Escaping the sleep debt cycle
May 10, 2011 9:02 AM   Subscribe

Hi AskMe! I need your help devising an awesome bedtime ritual of ultimate relaxation and sleepiness-creation. This question brought to you by anxiety and yet another sleepless night.

I am a domestic abuse survivor. It has been a few years now and I am way more healed than I ever thought I could be, with the help of a few therapists I trust and an excellent new husband. Occasionally some anxious thing rears its head and gives me trouble, though, and the trouble I've been having for the last few months has been getting to sleep.

I just can't fall asleep before my husband does—no matter how exhausted I am or how badly I slept the night before or whatever, I will lie awake for as long as it takes until I hear a telltale snore. Then and only then can I relax enough to actually fall asleep myself. This might be less of a problem if we didn't keep rather different schedules; he works from home and is most productive beginning in the evening and extending into the night, while I have morning commitments for which I must be rested up. It's been about five months since I've been able to fall asleep on my own time. This trend was precipitated by going over particular events from my abuse in therapy (namely being woken up from a deep sleep with rape).

Which brings me to the meat of the question: the homework my therapist assigned me was to track down some soothing and soporific night-time habits to assemble into the ultimate method for becoming too sleepy to resist and too relaxed to be anxious. Armed with the Ultimate Method I will maybe be able to be rested up enough to focus on things in therapy without being a woozy zombie. But I am drawing a near-total blank! A bath is relaxing, I guess? Does hot milk actually work? Are there yoga poses that will turn even my super-awake self into a sleepy limp rag? What are your foolproof bedtime rituals?

Things I have tried include: intense yoga classes three days a week (in the mornings, to help kick my ass into awakeness); various configurations of nightlights in the bedroom; cutting out caffeine in the afternoon and evening; benzodiazepines (would prefer not to touch these again due to previous addiction issues). In list form this doesn't seem like a lot of ideas, but it's really all I have come up with. I'd appreciate any of your suggestions!
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Get up an hour earlier than you normally do, and get up at the same time every morning, regardless of when you actually fall asleep. Yes, you will be zombie-fied for a day or two. But it works.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:11 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can you go to the gym or for a run in the evening? Intense exercise is good for both stress relief and tiring you out.
posted by corvine at 9:13 AM on May 10, 2011

This may not work, but what about listening to an mp3 of snoring in some headphones?
posted by cp311 at 9:16 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you have Netflix, try Crunch: Candlelight Yoga. It's a little hokey, but is breathing/stretching oriented, and when I finish, I always feel awesomely relaxed. I also read really wordy books in bed (Game of Thrones, etc), and it's rare when I can make it more than 2-3 chapters before conking out.
posted by specialagentwebb at 9:20 AM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

What's worked for me: rigorous exercise earlier in the day, a hot shower before going to bed (falling body temperature, as after a hot shower, is correlated with sleepiness), and listening to podcasts or audio books on my ipod as I fall asleep.

There have also been quite a few posts about sleep; you might find some useful suggestions there. Good luck.
posted by hot soup girl at 9:20 AM on May 10, 2011

Try some of these:
- don't drink coffee in the afternoon / evening
- avoid all screens (tv, computer) before going to bed
- dim lights before going to bed
- read a book before going to bed
- get a lavender/hops cushion
- drink calming herbal tea (valerian, lemon balm) or warm milk before going to bed
- in the morning, expose yourself to as much natural light as possible
- eat a good breakfast
- exercise during the day
- keep a sleep diary
- use breathing techniques that will help you relax if you can't sleep
- use your bedroom only for sex and sleeping
posted by leigh1 at 9:28 AM on May 10, 2011

- hot baths before bed
- always wake up at the same time in the morning, even during the weekends
posted by leigh1 at 9:29 AM on May 10, 2011

Chamomile tea is known for its soporific effects. I sometimes add a little candied ginger.
posted by amtho at 9:34 AM on May 10, 2011

