Three Tips to Beat Insomnia: Breaking the Cycle
Updated: Apr 22
“School isn’t for you.”
“You shouldn’t be here.” “You need to quit.”
That’s what my counselor said heading into my third year of high school. She wasn’t wrong. Up to that point, I was failing. I very rarely applied myself during school hours and most of my time spent out of class was dedicated to escaping the stress and anxiety that made up my reality. The brutal honesty of this conversation with my counselor was met with bitterness, but it was a blessing. A turning point.
I knew I wasn’t stupid. I also knew I could be more despite the burdens that came with my childhood. I didn’t have to be another statistic. I vividly remember wanting to prove that to people. I simply needed to work. As a result, I ended up putting so much pressure on myself to be successful that I slowly created a cycle of insomnia that would last all the way into my mid-twenties.
My final two years of high school rendered no sleep. The cycle followed me into university, as well. For a time, I justified my lack of sleep because I was able to get more done. I was delivering on my desire to push myself further and I was successfully dishing out spite to those who questioned whether or not I was capable. Inside though, my mind began to unravel. I realized, too late, that this cycle of insomnia had its claws dug in deep.
I tried every technique to loosen its grip on me. Sleeping tablets, speaking with professionals, and even going so far as to try hypnotherapy.
Sleeping tablets left me groggier than the insomnia.
The pros said I was “just stressed” and left it at that.
Hypnotherapy was a waste of money, but a great story for dinner parties.
Even though my doctor did nothing to help, the diagnosis was right. I had put so much pressure on perfection that I’d actually created a cycle of stress. No one is sleeping with adrenaline and cortisol constantly pumping through your veins! It would be years before I accepted that stress built the foundation for almost all of my health issues, insomnia included.
Some of you are likely aware of the narrative:
I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight and, as a result,
- I’m going to fail that exam.
- I’m not going to be able to function tomorrow. - I’m not going to be able to think properly.
- I’m going to be tired all day.
- I won’t be able to go to the gym.
- I won’t be able to go to work.
The pressure I put on myself to sleep, coupled with this internal dialogue, became so bad that I actually feared going to bed!
Bad habits manifested. Those habits bled over into every aspect of my life. It nearly destroyed me. I knew that tackling my stress would be an uphill battle, but I quickly realized that it was a lot easier to undo some of these bad habits first. I needed to fix the only time of day that my body could heal. I had to create good habits surrounding my sleep!
It's time that you broke your cycle of insomnia, too. Let me show you how I did it.
1) Stop Making Your Body Work So Damn Hard Before Bed
Stressors, chemicals and feelings can all impact the flow of your circadian rhythm. Whether you consider things like alcohol, exercise or food to be good or bad, you have to consider how hard they’re making your body work as you slip into snooze mode. A good night’s sleep never involves your body working in overdrive.
“I’ll drink a little bit of alcohol and it helps me go to sleep. It also helps take the edge off.”
Alcohol is interesting because people react differently. Some of you understand that it can actually keep you awake, but for others, it’s definitely a depressant. Using a depressant to put you to sleep seems like a logical route to take; then the inability to stay asleep becomes apparent.
Alcohol is a diuretic. If your body is pushing water through your body, it’s having to work too damn hard! This is also a great way to dehydrate yourself, leading to those unbelievably painful cramps that we’ve all come to know and hate. Did I mention that alcohol can further aggravate stressors occurring in your life? Yeah, take a break for a bit. You won’t regret it.
Like alcohol, many of you have a personal relationship with coffee. It's a stimulant, but sometimes it knocks people out! Also like alcohol, it's a diuretic that has the potential to exacerbate problems you’re having with stress. It’s important to limit the amount of caffeine you’re having in general, but even more so in the afternoon if you're looking to sleep.
Big meals before bed? Big no-no.
Feeling bloated or uncomfortable as a result of something you ate is unwelcome enough when you’re conscious. Why are you putting yourself in that position as you’re trying to relax?! On top of that, your body is also working to digest. We’re supposed to be giving our body an opportunity to take a break! Get your last meal in a couple of hours before bedtime, give it time to go through the motions and be strict about it.
As I’m sure you can guess based on what I’ve said about alcohol and coffee, hydrating is super important. Many of you have trouble sleeping because you experience cramps at night due to dehydration. I can empathize. You have to be careful, though! How you hydrate can be a fickle mistress.
Just like food, we don’t want our bodies to be working while we’re asleep. How annoying is it when you wake up in the middle of the night to pee? Then to have your mind take over in the few minutes you’re up? You have to be more proactive than you think.
