I can't sleep: I am 'The Prince and the Pea'
February 26, 2010 10:01 PM   Subscribe

How can I become a less picky sleeper when I travel?

The details:
I have a hard time sleeping if I perceive there to be any problem with my sleeping environment. I have developed a whole host of things I obsess over when I travel. Initially, my biggest issue was noise--car noise, electronic noise, random hummings, rattles, etc. Next, I added smells to the list. Smoke smells will keep me up all night. Strong perfume smells will do the same. Next, I started obsessing over the pillows (height, softness, length, and number (I need at least 3)). I could go on, but I think you get the point. Addressing each of these issues is not plausible. There are few bedrooms that don't have at least one or more bothersome traits. It seems like I need to learn to not be so picky.

Yes, I've lived a soft and privilaged life. This is a problem of luxury. I also think it borders on mental illness. I've mentioned it to psycologists in the past, but I never really got the problem addressed more than superficially.

Ultimately, my question is: any advice to solving this problem? Any approach I could take from a psychological standpoint? Should I address this as someone would obsessive behavior? I'd love to be flexible in my sleep requirements. I'd love to be able to travel the world and not be groggy and sleep-deprived while doing it.

This thread is definitely related, but it seems like I don't need super-human sleep ability--I just want to be relatively normal. (And I'd rather not go as far as join the army).
posted by verevi to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Would any of this be a problem if you were sufficiently tired? Getting an Ambien prescription, drinking a few glasses of wine before bedtime or just making sure you exercise enough during the day all seem like easy solutions.
posted by halogen at 10:10 PM on February 26, 2010

OMG, me too. I can tell you that white noise REALLY helps with the noise thing, at least for me. We live near a freeway and I think I'd be up all night most nights if it weren't for my air purifier generating white noise. I think a portable white noise generator will help you a lot. Get used to it while you're sleeping at home in otherwise comfortable circumstances, and when you go on the road you can take it with you and bring that same sleepy sound along.

I'm sure a hotel would bring you more pillows if you asked, so that ought to be a nonissue.

For me, a lot of the time my brain makes up other wrong things and really the issue is that my feet are too cold/hot, and once I get them warmed up/cooled off I can drop right off. I won't even register that they're cold, and then I'll put a hot water bottle on them and be out like a light in 5 minutes. This may be a totally specific-to-me thing, but perhaps you too have one little key you can turn to get yourself to sleep a lot of the time, and all you have to do is find it.
posted by crinklebat at 10:12 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like you are very aware that you have, to some degree, constructed these barriers to comfort. Okay, that's TOTALLY armchair-shrink of me, admittedly. I point this out only because I've found myself doing something similar, and it was all pretty much low-level anxiety-related. What can you do to make your environment "home" to you?
posted by desuetude at 10:37 PM on February 26, 2010

Maybe try gradually exposing yourself to the things that bother you while at home in an environment you're comfortable in. Ex. try using some less than ideal pillows or anything else you can think of changing and see if you can learn to be more flexible.

I don't know the root of your problems so I don't know if this is good advice or not, but it's safe and easy to try.
posted by Diplodocus at 11:31 PM on February 26, 2010

Things that have helped me a bit: ear plugs, and learning to sleep at home with one pillow.

The ear plugs are like an "it's time to sleep" ritual for me and I really think they not only help me not hear some minor disturbances but they also make me more tolerant of things I do hear during the night.
posted by thirteenkiller at 11:43 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can you bring your own favorite pillow and a white noise machine along with you on your travels?
posted by amyms at 11:46 PM on February 26, 2010

I'm surprised there is only ONE comment about getting yourself dog-ass tired before getting into a less than ideal bed. Do you get tired or sleepy after lots of exercise? sex? a big meal? straggling through humid tropical forests to find the bus to your next destination? Staying in that bus or the airplane for 10+ hours? Depending on the kind of traveling you are doing, one of the above may be a good way to learn to sleep soundly again.