I have an incredible noisy bedtime brain and here's what works for me: Foreign films with subtitles. I have an iPad and Netflix Instant streaming. I just prop up the iPad, get in my favorite sleeping position and start watching. After a short time my eyes droop, then I let the beautiful language patterns take over. This is not meant to be insulting to foreign films! I have discovered (and finished the next morning) many treasures which have literally changed my ways of thinking. If you don't have or want the iPad and streaming services, portable DVD players and TV/DVR units are very reasonably priced. Most local libraries have foreign language films on DVD.
posted by Pennyblack at 9:36 AM on May 10, 2011

But don't drink excessive amount of tea before bedtime. Having to get up to urinate during the night will disrupt your sleep.
posted by leigh1 at 9:39 AM on May 10, 2011

I work nights and often my brain will get it's 'second wind' just as I need to go to bed. I'll be physically exhausted but unable to turn off to sleep. What helps me is to have a pretty specific bedtime routine. It's a signal to my brain that it's now sleepy-time.

1) I make sure the cat has food and water.
2) I pack my lunch for the next day.
3) I chose my clothes for the next day.
4) I pack my gym bag.
5) I plug in my Nook and phone to recharge.
6) I wash my face with olive & castor oil. The warm water helps relax me.
7) I brush my teeth.
8) Brush or comb out my hair.
9) Put on my nightgown.
10) Check the locks and turn off any remaining lights.
11) Set alarm clock.

All this takes about 15-20 minutes and is just enough for my body and mind to relax allowing me to fall asleep pretty quickly.
posted by tar0tgr1 at 9:39 AM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to have a lot of trouble going to sleep when I was younger (actually, I probably still do, just don't know because of how late I find myself going to bed in University with work and everything), and it was moslty due to over-thinking and stressing when going to bed. At some point I invented my own little visualization and relaxation technique. I would do deep breaths (4 seconds inspiration, 8 seconds expiration) and focus, eyes closes, on each single part of my body to relax it one by one (literally every part, ie: left little toe - relax, when I felt it was relaxed, I went to the next, and so on, and at the end to the whole foot, and then I would start again with lower leg, then thigh, then buttock, then whole left leg, then do the right one the same way, and this whole process for the entire body including facial muscles. It helps to relax to focus on the tension/relaxing and expiring the tension when you expire your air (as if you transfer it with that). I would also do some visualization using the same technique by expiring my worries (visualizing them concretly (generally for me it looks like this black little cloud), grouping them in my body and expiring them in the air.
This really worked for me because it relaxed me A LOT and also was so specific that I couldn't focus on anything else the parts of the body I was working on (and not all the things that were worrying me).
Hope this helps!
posted by kitsuloukos at 10:00 AM on May 10, 2011

I love pzizz. The combination of meditative music and soothing voiceover knocks me out really quickly. It's designed for power napping, but I use the Sleep (rather than Energiser) module to zonk me out. If you can't/don't want to pay for it, I'm happy to put some mp3's up on some webspace somewhere for you to download.

Get up at the same time every day, earlier than your normal getting up time. That's The first week or so will be hell, as your body adapts, but you have complete control over this. Everyone needs X amount of sleep, and sooner or later your brain will realise that you're not going to be getting those X hours in the morning, and will make you get them the previous night.

No napping. Relative to the previous paragraph, you're not allowed to get part of your X hours during a nap, because then you won't need to get them at night.

Have a look at this documentary about sleep too. It's got a lot of science-based tips for stuff that works.
posted by Solomon at 10:09 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

kitsuloukos' body-relaxation technique is actually pretty well known and I can confirm is very relaxing. If it doesn't still the rabbit-brain you can try the alphabet game (pick a category like car models or book titles and then work your way through the alphabet: Accord, Bonneville, Camaro, Duster, etc), which isn't so gripping that you can't fall asleep in the middle, but is difficult enough to not really be able to think of other things.

