Having trouble sleeping
March 20, 2006 7:29 AM   Subscribe

I've been having a lot of trouble sleeping. I want to know if my problems are common, and some strategies for coping.

I have trouble sleeping more commonly in periods of stress than when I am not stressful. I think that's probably pretty common. There are some stress factors in my life right now, via my job and my newborn (well, 3 mo old) son, but the job-stress is sort of ordinary job-stress.

There are 2 kinds of sleep problems I have. One is where I can not get to sleep at night, although I'm tired. My mind races thinking about various things and I have trouble relaxing and drifting off to sleep. After a while of this (20-30 minutes) I start to get anxious that I'll never get to sleep and then it becomes even harder. I'll get obsessive about little noises and distractions (of which there are plenty as we have 2 dogs that sleep in the bedroom). If I move to another room (guest room, couch) I can often get to sleep easier.

The other kind of problem I'll have is where I will wake up in the middle of the night, say 3 or 4 am, and not be able to sleep. I usually don't wake up fully, just a little bit. In these times I seem to get stuck in a dreamish-loop. In my dream I'll be trying to solve some ridiculous arithmatic problem or puzzling over a poker problem (actually a recurring sequence is that I'm forced over and over to play poker under very unfavorable circumstances, like where everyone can see my cards but I can't see theirs). When I half-wake up I will note to myself that the problem I'm puzzling over is not real, and try to put it out of my mind. As soon as I am asleep it will start up again. I toss and turn and get no sleep for a few hours. Moving to another room *might* help this but more likely than not, I need to get up and do something else for 10 or 20 minutes before I'll be able to sleep again.

It's becoming more of a problem. I have trouble with sleep at least 3 days a week now. Sometimes I come up with theories but they don't seem to pan out. Theories include: caffeine too late at night (stopping caffeine consumption at noon does not help), varying my schedule too much (going to bed early on weekends does not help). Maybe some others that I'm forgetting.
posted by RustyBrooks to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Is your room really dark at night? I sleep a whole lot better since we put up blackout curtains.
posted by teleskiving at 7:35 AM on March 20, 2006

Best answer: Wow. This post really freaked me out, because I feel as though I might be the author. I'm having the problem where I wake up around 3 or 4am every night, and...
a) cannot fall back asleep
b) fall asleep a few minutes before my alarm goes off
c) end up in that "dreamish-loop" that you mention. For me (I'm a software developer), it usually involves some coding problem.
Since I'm suffering, I don't have a clear answer for you. However, here are some suggestions that people have been offering me:
1) Do not, under any circumstances, look at a clock in the middle of the night.
2) Accept that your body will get you back in line. Don't sweat the insomnia. Just get up, if you must, at any hour of the night. Read a book, watch tv, and look at it as a gift of time. Eventually, your body will say "hold on a minute", and just when you are really in the middle of a good movie or a good book, you'll be unable to stay awake and - zzzz.
3) Do not drink alcohol in the evening - even with dinner.
4) Get more exercise during the day.

None of the above has worked for me, but I figured I'd pass them along. Good luck.
posted by tom_g at 7:41 AM on March 20, 2006

A lot of my sleep issues disappeared when I started walking 2-3 miles a day. Can you squeeze in a stroll with the baby carriage after dinner? It might help.
posted by 45moore45 at 7:42 AM on March 20, 2006

I've had some sleep problems in the past but worked them out as follows:

1. Cut caffeine consumption (I know you said you did this but it's an enormous cause of sleep problems). If I were you I would try cutting back to just coffee at breakfast and if that doesn't work, try a fortnight without coffee/tea at all.

2. Exercise.

3. (The most important). Don't sweat it. If you can't get to sleep, don't lie in bed tossing and turning, get up and do something constructive. If I wake at 3 or 4 in the morning and can't sleep, I just get up and start my day. Similarly, if you have problems which are keeping you awake, get up and write out a list of things you are going to do to solve them. There is no law that says 'you must sleep'. If your body gets tired enough, you WILL sleep (unless there is some underlying psychiatric issue, which is another matter entirely).

