my life, which is what tends to keep it up the most.

Sleep-inducing Strategy #3: Sleep Talkdowns

In a sleep talkdown, a nice stranger from the internet talks to you and tries to talk you down into sleep. They may guide you through deep breathing and progressive relaxation, they may remind you that everything is okay, and they often fill in the blanks with whooshing ocean sounds. There are thousands of them on the internet, so you can try a different one each night and see which works for you. This is my favorite sleep talkdown. It’s 30 minutes long, which isn’t always long enough to talk me down, so I will happily play it twice.

That’s All, Folks

These days, I get to sleep within 20 minutes of tucking in, thanks to these variety of strategies. That’s really short for me, so I’m a happy camper now.
If you’re reading, I hope you find a new strategy here that works for you. Feel free to respond with your own experience and suggestions.
And with that, I’m off to sleep. 😴

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