I was once taught a visualization technique that involved a toe-to-head relaxation exercise, and then imagining yourself walking down a hallway to a door. Inside the door is your very own perfect relaxation-and-meditation room (meant to be where you do the primary work of whatever meditation you might be doing).

But outside the door is a container. Maybe it's a suitcase, or a safe, or a locker, or whatever you like (mine was The Luggage from the Discworld books). Before the door will unlock, you have to put all your worries in the container. They'll still be there if you want to pick them up on the way out, but you have to leave them outside before you meditate. I often found that once I put all my shit in the box and went in the door, I would then immediately fall deeply and happily asleep.

Your before-bed routine is important (mostly as a routine itself, not necessarily what you do specifically, so your body knows that bedtime is on the way), but once you lay down you may need to corral your head with a method like one of these.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:10 AM on May 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Gut bombing! Slightly excessive quantities of warm pizza followed by a book or a movie in a dark (slightly cool) room while wrapped in a warm blanket.

Out like a light, man. (Also useful on small children. And on meetings running way too long. You make everyone sleepy on pizza and dim the lights, people will agree to anything to go home.)

(But also, think about what YOU find relaxing. Personally, baths make me annoyed. I do not understand why someone would soak in them on purpose to get relaxed. They make me feel icky so I'm all antsy for ages afterwards. Whenever someone tells me, "Take a bath and relax!" I'm like, "I can do one or the other, not both.")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:12 AM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Would you be okay with taking HALF of a sleeping pill? Sleeping pills scare me (what if there's a fire??) but I have found that one-half or one-quarter makes me *just* woozy enough that I can't do anything but lay down. Don't take one every night, only on nights when you feel particularly anxious. Lock them up in a cabinet, if you have to.

Alternatively, I find that 20 minutes of yoga (no DVD, just my go-to poses, especially hip- and shoulder-openers) puts me RIGHT out, it's like a magic trick.

There are tons of good suggestions in this thread! Also remember to eat something / empty your bladder before bed - that'll obviously help you STAY asleep. And booze will relax you, but definitely causes you to wake up during the night. I think it's awesome that you're trying to go about this in a healthy way!
posted by polly_dactyl at 10:40 AM on May 10, 2011

I'm in a similar situation for similar reasons. In addition to some of the above suggestions, as well as asking for and receiving an adjustment in my husband's sleep schedule, I've found that low frequency binaural beats on headphones that are comfortable to sleep in help immensely on those nights when I can't calm myself as well as I need to.
posted by thatdawnperson at 10:46 AM on May 10, 2011

I listen to self-hypnosis tapes. Also, I've received suggestions of melatonin at bed time, which seem to help too.
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:49 AM on May 10, 2011

I know everyone says you shouldn't look at a screen right before you go to sleep, but for me the only thing that can make my brain shut up long enough for me to fall asleep is doing the NYTimes crossword on my iPod touch. The iPod is small enough that I can use it while curled up on my side (my preferred falling-asleep position), and sturdy enough that when I start to drift off I can just shove it under my pillow or drop it gently onto the (carpeted) floor. I make sure the screen brightness is turned all the way down, though.
posted by enlarged to show texture at 11:01 AM on May 10, 2011

Oh man, I also have a terrible case of hamster-brain. For me, the body-relaxation techniques don't work too well, because they don't require enough concentration - I can still fret about everything while I'm flexing those leg muscles. On the other hand, things that require lots of concentration just keep me awake - no writing The Great American Novel in my head.

I have to redirect the hamster-brain without overtaxing it, basically finding the happy medium between concentration and relaxation. Currently, the thing that works best for me is don't laugh, OK? mentally going through my stash of sewing patterns and fabrics and contemplating which things to make out what material. It seems to hit the sweet spot of engaging the hamster-motor without getting too heavy or serious about anything. I even tell myself I'm not actually committing to any of these sewing projects, just considering options. quit laughing!