4. Get a book on self-hypnosis and try doing the induction exercises when you are going to sleep. I've found these surprisingly useful for getting into a deeply relaxed state. Or I will think about playing the guitar and run scales up and down the neck in my mind.

5. Ditto to: get rid of the clock, make sure the room is really dark.

6. Try altering the room temperature. Cooling it down can work for some people.
posted by unSane at 7:54 AM on March 20, 2006

I feel for you -- from personal experience. My insomnia is exactly like what you describe.

One thing that's helped me is one of those "white noise" clock radios -- specifically the "heart beat" noise. It's hypnotic and soothing and usually gets me back to sleep. I've also found the sound of a radio or television, turned down low, helps quiet my racing mind. (Although it does tend to bother my sleepmate.)

Good luck.
posted by CMichaelCook at 7:55 AM on March 20, 2006

You might try small doses of melatonin, a natural body chemical that helps with sleep. I spent a year fighting sleep trouble, did a lot of research, and eventually developed a little brief guide to better sleep that summarizes all the stuff I'd read on the topic (much of which was from here at AskMe!).
posted by jdroth at 7:56 AM on March 20, 2006

Listen to an audiobook as you go to sleep, preferably a recording of a book you know already. Your mind latches on to the recording so you don't think about anything else, so it is easier to fall asleep.
posted by Orange Goblin at 8:01 AM on March 20, 2006

I posted a similar question about a year ago and got many helpful suggestions...
posted by curtm at 8:10 AM on March 20, 2006

Response by poster: Oh man, I'm a software developer also. My loops are occaisonally freakishly unsolvable computer problems, which, when I wake up, I realize that I do not in fact need to solve them.

Sometimes at least I get funny stories out of this. Like once I was forced in a dream to play poker at a table of *30* people. Barry Greenstein sat down next to me and I was thinking "sweet, I need to tell my friend about this". When I woke up I was disappointed when I realized that since it didn't really happen I couldn't tell my friend. When I got back to sleep, the dream started again and I was like "awesome, now that I'm dreaming I can tell my friend again". Sort of hard to explain, but it was funny to me.

The excercise suggestion is a good one, I'll see if I can work it in.

I think white noise is out. Our baby has one of those that seems to work for him, drives me batty.

I'd heard something about melatonin before, but hadn't thought about it until you mentioned it, I will look into it.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:13 AM on March 20, 2006

Ditto Orange Goblin. I thought of this after watching my kids fall asleep as I read to them. "If only," I thought, "someone would do that for me." Light bulb. As OG said, you want something you know (so you don't get caught up in the plot) and neither suspenseful nor funny (for obvious reasons) but sufficently interesting and well-read to you distract you from what's on your mind.

A tolerant spouse/SO is important, too.

One thing, tho. Like most sleep aids, this creates dependency. I now find it hard to sleep without my night-time story.
posted by mojohand at 8:14 AM on March 20, 2006

Response by poster: Oooh... also, regarding darkness. That might be it, actually. Since we had the baby, we sleep with our bedroom door open, so we can hear him, and there often is a light on somewhere in the hall, like in the office or bathroom or something. it's not BRIGHT by any means but it's not dark, either.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:14 AM on March 20, 2006

Response by poster: Audio book or something might help. Something that helps me get out of the dream-loops is if I can actively focus on some sort of fantasy, tell *myself* a story until I get to sleep. This is occaisonally effective, I'll think about the plot of some movie or book, and try to focus on that.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:17 AM on March 20, 2006

It sounds cliche but about 50% of the time when I'm lieing there unable to calm my mind I count backwards from 100. The key is I actually picture the numbers floating in space in coloured numbers about a foot high. The concentration needed to visualize the numbers pushes everything else aside. If I can't manage the concentration then I just get out of bed.
posted by Mitheral at 8:27 AM on March 20, 2006

I can 100% back up what everyone's saying here, about using some type of noise to distract your restless mind when trying to fall asleep. Anything on a sleep timer is priceless. Sleep timers are my best friend.

Some other tips that have helped me:

* When I get into bed, I bring a difficult but interesting book that I really want to read with me. There's something about really wanting to finish this book and knowing that it's just a little bit too dense and boring that makes my lids very heavy.