Especially since you are talking about traveling, bringing your own pillows and white noise machines and being doped up are just bringing the problem with you. In the end, you're traveling with a lot of baggage (literal and figurative).
posted by whatzit at 1:10 AM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm an incredibly light sleeper, so I can sympathize with you. While sometimes you're just in a crappy place, ear plugs definitely make a huge difference. They can take a while to adjust to themselves, as they feel quite intrusive. Try them out while you're awake until you adjust to them, then try sleeping with them. The orange foam ones you find at travel shops/airports everywhere are wonderful. They definitely help me sleep in noisier environments.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:14 AM on February 27, 2010

When this happens to me, it's usually not really because of the noises or the smells or whatever.

It's really one of two things: I'm not tired, or I'm stressed out.

If I'm not tired, I stay up a while and read a book. If I'm stressed out... I don't really have an answer.

Traveling used to stress me out enough that I could never sleep in hotel rooms, but now I'm used to it. Your answer might just be to travel more - or train yourself by sleeping in different rooms of your house or something...
posted by mmoncur at 3:00 AM on February 27, 2010

I have lugged my own pillow all over the world. Does it take up way too much of my luggage space, yes. But it means I can sleep. This little bit of home means I can now sleep nearly anywhere.
posted by saradarlin at 3:12 AM on February 27, 2010

I agree with mmoncur and saradarlin that maybe you're not sleeping because travel is not yet a habit for you and can be stressful. I was pretty wired my first few visits outside my home country due to all the stimulation of being immersed in everything new -- the unfamiliarity of the city and hotel, the switch in the time zones, the chatter in unfamiliar languages, in addition to the even the tactile differences of a hotel room vs my home. My solution was been to use some familiar items and rituals (my own lavender soap instead of the hotel soap, my own alarm clock, my own toothpaste instead of a new toothpaste flavor, a little pillow i usually sleep with, absolutely no television before bed) to try to normalize things a bit. I also limit caffeine very carefully. And wine makes me very sleepy, so a half glass of wine can be helpful.

My mom travels a lot and stabilizes her new environment by bringing a small noisy electric fan and running it at night. It's the same fan she runs at home, so she gets the familiarity of the sound, the breeze, and the same hum of white noise.
posted by mochapickle at 3:37 AM on February 27, 2010

I have similar trouble when traveling, though to a lesser degree, I think: though I have definite mattress and pillow preferences, I whittled down my sleep deal-breakers to three things (smoky smells, light, and noise) and I try to work with these. I request nonsmoking rooms, to start with. At least in North America and Western Europe, this is usually accommodated without much trouble. I take earplugs and an eyemask with me (in case there's outside light that can't be blocked out). Once I arrive, if there's a climate control unit in the room, I turn the fan on, which usually helps block out other noise.

Over the last few years I have managed to sleep in some pretty unlikely situations after completely tiring myself out: in a tent after a day of backpacking, or in the forepeak of a sailboat after a full day on deck. That helped with the psychological barrier: if I could sleep on the boat, I could sleep anywhere. Maybe that kind of desensitization could help you as well?
posted by philokalia at 3:49 AM on February 27, 2010

If you can get yourself really tired, try sleeping in different places in your home. Couch, chair, floor whatever.

It might make for some sleepless nights, but I have found it a skill worth having. During one job, I involuntarily learned the trick of sleeping with my eyes open and my head propped up on my arm. After that everything else was cake.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 4:20 AM on February 27, 2010

Here's perhaps an oddball suggestion, with the caveat that I am a very frequent traveller and can't afford to be too picky when I have to travel for work, though goodness knows I have had some terrible nights in some very good and some very bad hotels (everything from fights in hallways in fleabags to exceedingly hard beds and smoke smell in 5-stars).

When I was a teenager, I went to a fairly snobby school. Many of the students there came from wealthy, fortunate backgrounds. So one year they decided to take us camping. On outward bound. For 10 nights we slept under nothing but a sheet, beanbag on the ground, in the freezing cold. After that, we could all sleep anywhere.