If you have a hobby, maybe try a little "gedanken-hobbying" to distract yourself into a pleasant state of mind. Nothing too intense - no wiring schematics for your robot, more like what color you're going to paint it.

And ixnay on the liquids - if I drink anything in the evening, I invariably have to get up and pee right when I'm starting to doze off.

Finally, when all else fails, OTC antihistamines usually knock me out pretty well. But that's a last-ditch desperation move.
posted by Quietgal at 11:09 AM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Would it help if your husband came in and gave you a kiss goodnight? Make that tenderness part of your ritual of falling asleep.
posted by 26.2 at 11:39 AM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been stressed lately and have had trouble falling asleep. My therapist suggested some homeopathic solutions, and one in particular has worked really well for me: Calms Forte. It's helped me fall asleep and stay asleep. Maybe it's placebo, but it works for me! She recommended a few others; let me know if you're interested in more information.
posted by lagreen at 11:57 AM on May 10, 2011

When I travel I put on a white noise app on my phone with the sound of a cat snoring. It works for me because I normally sleep with a snoring cat. So maybe there's one with a husband snoring? Then work backwards with other elements of the ritual: washing your face, brushing teeth, kissing hubby good night, doing a few stretches, fluffing pillow, into bed. Whatever those are I think the key is that they just aren't brain-active sorts of things and you do them in the same order, same time every night.

The other things that are key for me are a cool room, a specific pillow and the room being VERY dark.
posted by marylynn at 12:04 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I find it helps to read in a dim room for awhile before I get ready for bed -- it helps my brain know it's nighttime, in a way that watching TV or using my computer just doesn't. Also, if there is an anxiety med that's not addictive, that would probably help a lot more than a sleep med. It does seem like you'll need to address with your therapist, how to feel safe when your husband is awake, because it sounds like you don't right now. Good luck.
posted by Margalo Epps at 12:16 PM on May 10, 2011

I've had tremendous trouble with sleep in the past, with the whole panic attack in the middle of the night thing, insomnia thing, etc. I've had meds that worked, but something that eventually worked that SHOCKED me was that I got one of those sleep masks that you strap on when you go to sleep. I thought given my panic attack history, something like that would never work. But the meds were giving me side effects I didn't like so I thought what the hell. It's AMAZING. I strap the thing on ( it's very light, and has a little bridge for your nose) and it's like something in my brain is like "ok, sleep time." It's AMAZING. I said that already. So it might not work for you, but maybe try it, even if you think you might wake up and freak that this thing is on your face ( because that didn't happen to me!) I'm thinking of getting several in different colors so I can have fun with them. Hey, they worked for Holly GoLightly.
posted by sweetkid at 12:30 PM on May 10, 2011

Could you somehow record the sound of your husband snoring? And then play it on repeat?

We use a white noise machine/sleepmate and it helps me sleep, because it drowns out noise, and also provides a constant for the noise in the room.

We also just started taking 500mg of magnesium right before bed, per 4HB by Tim Ferriss, and it worked well last night, but neither of us has trouble getting to sleep, just staying there.
posted by needlegrrl at 1:05 PM on May 10, 2011

My bedtime ritual is a hot candlelit bath, followed by a short meditation session. The candles were someone else's idea, and initially seemed stupid and kind of frou-frou to me, but they make a huge difference -- being in near-darkness for a while before I go to bed seems to help trigger sleepiness. If you have a dimmer on the lightswitch in the bathroom, that'd work too.