*I keep a journal or pen & paper by the bed. If my mind is racing thinking of things that I need to do, or things that I'm worried about, I sit up, and write it all down. When I'm particularly stressed out, I might just start doing this before even trying to sleep, trying to think out all of the things that are bothering me.

* If writing everything down doesn't help (it does help about 99% of the time), and I'm not asleep within half an hour, I get up and do something. Lying in bed, restlessly trying to sleep is a recipe for disaster, it never works.

As for your other problem, I feel your pain. I am a game designer/producer, and when in crunch mode, I do the same thing, waking up in the middle of the night EXTREMELY worried about some non-existent design flaw in the game that I'm working on, or a task I'm convinced is going to take weeks and was left off of the schedule, for example, and I cannot get out of the loop.

Sometimes I'm in a dreamy enough haze that I am not really aware of what's happening, and I just have to suffer until I finally fall asleep. The only plus to those are that the thing I freak out about is usually pretty hilarious (I once worked on a roller coaster PC game and would wake up in the middle of the night and fret for hours about the wooden roller coaster with a loop I was expected to build in the back yard). If I can recognize it, I just do the same thing, either try to write it down (which is where I usually wake up and realize how stupid what I'm worrying about is), or get up and do something.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:34 AM on March 20, 2006

Response by poster: Actually, the nicest thing is hearing how common this exact problem (the looping) is. I was a little worried about having too much anxiety or something.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:37 AM on March 20, 2006

I have very similar insomnia. Melatonin has never worked for me, but I occassionally take these which really help. If you are concerned about the kava just plain valerian is helpful too. Note that the potency of herbal stuff varies very widely, so be careful about brand. I do find the Gaia stuff to be consistently good.

The nice thing about valerian is that even if i do wake up, it seems to somehow prevent that "oh shit I woke up" anxiety and allows me to go back to sleep more easily.
posted by miss tea at 8:40 AM on March 20, 2006

No, you're not alone in this and your symptoms sound exactly like mine.
I have tried melatonin; it gets me to sleep but I find that I spend the next day terrified of anything and everything, which is apparently not an uncommon side-effect.
The trick that I have found to work somewhat is to engage in a pleasurable but boring and pointless (and not work-related!) mental activity to block out the racing-mind and anxiety-related stuff. The thing that works for me is that I plan out a Dungeons and Dragons campaign in my my head. I haven't played D&D for at least 15 years, and most likely never will again, so this fulfils the pointless criterion very well. If you've never played D&D, planning out the plot and imaginary locations for the tacky screenplay or novel you'll never write would be pretty much the same thing, but this has a larger scope and has been helping me get to sleep for many years.
Also, a staggeringly tedious book on a subject that would otherwise be interesting can help. Nerd that I am, I find that a page of Christopher Tolkien's The History of Middle Earth series can be enough to see me off. Difficult material doesn't help me; easy but dull is the way to go. If I have James Joyce waiting on the nightstand, I just put off going to bed because it becomes too much like hard work.
As for the waking up in the middle of the night, I find it helps to get up, drink some water, take a leak, read a bit or whatever and get back into a relaxed frame of mind and start all over again. If I stay in bed hoping to drift straight back to sleep I get angry and frustrated. This might land you in trouble if you wake up your partner or child, of course.
posted by nowonmai at 9:27 AM on March 20, 2006

Response by poster: I started to mark some best answers but realized I'd be marking almost every post besides my own, so instead I just want to thank everyone for the help. I am going to try as many of these things as I can, one at a time and in combination, and see if I can get any relief.

