Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Sleep at Last

My husband and light of my life, Stephen, is able to fall asleep (most nights) within about three minutes of his head hitting the pillow. On the other hand, until recently, I routinely tossed and turned for literally hours. At least once a week I just gave up and went downstairs to read.

Recently, however, I have discovered a trick that works for me and might just help my fellow sleep-impaired friends.

There is no shortage of articles about "sleep hygiene" So before following my tips, read those articles and do your best to create a good sleep environment, get some fresh air, take some melatonin, and turn off the electronic devices. (That last one is the toughest, I know. I started by making myself go to another room to play on my iPad.)

A while ago, a friend who also struggles with insomnia told me that he heard a trick where you do the following:

  • Inhale to a count of 7
  • Hold for a count of 4
  • Exhale to a count of 8
  • Repeat

It kind of worked, provided I wasn't particularly stressed or preoccupied by anything. If I was troubled, my "intrusive thoughts" broke through the breathing.

My breakthrough came when a friend (Hi, Aliza!) on Facebook commented that she "just clears her mind" when she goes to bed. She said that whenever thoughts come to her as she's trying to fall asleep, she just pushes them away. Stephen says much the same thing.

This makes absolutely no sense to me. How does one not think what one is thinking? Nature and my brain abhor vacuums, it seems.

And, in my case, the vacuum often fills with thoughts that make me cringe with shame (How could I have said such a thing?) or cry with pain. These are not good ways to fall asleep. In the past, I would pick up my Kindle and hope that I would either get distracted enough to fall asleep thinking about the book or just fall asleep out of exhaustion. It didn't always work, as Stephen can attest.


Can I just say that I love the little pause and nod the sheep do before they leap the fence?
For actually counting sheep, a slightly slower pace is recommended. 

For the past three weeks I have practiced giving myself something boring -- but not too boring -- to think about and, whenever I find my thoughts wandering (typically to something upsetting), I force my mind back to my boring track: counting.

Yup. Good old "counting sheep." Sort of. I do have a twist.

Simple counting is not enough to keep my attention. So I started counting slowly by threes: 3, 6, 9, 12 . . . all the way to 99. And then back down again. And then in French. (That one was a little harder, especially counting backwards.) Miraculously, it worked; I fell asleep without reading or fussing too much. I have not had an all-nighter since I started doing this.

Sometimes I do it two or three times, but more often I barely make it through two rounds.


The other night was a really good test. Earlier that evening I had watched Lady Gaga's latest video, which is incredibly moving and, for some of us, traumatic. (I hate the word "triggering," but that's what it is.) The music and images are haunting and I had a hard time letting it go.

So after I lay down and turned out the lights, I kept hearing Lady Gaga's voice singing, "You don't know how it feels."

To combat this, I started counting, first by ones, then by threes, in English and then in French. The song kept drawing me back. So I switched to counting by fours. Then sevens.

Each time, I'd be going along and suddenly realize that I had no idea what number I was at; I was picturing a girl being raped.

But I kept going. Back to the last number I remembered. I even decided to go through the alphabet naming a city or region where I had lived or visited for each letter of the alphabet. (I used Xanadu for X.) Finally, this took enough benign concentration that I was able to drop off.

It took longer than usual, but it finally worked.

What about you? Do you have any tricks for emptying your mind so you can sleep?


  1. I definitely do counting backwards. I'm horrible at math so skip counting sounds daunting (but would probably require the perfect amount of mental concentration). I also go through my body parts and focus on relaxing each one. I actually start with my jaw and tongue. I feel like I often fall asleep quickly once they're relaxed. One of my tricks when unwanted thoughts pop into my head is to visualize myself either physically pushing them away or erasing them, like on a dry erase board. I just keep visualizing an eraser wiping everything away to a white background. It helps.

    1. Skip-counting in a second language definitely takes concentration! I'm not at all a numbers person, so it's work. (I almost have it memorized now, though, so I may have to find a new mental exercise.)

      I've done the body-part thing before as well as an exercise where I count five sounds I can hear, then five things I can feel. (If I weren't trying to sleep, I would add five things I can see.)

      I really, really like the idea of visualizing erasing or "killing" those troubling thoughts.

    2. Diane recently mentioned a trick, and that is to try to keep your eyes open as long as you can while in bed in the dark. Surprisingly, it's difficult to do for very long. It seems to work for me.

    3. I forgot about that one. I think I did try it, without any great success.

  2. I have started doing a 15 minute before bed yoga routine. which is essentially I guess the same principles. Focus on breathing. Acknowledge the thoughts that come to you, but push them away after. I find the key is the "acknowledging" step. If you just try to push the thought away, without first realizing it, accepting it and moving on; it never works. Pretending it doesn't exist just makes it shove back all the harder. Also, yoga also calms and centres the body, and since I sometimes have pains in my legs and back, this helps stretch and softens those areas.
    Last resort is a hot bath. But you have to stay in just the right amount of time: too short and the body cannot relax and unwind. too long and you're just now a tired AND sweating mess. LOL

    1. Great tips -- I love your comment about acknowledging the thoughts before you wipe them away. Hot baths can be a mixed bag; sometimes they wake me up. Other times, especially if I am achy, they are just the ticket.

  3. Thank you for good advice. In my opinion, modern people have plenty of sleeping disorders due to stressful situations. Usually, when I cannot fall asleep I need a glass of good red wine)

    1. That used to work for me. I don't know when it stopped. . .


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