Activities for when I can't sleep
March 7, 2011 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Activities for when I can't sleep.

I have had struggles with insomnia for most of my life. I "hit rock bottom" with it a few years ago after a slight neck injury that forced me to sleep in a position I wasn't used to. I ended up seeing a sleep specialist who was very good and gave me some tips about good "sleep hygiene." For example, he told me to avoid the computer or TV close to bedtime because of the stimulating light. He also told me to not try to sleep when I'm not tired, and if I lay in bed for a while and can't sleep, get up and read a book or do something else until I do feel tired.

This was all very good advice. Since then, several years later, what I usually do is get in bed around 10 or 10:30, and read a book or magazine until I feel drowsy (usually between 11 and 11:30), then I lay down and go to sleep. This is diametrically opposed to how Mr. Ipsum works. He simply looks at the clock and decides, "It's 11 o'clock. Okay, bedtime." Then he lays down and just goes to sleep. Seriously, he can just decide to go to sleep, and then just do it. How I wish I could do that. Usually when he goes to sleep, I'm still in bed with a little book light, reading. In fact, he tries to tell me I should follow his method - that if I just tell myself I'm tired, then I will be tired. That's very well and good for him, but I used to do that (trying to sleep at time XYZ every night regardless of whether I was tired) and I have a much better time getting to sleep with my current method - reading until I'm actually tired.

However, the past few days I've been having trouble sleeping. Part of my problem is that I'm a worrywart and get anxious/upset easily. Having a bad night's sleep can set off a chain reaction where I get nervous going to bed on the next night, thinking I won't be able to sleep (which is partly what happened with my neck injury a few years ago). For two nights in a row I took 5mg of ambien (half a pill), and last night I decided I wouldn't take any, because I don't want to get too used to it. Finally at 1am I'd had enough and took 2.5 mg (a quarter of a pill) but I'd rather not take any tonight.

Up until that time I'd been following all the rules. I got into bed at 10:15. And I read a book. And I read, and I read, and I read. By midnight, I was getting really, really sick of reading and I think it was making things worse because now I was bored and angry. But I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't watch TV or surf the internet because I felt that would make things worse. I'm a very active person and sometimes when I'm bored I will do a physical activity like the Wii Fit or just walking on the treadmill, but I didn't think physical activity would be a good way to get relaxed. I suppose I could have gotten up and read my book in the living room, but by now the house was cold because we turn down the heat at night, and the bed was more comfortable.

So, any suggestions? What are some relaxing activities aside from reading that I can do on my insomniac nights? And yes, I do realize that I'm my own worst enemy here, because my worrying makes it worse. I do need to remember that the world won't end if I don't get a full-night's sleep. During the worst of my insomnia, a few years ago, I went to a full day at work after having NO sleep, and while it wasn't pleasant, I managed. I need to keep that in mind.
posted by LaurenIpsum to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: About the ambien, another reason I'm hesitant to use it tonight is because I also used it two other days last week (in addition to having done it this weekend) so I'd really rather not keep depending on it like I have been.
posted by LaurenIpsum at 10:33 AM on March 7, 2011

I have a similar problem and what I try to do is read with the lights down low, this seems to make my eyes tired and helps me to sleep, hope this helps.
posted by goals for at 10:40 AM on March 7, 2011

Best answer: Hi, I was you about a month ago. For a solid year. (Check back through a couple of my own recent AskMes in my posting history.)

You ask about an activity you can do, but you also say you're staying in bed. That may be the problem right there -- I'd read years ago that the best thing to do with occasional bouts of sleepiness is to actually physically get out of your bedroom if you haven't fallen asleep (or back to sleep) within a half hour. This subconsicously tells your brain that "the bed is for sleeping and sex and that's all". No reading, no computer, no knitting, no eating, just sleeping and sex and that's it. So reading is a fine idea -- just don't do it in bed. (yeah, I know it's cold -- that's what sweaters are for, though.)

