This post is all about the first (and I think probably one of the most important) of the 50 anxiety management strategies I wrote about in my last post: SLEEP.
When I was in the depths of my worst anxiety and depression, all I wanted to do was sleep. I would drink a coffee, sit on the couch with my book (my favourite coping mechanism aside from napping at the time, which is a terrible option), and promptly fall asleep. ON CAFFEINE.
I’m not one of those people who can tolerate a lot of caffeine. Two cups of coffee and my hands start to shake. At this time I was so anxious that my body was working some serious OT and I was always tired. And then I could never sleep at night. Partly because I’d napped for a lot of the day, and partly because my thoughts kept me up until all hours. And not sleeping at night is a classic “makes anxiety way worse” thing. It also made me want to nap more. And so the vicious cycle continued.
The Three Top Elements of Sleep Hygiene
When I started seeing my family doctor about my anxiety, the first three things she told me were about sleep hygiene:
- Aim for about 8 hours of sleep per night. Less might make you feel sleepy during the day. More than 9 or so can increase anxiety and make you feel groggy, in my experience.
- Your sleep should start and end at the same time every night. Even on weekends. You can relax your wakeup by about half an hour on weekends if you want. I find that most of the time I don’t need this, because I’m now getting enough sleep through the week anyway). For me this looks like falling asleep around 10 and waking up at 6. On the weekends I’m usually up by 7. I know this can be hard for night owls, especially if they need to start work between 7 and 9, like I do. Fortunately for me, I am a homebody. I’m rarely out late with friends or for events. I prefer to hang out in the afternoons and see 7-o’clock movies. Also fortunately for me, I’ve always been a morning person, so going to sleep a little earlier than my usual 11 ish was not too difficult, especially because…
- NO NAPS. My doctor said that I should do everything possible to avoid napping – have a snack, go for a walk, get outside, have a coffee, move around, listen to upbeat music, clean, anything I could think of. Naps feel great when you’re anxious. You get to blissfully forget everything for a while, but then you wake up and everything is a thousand times worse, and you’ve ruined your quality of sleep for overnight.
I would argue that the no-nap technique helped me even more than a rigid sleep schedule did. I often awoke from a nap in a full panic, more anxious about the things that were on my mind and with less time in the day to tackle them. It’s also, however, been the hardest technique to perfect. Every night now, like clockwork, I get super sleepy at 10 and head to bed, if I’m not already there reading. Every morning my alarm goes off and I get out of bed within about half an hour. I get 8 or more hours of sleep per night. But sometimes the blissful allure of forgetting everything and succumbing to a dreamy, cozy, afternoon nap is just too much to resist. I’m human.
Another problem I’ve had my whole life has been falling asleep. I rarely have trouble staying asleep now, but I did as a child and teen. I was a very light sleeper and would wake up to any sound. My mom tells me that every single night when the local cargo train would go by I would wake up. I remember snippets of this, and I definitely remember the sound.
Thankfully, living in first-year residence at university helped. So did later living in an apartment with terrible, rattling windows. Our windows barely provide a barrier between us and the ambient rainforest-proximal city noises. These include cars, yelling, drunken revelers, emergency vehicles’ sirens, dogs, car alarms, and ferocious wind and rainstorms helped me to overcome my flighty, feather-light sleep style. However, falling asleep has remained a problem.
Going to bed reminds me that tomorrow is coming. It’s my brain’s cue to start worrying about that tomorrow, and all the tomorrows after it. It also dwells on things that happened during the day that were anything less than ideal, and berates itself for not having accomplished enough. No day is ever enough. On particularly bad days, my brain runs through all the horrible things I’ve ever said. It remembers the worst interactions and experiences I’ve ever had with the people who are the most important to me. It imagines possibilities of how I might die a gruesome, premature death. It’s exhausting, but rather than putting me to sleep, it keeps me awake.
Falling Asleep Magic
Recently, and so, so thankfully, in my travels online I discovered this fall-asleep technique from SFU adjunct professor Luc Beaudoin, which is a total dream (pun intended). It is nothing short of magic, seriously.
Essentially, when you want to fall asleep, you pick a four-letter word. It must have no repeating letters, like “bear,” “last,” or my personal favourite when I’ve had a bad day, “f*ck” (let’s not psychoanalyze my word choices). Then you take the first letter and imagine every word you can think of that starts with it. Let’s go with the bear example. Starting with ‘b,’ I might think of bear, bears, beast, beasts, beastly, bent, bend, bending, bends, bender… Of course, when I pick a verb I go through all of its possible forms. This is me we’re talking about. Once you run out of words for the first letter, you move on to the next letter, and so on. I usually barely make it to the third letter before I’m dead to the world.
Another thing I’ve done my whole life that helps me get ready for sleep is to read. I put my phone on charge away from my bed, and I turn to my analog comfort. Books are probably my favourite thing in the world, besides my family. Their smell, their weight in my hands, their stories, the way they make me feel. They’re almost as good an escape from my as sleep, but they can also make me feel productive, and they help me learn, keep my brain active, and improve my vocabulary and writing.
There are very few nights in my entire life when I can remember going to sleep without having read at least a page of a book. I used to beg for “one more” from my parents when I was tiny, would read under the covers with my Fisher Price tri-colour flashlight when I was a little older, and would boldly just keep reading past my bedtime with my bedside table lamp or overhead light as a pre-teen and teen. Books and reading have always been a comfort to me, and it helps that reading is often cited as a useful way to relax before bed, improve your sleep, and reduce anxiety in general. It’s a relief to know that at was at least doing one thing right!
Hopefully these strategies, if you haven’t thought about or tried them before, will help you like they help me. Now, I’m the first person to admit that they’re hard. It’s especially difficult to make sure you’re doing all of them at once. I’ve recently been finding myself using the plate-spinning analogy for my difficulties with self-care. Imagine that all 50 of my self-care strategies is a plate spinning on a stick that I need to carry at once. Impossible, right? That’s how it feels some days.
How can I keep my apartment clean, stay on top of my work, regularly practice excellent personal hygiene, get enough exercise and sun, get enough nutrients through cooking healthy meals, meditate and practice yoga daily, and have great sleep hygiene all at once? Even just keeping the three sleep plates spinning at once is hard. I’m at a solid 2.5 and I’m struggling to get that third one all the way in the air. It’s been over a year after I started spinning the three of them. That feels too long. But knowing that I’m working on it is half the battle.
Peace and love,