Melatonin is what I go for when the above doesn't work. A small amount of alcohol (say, half a shot to a full shot of whiskey) helps knock me out, also. Obviously, neither are optimal on a regular basis, but they're fine if it's a 3 AM sleepmergency!
posted by vorfeed at 1:16 PM on May 10, 2011

-Body pillow? (google it and you'll see lots of options - it's a long pillow that you can "spoon" with.
- I agree with no screens, since screen things tend to make my mind race
- Nice book that is a tiny bit dull - get your hamster-mind thinking along the lines of the nice book, maybe a Jeeves + Wooster book, or something else light - but it's not a page-turner so you'll relax and gradually drop off
-Puzzle book - like crossword or word search or sudoku, they sell them cheaply at the drug store or online - that is easy-ish
-Tell yourself a longish nonsensical episodic story - once upon a time there was a princess who was on a quest. First she went to the castle of the mole people, and she had to persuade the king of the moles to give her the turnip. Then she went to the valley of ten chairs. (etc -- the idea is to simulate the way your mind works when dreaming, but give it some innocuous starting material)
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:51 PM on May 10, 2011

Audiobooks work for me. Any time I try to relax - anything like progressive relaxation, or breathing exercises, I just get more tense. But listening to an audiobook, especially one read by a professional and British, work pretty well. At some point I just realize I haven't heard the last several chapters.

I don't like sleeping with earbuds, and my hearing's too bad to use speakers, but SleepPhones work pretty well for bed listening, and I can even lie on my side wearing them.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 1:57 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Pzizz, specifically the app ($10, I think?) for the iPod Touch/iPhone. It is an absolute godsend.
posted by jbickers at 2:31 PM on May 10, 2011

I hope the OP doesn't mind if I use the thread to ask about the Pzizz Mp3s, cuz I sometimes share her sleepless pain....

To Solomon and jbickers, I bought the $15 Pzizz trial sleep MP3 just the other day, and when I used it found that the music/noise did relax me, as did the speaker's voice. At first.

Then just as I could feel my eyes getting heavier and heavier, and my body sinking into somnolent relaxation, the speaker spoke again. Then silence for a while. Then more talk. And on and on. The fact that there was *no* clear end to the talk despite its repeatedly petering out ended up turning me into a nervous wreck, jolting me from near-sleep to wakefulness again and again. (Agghhhh!)

Do either of you know (or does anyone else?) if *all* the Pzizz Mp3s are so talky?
posted by Violet Blue at 3:27 PM on May 10, 2011

Since the issue seems to be caused by your (understandable) hyper-vigilance about your personal safety, it might be worth at least considering the idea of separate bedrooms. There's no shame in not sharing a bed with your husband - plenty of healthy relationships work that way. You could have your own bed in your own room, with a lockable door, if that helped, and maybe that would be enough for you to totally relax? At the very least it might be worth considering as a temporary measure for times when you really feel the sleep debt piling up.

My own triggers for sleepiness are reading a few pages of a book that I only read at bedtime - doesn't matter what, just make sure it's a different style or genre to what you read during the day - with low lighting, a hot water bottle, cozy socks, and then a sort of self-hypnosis thing where I close my eyes and imagine someone stroking my head. That knocks me out fast, but as someone said above, I think it's more about having a ritual than what the ritual involves. As long as you do the same thing at bedtime over and over, you should start to associate it with sleep, and eventually it will trigger sleep.
posted by lollusc at 6:14 PM on May 10, 2011

Also, this might be an extreme idea, but if you were interested in having a pet dog anyway, and didn't mind him sleeping on the bed, his presence might be enough to let you relax, knowing he would defend you if anything happened in the night?
posted by lollusc at 6:15 PM on May 10, 2011

Are there yoga poses that will turn even my super-awake self into a sleepy limp rag?

For me, the standing forward bend is just fantastic for this. It can be intense, so when I don't want to push myself I do a variation standing with my feet about 2 feet apart. It takes a minute or so to truly relax into the pose, but then you get the experience of letting go of your upper body and relying on your legs to support you completely which feels wonderful. The longer I hold this pose (usually 10-ish minutes), the more it is guaranteed to put my mind and body at ease for bed time. I hope this helps :)
posted by moons in june at 5:46 AM on May 11, 2011

Is having separate bedrooms an option?
posted by squasher at 6:04 PM on May 11, 2011

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