Other people (as you'll see from the answers to my questions) have suggested exercise a couple hours before bed -- which doesn't help you in the "what can I do when I am insomniac" phase, though. But some gentle stretches may not be a bad idea.

My doctor, when I was having my seriously bad insomnia last year, asked me about guided-relaxation tricks I'd tried -- and the one that worked absolute best was something I'd learned in a high school acting class: "Imagine you are a person-shaped pat of butter, and imagine yourself slowly melting on a piece of toast, starting from the toes and working up." Every other "guided visualization" thing I've ever tried sounds super-dippy to me, but that is a magic bullet.

Finally: my doctor did also give me a prescription for a last-resort kind of thing, but suggested vitamins and herbal remedies first: I read about magnesium in here, and that helped a lot, and my doctor also suggested valerian in capsule form. She said I had to give it a couple weeks, but it would probably work. It's worked well enough that I don't really need it any more.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:42 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you tried melatonin? I use it to "reset" when I fall off a good sleep schedule. It's almost too effective for me - I can really zonk out on it.

Aside from that, I find a hot bath and soaking for at least 20-30 minutes helps get me quite sleepy, especially when it's colder out.
posted by flex at 10:45 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Night is usually a good time for listening to shortwave radio.
You can get started with an inexpensive (under $50US) radio and pickup news and cultural programming from around the world. You get all kinds of lovely static while dialing the tuning knob looking for stations, and that in itself can be very sleep-inducing. There have been a few shortwave questions on Ask MeFi that can point you in the right directions if it sounds at all interesting to you. I can recommend some radios if you want to try it.

Also, if you haven't tried melatonin, I know some people who swear by it for occasional insomnia.
posted by leapfrog at 10:45 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

In bed, I find that listening to podcasts that are mildly interesting, but not too loud and boisterous is helpful. I don't mind falling asleep on them, because they're in my iPhone and I can listen another time.

If I can't sleep, I agree with EmpressCallipygos, get out of bed entirely and go to another room. The stress of not sleeping in bed makes the bed itself a stressful place, so you want to take that stress somewhere else.
posted by xingcat at 10:46 AM on March 7, 2011

It could be a good thing that the house is chilly - I remember reading that having your body temperature drop a little will often help sleep to come, as it mimics the body's natural drop with sleep. I also find it helps if the reading is a little dry - not totally uninteresting, but, for instance, my bedtime reading of late has been non-fiction history about Galileo. Interesting, but I don't get so caught up in it that I don't notice feeling sleepy. Seconding melatonin - I only use it sporadically now, but it's helped me in the past to get to sleep when I got into bed.
posted by ldthomps at 10:50 AM on March 7, 2011

Best answer: Sigh, everything about your situation is so familiar to me, right down to your partner's sleeping habits to the not wanting to depend on drugs to the cold living room. I totally feel you.

I do realize that I'm my own worst enemy here, because my worrying makes it worse. I do need to remember that the world won't end if I don't get a full-night's sleep.

But it's hard to remember this at 1 am, yeah? This book worked miracles at undoing my anxiety around my insomnia. It's more or less under control now but I still reread it about once a year or when I can feel things getting bad again. It also has some really helpful exercises at the end similar to the melting butter trick that EmpressCallipygos mentioned.

As for activities, how about a book of sudoku or other puzzles? I find that they require just enough concentration that I can't think about anything else, which tires me out faster and doesn't leave enough room for the anxiety to creep in.
posted by anderjen at 10:52 AM on March 7, 2011

My husband is like yours; he decides to go to sleep, and does. He didn't understand for YEARS what was up with my insomnia and that I couldn't just DECIDE to go to sleep.