Perhaps try a night of camping (in your backyard, or lounge room even) and this might help.

Another thing that helps is routine. I travel with my own shampoo etc, eyeshade and earplugs, and the same bag of clothing everywhere I go. First things I do in a hotel are check how to work the lights, put my stuff in the safe, check out the TV, and the emergency exit routes.
posted by wingless_angel at 4:34 AM on February 27, 2010

I would nth the suggestion of bringing your own pillow with you.

I don't need my own pillow, but I do need my "familiar" - yes, I'm 28 years old and I still drag a stuffed animal with me, sometimes trans-Atlantically. As long as I have it (or something of similar size/shape, I'm not quite neurotic enough to require a *specific* animal), sleep is no problem. If I don't have it? It's just not gonna happen.

Also: try taking Melatonin when you travel. It's helped me a ton. Lots of people swear by it, especially in situations where jet lag becomes a factor.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:06 AM on February 27, 2010

I used to be able to sleep anywhere, any time, as long as I had a jacket or a shirt to ball up and put behind my head. Then I had babies and it all went to hell wrt sleep. It took years before I was able to sleep through the night (not them, me) but it came along with the very same neuroses you have. I love to travel, even though my sleep conditions can rarely be completely met. Getting falling-down tired doesn't seem to help me. As a matter of fact, it seems to hurt more than anything. I'm super tired and I can't sleep because it's too noisy/too bright/too something. My biggest issue is noise. If I don't have/can't manufacture white noise, I'm not going to sleep. It's that simple. I am still on the search for the perfect white noise travel machine, one that doesn't have ocean or rain or birdsong. Just plain white noise. Until I find that, I have Ambien to get me through those times I can't bring along my electric fan from home. If it's domestic travel by car, we bring along the fan. If we can't bring the fan, we try the hotel room's heating/cooling unit. It's better than nothing, but not great.

So yeah. Ambien works really well for me.
posted by cooker girl at 7:13 AM on February 27, 2010

I used to be like this, and then one trip it got so bad that I had a doctor fax a prescription for ativan to a pharmacy in Venice. I took one and was out like a light.

I never had to take another one, because it turns out my anxiety was about the fact of not sleeping, and how it was ruining this wonderful trip, and how awful that was -- totally circular. The ativan cut that off completely -- I didn't have to worry about not sleeping, because if I couldn't sleep, I'd just take it.

I bring ativan along with me on every trip now, and I've never had to actually take it. It sounds bizarre, but it makes sense if you think about what the source of my anxiety was.

So, if you think your anxiety is circular in this way -- that it's anxiety about not sleeping, which then prevents you from sleeping -- you might see if you could use a drug like Ambien in this way.
posted by palliser at 9:07 AM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm with the people saying to condition yourself at home to deal with some of these things and to take your pillow with you when you can.

My problem was a little easier to address than yours because I have for years slept with a white noise maker, which is actually just an air filter. I used to hate total heavy silence and needed the hum of an A/C or a fan or the freeway or something or I couldn't sleep and would hear every little noise. So I got that air filter and that fixed it.

But when I travel, there's often no noise source where I'm sleeping and I just can't sleep. Unless I go out and buy a fan or something, I'm out of luck. So what I've been doing lately is just practicing at home by leaving the filter off. It took some bad nights' sleep to get used to it, but I did finally get used to it. And at least at home I'm not stressed like I am somewhat when I travel, and don't need to be daisy fresh such as for a presentation on the road or something, so I have some leeway. It actually worked when I traveled recently. In fact I hadn't even thought of it until I saw this question. If your problem is the opposite - that you can't have noise - maybe you could practice at home too. Maybe you could get used to sleeping with earplugs, which does take some getting used to, or introduce noise at home with a fan or noise machine or whatever. Practicing in the otherwise comfort of your home may be the trick. If you have a little iPod, consider getting a tiny portable speaker system to go with it and some environmental tracks like ocean, river, rain, etc. Put a playlist of those on repeat each night at home until you get used to it and then take it with you when you travel so a bit of home comes with you.