I think I'm going to also try to see if I can avoid doing work, or playing poker, right before bed, since that is stuff that gets me thinking. Maybe I'll watch some tv or read a novel or something, see how that goes.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:32 AM on March 20, 2006

I experience this every so often and found that this tea really really helps. Tasts like the forest but will put you in sleep mode in no time. All natural.

posted by sandrapbrady at 9:45 AM on March 20, 2006

i used to have trouble sleeping, too.

a couple of things that have helped out tremendously:
1: no caffiene after 6:30 or so
2: no video games or tv after 9:00
3: stay away from anything that flickers, like a tv or a monitor with low refresh-rate.
4: get plenty of exercise, preferably early in the day.
5: and this is a big one: do NOTHING in your bedroom but sex and sleep. this cured my insomnia almost instantly. you want your bedroom to be an environment for sleep, so your body will automatically associate it with sleep. take the tv out of there, and move your computer somewhere else. most importantly, never ever work from your bedroom.

it used to take me an hour or so to go to sleep, after doing number 5, it takes me about 3 minutes.
posted by kneelconqueso at 10:20 AM on March 20, 2006

I've had bouts of this. In retrospect, it's been stress every time. I've had temporary relief from chamomile, kava and 5-HTP, but in the long run leading a healthier and lower-stress life has worked best.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:46 AM on March 20, 2006

Here's an additional tip, the more you worry about not sleeping, the less sleeping you get. I think there might even be a name for it: Sleep anxiety.

If you let go of the anxiety, say to yourself, who cares if i don't get to sleep right now, boom, zzzzz.

I heard other people call this the acceptance paradox. It is a good way to deal with anxieties of all kinds.

The other thing that helps is to have fun in bed. I mean not only just *that* kind :-) Remember the feeling you may have had as a child of being safe and snuggly in the bedclothes? Do all kinds of comforty things. Tighten and then relax the muscles in your body progressively, squinch and relax your face. Loll around. Really feel that you're happy to be in bed even if you're not falling asleep right at that moment. There are billions of people who have way bigger problems than any of us. We are lucky in having a warm bed.

The problem with adult attitudes to sleep is we're bringing performance anxiety into it. Sleep is a child's kingdom.
posted by storybored at 12:55 PM on March 20, 2006

Lots of good advice here. Regular exercise definitely helps, but make sure you do it during the day, or in the early evening at the latest. Exercising too late in the evening can keep you awake late.

The exception to the "no exercise before bed" rule would be doing a bit of slow yoga before bedtime -- even just 5 or 10 minutes of gentle stretching and deep breathing can help get your body and mind in the right place. Yoga breathing can also help keep some of the anxiety at bay when you wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep or get stuck in that half-dreaming loop (I've had that problem lately, myself).
posted by scody at 1:30 PM on March 20, 2006

Yes, occasional insomnia is normal-- most everyone has experienced it now and then. I have to tell you mostly not to worry about it. Your body will eventually say: I MUST SLEEP. So again; try not worrying about it and follow the other good advice here like avoiding caffeine after 2 or 3 pm and increasing daytime exercise.
ps-- I used to work for airline and knew pilots who guided me about insomia worry related to the time changes. Again, your body will sleep when it's ready.
posted by GoodJob! at 4:38 PM on March 20, 2006

I have an insomnia journal next to my bed. If I find my mind racing through things, worrying, I write down to-do lists or concerns, and they immediately stop circling through my head. It's as though I feel safe to stop thinking about them, now that I've got them down on paper.

I also use a combination meditation/self-hypnosis that will get me to sleep quickly -- within a minute, sometimes.

Definitely heed the advice about making your bedroom a more conducive environment to sleep in and making sure you are doing the right things to help your body settle into sleep a bit easier.

If you are concerned about anxiety, I'd recommend getting a good book to help you work through that. It's just a way of learning the most effective ways of dealing with anxieties - and the resulting stress - when they pop up, and nothing to be worried or ashamed about. Who knows; if you're able to address these concerns effectively during the day and bring your stress level down, that alone may help you sleep at night.
posted by moira at 5:41 PM on March 20, 2006

My 2 cents worth (just re-iterating what works for me in order of umpph):
1) bed is only for sleeping,
2) meditate (much like counting and visualizing the numbers),
and if that doesn't work,
3) melatonin: 1/4 of a 2.5mg pill and I'm out like a light.

Your symptoms are exactly like mine.
posted by mediaddict at 5:58 PM on March 20, 2006

Google "Mindfold" and order one. A great sleep mask. The best I've ever found. Around $20. Does not stop racing thoughts and anxiety but can help a lot.
posted by madstop1 at 6:00 PM on March 20, 2006

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