If, after an hour or so, I don't feel sleepy from reading in bed, I get up and putter around quietly. (It must be quiet, others are sleeping!) I often pay bills. Sometimes I do dishes very silently and stealthily. Lights always low. As long as you do these at a leisurely, non-stressful pace, they're not too stimulating, and my theory is, it's one less thing I have to do tomorrow when I'm tired. (Alternatively, if I'm worrying myself awake anyway, I might as well put my worry energy to use.) I can imagine that for a lot of people this would be a TERRIBLE way to tackle insomnia, but for me, I actually feel like I DID something so I have less to worry about now so my mind turns off the worry and I can usually sleep.

Another thing I do, especially when it's cold, is listen to my husband's sleep breathing. It used to make me NUTS that he was just lying there, sleeping happily, while I was wide awake. But now I've coached myself to find it soothing, to take the chance to lie there in the middle of the night when I'm the only person awake in the world and think happy thoughts about happy things and think how peaceful and happy the sleeping hubs is and so forth. Warm body to snuggle against, too. It only works when he's breathing deeply, though; if he has a cold, it won't work. Even if I can't doze off, this is at least RESTFUL so I feel more rested even if I don't sleep.

I also make it a point to read light-weight stuff with happy endings, ideally where it doesn't matter if I lose track of the plot, so I don't have to focus hard on what's going on.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:56 AM on March 7, 2011

I have very similar problems falling asleep. Sometimes when it's clear that the reading just isn't going to work, I get up and do some light and mindless housekeeping chore that might be too trivial to even contemplate in daylight: rearrange the sock drawer, or the junk drawer, or wash the gunk off the stove handles. Sort and file papers. This is the ideal time for sewing on loose buttons, mending hems or other little hand sewing projects.
posted by Corvid at 10:58 AM on March 7, 2011

This is probably a dumb idea, but have you ever considered getting a coloring book and doing some coloring? I've always felt that coloring is one of those magic activities that requires almost no real thought, but it takes a lot of concentration to do right, which makes it pretty relaxing; it occupies the brain without forcing it to wake up (which is what I find happens if I try to do puzzles). Plus it's cheap and easy to try.
posted by ashirys at 10:59 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Like you, I used to read every single night. Sometimes it helped, sometimes it didn't. A few months ago I finally discovered two things that helped me fall asleep much more easily.

A) Audio books on my Ipod - it's taken me 3 months to get through a couple of chapters. I swear I'm dead asleep and snoring in less than 10 minutes. I start listening at chapter 2, and when I wake up in the morning and it's now chapter 46. Who cares? The next night, I'm back at Chapter 2....

Last year I was averaging READING 2 or 3 books a month. Now I barely ever read and apparently I barely ever hear my audio-book either, because I FALL ASLEEP.

B) To help maintain my blood pressure, my doctor suggested I download a meditation app on my Ipod. To mix things up, when I'm not listening to the audio-book, I'll listen to this 30-minute meditation. I last about 15 minutes before I'm ready to roll over and sleep. I don't even know who it is. Just some guy telling me to relax my body in different areas. Interestingly enough, before I start the meditation, my blood pressure averages normal 120/80, and during it, my bp will drop significantly, to about 90/70.
posted by HeyAllie at 11:03 AM on March 7, 2011

You could try doing some restorative yoga, which in addition to giving you something to do would also serve the purpose of relaxing you and quieting your mind.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 11:04 AM on March 7, 2011

Two things that have worked for me:
1. Listen to Dan Rather or anyone on the History Channel. Turn off the screen of the TV and just set the volume really low and listen to a fairly monotonous droning male voice just at the edge of my consciousness. That noise pretty well mimics what it sounds like when I am just waking up and barely aware of people talking in the house, so I guess my brain thinks that I am asleep.
2. I keep a notepad near the desk and I write down what I am worrying about. Usually it is things to remember the next day, or a grocery list or whatever. Once it's written down, I don't have to worry about it anymore. The only thing I have to do is wake up the next morning and try to figure out what my half-asleep handwriting was trying to tell me.