I can't imagine practicing with perfume and smoke smells at home - ugh, but I wonder if you could introduce a local smell of your own at home, like lavender oil or chamomile or some sleepytime smell like that, which you could take with you anywhere via one of those little pomander pillows like ladies have for their dainty stuff drawers. If you could get used to it at home, and if it would mask other smells when you travel, maybe that would be a nice consistency for you.

I take my pillow everywhere unless I have to fly. They just don't make them like they used to. Nothing's as dense or shape-able anymore and my poor neck won't stay at the right angle without it. And I have two others I use at home for my legs. So I take my primary pillow with me when I travel and augment with whatever is in the bed where I'm sleeping for my legs. When I traveled to Europe a while back, I brought two differently-shaped inflatable pillows with me to give me some flexibility in modifying whatever the various hotels there happened to have. It wasn't ideal, but it was better than nothing.

If nothing else works, bring it back up with the psychologist/therapist and focus on it specifically. If it is some kind of obsessive behavior, there are possible treatments for it.

Sweet dreams!
posted by Askr at 9:07 AM on February 27, 2010

I bring ativan along with me on every trip now, and I've never had to actually take it. It sounds bizarre, but it makes sense if you think about what the source of my anxiety was.

You sound like me, in a nutshell, only I travel for work all the time. Palliser's remedy is what I use in addition to some other things. In short, this sounds like an anxiety problem, not you being particular, this is you overthinking all of your various details with the conclusion "I'm not going to be able to sleep!!!" And seriously, I've been there. When I get to a hotel, I often change rooms once or twice because I perceive the first room I'm in as somehow wrong or noisy [to be fair, I get in late and often wind up with the room next to the ice machine]. It's like a joke now, me going back down to the desk to ask for another room.

So here are the things I do to minimize these problems

- I figure one night without sleep is always going to be acceptable. That is, even if I have to work the next day, I can do it on very little sleep. This makes each night not OMG MISSION CRITICAL to me
- exercise and general tiring out is useful [don't exercise too late!]
- staying away from caffeine and sugar for the latter part of the day
- routine. I have a cigarette before bed [I don't smoke otherwise] and it's become my little brain trigger "okay bedtime now..." I do not recommend you start smoking but have a little routine for "okay it's bedtime now"
- benadryl or melatonin are both safe ways to get a little sleepy
- I have a hat I sleep in, another sort of trigger "okay it's bedtime now"
- I have things I CAN control be things I can adjust -- room temperature, what I'm wearing, my hat -- and try to shift away from what I can't control.
- I look at my lorazepam prescription as Dumbos' magic feather. If I need it, really need it, I know I can take it and it will work. It always works.
posted by jessamyn at 11:37 AM on February 27, 2010

If you can get used to sleeping with earplugs, you can try all kinds of things with an mp3 player - especially an iPod Touch or iPhone where you can get apps as well as recordings. White noise or binaural beat recordings work for a lot of people, and you wouldn't have to bring a white noise machine. Boring audiobooks might do it for you, or ones that are interesting enough to distract you from the fact that you're trying to sleep.

Good luck; I have the same problem. At worst, I listen to audiobooks and just decide I won't sleep for a night or two. Sooner or later I do fall asleep.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:16 PM on February 27, 2010

I have a hard time falling asleep in general, and just wanted to add on to something that many people have already mentioned: develop some pre-sleep rituals that allow you to get into a sleepy frame of mind + white noise. For me, I eat my chewable melatonin, and turn on this iPhone app called Ambiance. This particular app has a bunch of downloable white-noisesque sounds, and a timer you can set so it fades out after a certain amount of time. I set "Rain on a Tent" to play for an hour every night. At home, it's nice, but I don't really neeeeed it. However, when traveling and getting annoyed with the thin walls that allow me to hear my friend snoring the next room or what have you, it's a lifesaver. It both drowns out any noise and tells my brain that it's time to shut off now.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 4:51 PM on February 27, 2010

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