For the listening in bed if you need to keep it quite for hubby, look for one of those pillows that have a speaker built in, that you can connect your ipod to.
posted by CathyG at 11:08 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lifetime insomniac here due to pain.
I have a bunch of activities I do when I can't sleep.
1.) Check job postings
2.) Work on something creative such as web design or audio file work (retagging, editing vinyl rips)
3.) Gaming
4.) Reading
5.) I go for a couple mile walks but due to this blasted cold weather I cannot.
6.) Having a cocktail or a toke
7.) Listen to podcasts I may have missed during the week
8.) Work on something creative.

I sympathize with you as it can be frustrating to just lie there doing nothing as you stare at the clock counting down the hours prior to work.
posted by handbanana at 11:20 AM on March 7, 2011

I'd recommend the BBC podcast In Our Time, which I use to induce sleep while riding on buses/planes/trains. The host has a soothing, somnolent voice and while the topics are interesting, they are usually on the obscure/dry side. It's a win/win-- either it knocks you out, or you learn something.
posted by neko75 at 11:21 AM on March 7, 2011

This particular mediation has been really helpful to me when I'm having difficulty getting to sleep. And I feel badly recommending listening to this, because I don't want to suggest that it's boring (it's really, really not) - but something about the immersive drone of it really helps send me off to sleep.

Sometimes (not always) when I'm restless, it's more helpful to write than to read - helps get things out of my head, and they stop bothering me for awhile.
posted by EvaDestruction at 12:45 PM on March 7, 2011

One thing that helps me is to finish a small housework project. Load the dishwasher. Fold a basket of laundry. Clean the bathroom sink. Vacuum the Living Room.

The satisfied feeling I get from actually accomplishing something can really help me sleep. It also has the benefit of tiring me out and checking something off my to-do list, both things that help me sleep.
posted by TooFewShoes at 1:14 PM on March 7, 2011

I like to watch / listen to video lectures on MIT OpenCourseWare. One person talking in front of a blackboard doesn't seem to have the stimulating effect of regular TV with flashing bright colors, sound effects, jokes, etc. As you drift off, you can stop watching and the audio is still engaging. I am usually out by an hour of lecture. The good part is, if you are unable to fall asleep, you just spent an hour learning fascinating information from a world-class teacher.

Here is a list of courses with audio-video content. The courses with a red filmstrip square have videos. I usually watch them with headphones on a laptop so I don't annoy my bed companion. I am actually considering an iPod Touch for the main purpose of being able to watch these lectures on a smaller, less bright screen.
posted by scose at 1:16 PM on March 7, 2011

I also agree with some of the suggestions above that encourage you to read in a comfy chair elsewhere and mentally associate your bed with sleeping ONLY. I tend to feel more awakened after listening to podcasts or watching a movie around bedtime, so I usually stick to reading. Have you thought about writing notes or letters to people? It's a non-electronic way to pass the time, and it's something that you may not feel that you have time for during your normal 'waking hours.'

As a side note, I wanted to chime in to suggest using Flu.x when you want to go on your computer in the evening. You noted that you avoid using your computer just before bedtime, which is a good move. Flu.x will automatically 'warm' the colors on your screen based on the time of day, making it less harsh on your eyes at nighttime. The bright white backgrounds of NYTimes, Google, or wherever else you might be browsing will be less likely to mess with your body's natural sleep cycles.
posted by genekelly'srollerskates at 1:38 PM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is probably a dumb idea, but have you ever considered getting a coloring book and doing some coloring?

Believe it or not - I do this. It's very relaxing and helps me get my mind into sleepy mode.
posted by patheral at 1:39 PM on March 7, 2011

This is not really an activity - but I find that chilling myself down in a chilly room and then going back to bed and getting under the warm covers (warmed with an electric blanket, hot water bottle, and/or heat-generating husband) is sometimes just the trick to get myself drowsy. The chilling down part is not particularly pleasant but the contrast of then getting into the warm bed starts getting me sleepy. Sometimes I'll even step outside on a frosty night.
posted by molasses at 1:52 PM on March 7, 2011

Lifelong insomniac here, and I used to say that it used to cause me a lot of anxiety, but as I get older (and have been in an extended phase of non-anxious insomnia), I actually think the anxiety was a separate, parallel issue.

I agree with the people who suggest an audiobook or podcast. I listen to a ton of both in my upright hours, but no matter how compelling and exciting the book I will *pass out* within 10 minutes of in-bed listening. I keep a few old favorites - favorite readers, very familiar content - on my phone and laptop for this purpose. To be fair, though, my insomnia is wake-up-later more than get-to-sleep.

When I wake in the middle of the night and am not terribly agitated, I tell myself a story. Whatever story comes to mind, except it has to be a story about going to sleep. Sleeping in a treehouse on a perfect night, sleeping in the backseat of the car as a kid, sleeping on the space station (except significantly more comfortable than I understand that experience to actually be) - just a little story about being outrageously comfortable and going to sleep.

This works for me 95% of the time, unless I have the twitchy rabbit-mind agitated insomnia. That's when I get up and try to identify something I can do to make myself feel at least a little better. Maybe I forgot my allergy medicine, need a little bit of protein, need to get colder or warmer. I'll take a shower sometimes since that gives me a lot of temperature control and the noise is soothing. The one thing I try not to do is turn on any bright lights, or look at a screen for more than a minute or so to turn on something to listen to.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:45 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another vote for audiobooks. They'll usually put me to sleep, but if they don't, at least I'm listening to something rather than thinking about how awake I am. A better alternative to pillow speakers and earbuds is this headband with built-in speakers.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 3:05 PM on March 7, 2011

My top podcast choice for insomnia is "In Our Time".

I've also found that trying to (re)learn perl (or most scripting languages really) puts me to sleep very quickly. YMMV...
posted by of strange foe at 3:13 PM on March 7, 2011

We have a television in our bedroom and when I can't sleep I tune it to HGTV with the sound muted and closed captioning on. "House Hunters" is especially restful -- the most stimulating thing about it is that occasionally someone will have a really weirdly decorated house. We've even come to call HGTV "sleepytime tv" because it's so effective for relaxation.

Another technique that's very effective for me is to try to imagine -- in detail -- what my dream house would be like. What would the land be like? Wooded? Meadow? Some woods and some open area for a big garden? (Yes.) And the house? Basic style? What would it be like inside? Flooring material? Wall colors? I only rarely get past the basic style of the exterior of the house before I fall asleep.

(Heh, heh... I'm probably watching way too much HGTV. ;-) )
posted by rhartong at 5:46 PM on March 7, 2011

We have a television in our bedroom and when I can't sleep I tune it to HGTV with the sound muted and closed captioning on.

I used to watch the Weather Channel for this sort of thing as well, esp. in the middle of the night when it was mostly Muzak and endlessly repeating short-term local forecasts. Also, there are a few books in my library exclusively reserved for sleepless nights because they are so colossally dull. Let me pile on with everyone who suggests getting out of the bedroom for a bit. The worst nights of insomnia I've had are the ones were I swore I'd get up if I was still awake in X minutes.

Also n-thing melatonin. I've tried valerian on and off for awhile and have found that while it increases the vividness of dreams, for me it also brings on night-hag style sensations after several nights in a row. I also think that the capsules totally smell like sweaty feet. YMMV.
posted by jquinby at 7:32 PM on March 7, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments! Last night, I took EmpressCallipygos's suggestion of getting out of bed. So last night, at 10pm, instead of going to the bedroom to read, I got into my pajamas, brushed my teeth, etc. and read on the couch for a while. Later, when Mr. Ipsum decided to read in bed for a bit, I went up with him. When he went to sleep, I read for a while longer, but could clearly see I wasn't sleepy, so I got up. I got on the computer for a few minutes and checked email, etc., to occupy myself. I actually just found out about Flu.x last week, so I already have that installed, which I agree is a great program. After a few minutes, I sat and read on the couch, wrapped in a spare blanket, until about 2am. And I took my own advice of telling myself that this is not a big deal, and if I didn't get much sleep, it was nothing to get upset about.

I guess everything worked because by 2, I was starting to doze off on the couch, so I went back to bed and fell asleep. No ambien! I only got 4 1/2 hours of sleep, but with some caffeine, I'm okay.

Also, I can't believe I didn't think of listening to podcasts, as I have several feeds that are starting to pile up (since I usually save them for long car trips). I gave best answer to leapfrog for the comment on radio, because it reminded me about all my podcasts (although other people later suggested that too). So I will definitely try that too. I will also look into the book "Say Goodnight to Insomnia" and consider melatonin too. Thanks everyone!
posted by LaurenIpsum at 6:21 AM on March 8, 2011

It'd be a crazy investment if you don't have a DS already, but I've noticed the New York Times Crosswords game for the DS is a surefire way to get me drowsy. Bonus, since it's on the DS you can be using it while your partner is asleep (I do this all the time when I'm just not sleepy yet), just mute it. Something about the way it forces you to concentrate--crosswords are a little more mentally taxing than say, Bejeweled or passively skimming a magazine--so you can't fixate on the sorts of worries that are giving you anxiety and keeping you awake, plus it wears you out a little without being stressful itself really.
posted by ifjuly at 9:54 AM on March 8, 2011

Memorizing poetry worked for me during a six-month patch of insomnia. If I fell asleep, I fell asleep. If I didn't, at least I was now the proud owner of half of Tennyson's "Ulysses" or whatever.

I also have a personal meditation/free association/mental laundry technique that has never yet failed: going through the letters of the alphabet at the speed of my resting heartbeat, mentally reciting the first word starting with that letter that comes to mind: algorithm... backstop... capybara etc. I don't usually have to do more than 2 laps.
posted by stuck on an island at 2:33 PM on March 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Anecdata I have heard:
Think of some boring task, not too much exertion, but which you kinda hate to do, and do that when you'd like to be sleeping. I think they said it was mopping?
Never underestimate the brains ability to figure out a way to get out of a boring task - so anything that makes lying in bed with your eyes closed, or being unconscious, far more attractive.

I can corroborate this effect a little. Yeeesh. I accidentally wired myself that way with math homework for awhile. Not so good.

Doing interesting non-sleep things in bed, like reading or listening to podcasts, is unfortunately not so good good sleep hygiene.
Listening to meditation tracks, guided relaxation tracks or things like Pzizz ( with your eyes closed might help though.

And if you're not getting to sleep til 2am, I've also heard that if you regularly can't sleep til a certain hour, stay out of bed til that hour, then go to sleep, and shift it back by 30 mins each night. And, have a really hot shower immediately (>10 minutes) before bed. Dry off, put pjs on (or not), so that you're still hot from your shower/bath when you climb into bed. The drop in body temperature can trigger sleep-onset.
posted by Elysum at 6:17 AM on March 13, 2011

Surprised no one has mentioned hypnosis. I've listened to a few MP3 files that are specifically for sleep, as well as on some other topics. It almost always works to get me asleep within about 20-30 minutes.

Another audio technique is ambient sounds. I have an hour-long CD that is nothing but the sound of falling rain. Also, for travel, I have a small device that generates synthetic rain and other nature sounds. The algorithm on my particular device isn't too clever, so I entertain myself by trying to identify the 2 or 3 loop layers...and that often lulls me to sleep eventually.

Also, Tim Ferriss of the Four Hour Body has an interesting chapter on sleep. Different foods, ice baths, etc.
posted by markhu at 1:58 PM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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