Drink 500mL the moment you wake up and stay hydrated throughout the day. My fiancé subscribes to the idea that you should drink water throughout the day the way he “used to drink beer in college.” That’s overkill for many (MANY) of you, but you get the idea. Then it’s important to finish hydrating about two hours before bed and make sure to pee one last time before settling in. That’ll leave you hydrated, but not busting for a wee around two in the morning!
For those of you still experiencing night cramps, keep reading! There’s a bonus section on supplements that could help!
Depending on the severity of your insomnia, napping can be a bad idea. There are plenty of people out there who can have one bad night of sleep and decide to catch up on the sleep you lost by having a nap. That’s no big deal. It’s not going to help the rest of us break the cycle of insomnia, though. It’s just messing up our attempts to sync our circadian rhythms with something normal. Realistically, we’re trying to get you to reduce stress and if falling asleep makes it worse, then naps aren’t helping. It’s also putting your body in a position to work harder to get to sleep. Stop making your body work so damn hard!
Exercise is great! Just not before bed.
Increasing adrenaline. Increasing endorphins. The sense of accomplishment that comes with exercise is fantastic for breaking the cycle of stress. Feels great! It’s one step closer to toppling the cycle of insomnia! It’s also increasing your chances of staying awake. I highly recommend that you knock it out in the morning.
If you want to indulge in physical activity at night, try taking a relaxing walk. It’s low impact and it will give your body a sense of winding down.
It’s important that you know how to define white noise. Finding ways to drown out the kind of noises that stimulate your brain is beyond important. And no, your TV doesn’t equal white noise. There are several products out there just waiting to be tested and they’re begging to replace aural stimuli with the blank bliss of restful slumber.
2) Control Your Environment
Both your conscious and subconscious need to be working together on this one. When you enter your room, is it a place of work? Entertainment? If the answer isn’t a resounding “sleep!” then you should be thinking about how to control your space.
It’s obvious that you want to be physically comfortable (I’m very fond of my down comforter and memory foam topper), but being comfortable on a subconscious level is important, too. Do you hate entering your room? Does the physical space elicit discomfort? Anger? Unrest?
Work to make the aesthetic more inviting by reducing clutter and ensuring that there isn’t a sense of claustrophobia every time you lay down. Your bedroom should only be a place of sleep.
Keep the temperature in your room cool. Also, if you can help it, push for natural air.
Now, I understand. Sometimes that’s not an option during the heights of summer or the depths of winter, but fresh air can impact the way that you sleep.
Your bedroom just needs to follow the rule of every successful 90's hip hop song:
Keep it cool.
Keep it fresh.
Pets and Partners
For some of you, it’s a comfort to have a pet or a partner nearby. It can even evoke a sense of security that can increase your ability to sleep! If this isn’t the case, but you still sleep with a pet or partner, you have to be able to say, “No.”
With pets, it’s putting them in a different room—I know it’s tough! For the sake of your sleep, making that sacrifice may be necessary. For partners, it’s different.
You’re not going to ask your husband to sleep on the couch every night because he snores (though Lord knows you want to!) My fiancé snores, so I had to put my foot down. It’s okay now because, when he’s snoring, I simply tell him to roll over. It took me years to muster the courage to unsettle his sleep in order to protect mine. I love him, ya know? We want our pets and partners to be happy. For some of you, it could also be tough.
Investing in a bigger bed, telling your partner to go to bed at a reasonable hour to avoid waking you up or taking advantage of products that help with snoring are just a few steps you can take. Hopefully, this is the nudge you need to finally say, “No. My sleep is important, too. Something needs to change.”
And who knows? Maybe breaking your cycle of insomnia is as simple as politely telling your partner off.
Who doesn’t want to have a reason to do that every once in a while?
3) Create a Daily Routine
I’ve already told you that you need to be making good habits in order to undo bad ones, but how do you make it stick? You’ll find it in the repetition of those new habits. That’s why a solid routine is key.
Waking up at the same time each day
The biggest urge for an insomniac is to get as much sleep as possible—routine be damned! I often hear, “It’s okay! I’ll have a big sleep on the weekend.” You can’t be flippant about this. Your circadian rhythm doesn’t work that way.
Set a time to wake up every morning, add it to your routine and freakin’ stick to it!
We’ve already discussed it, but you need to be doing something every day. Whether it’s as gentle as an evening walk or as intense as a HIIT session in the morning, create a workout routine that can keep you on track.
I understand that some of you think meditation is a very spiritual activity, but many of you don't realize how practical it is! Using it to restart your mind feels like a form of rest in itself, but you have to connect with it. I’m hesitant to be one of those people that says you “have to do it right,” but here we are. It’s possible (and surprisingly easy) to go through the motions of meditation without giving it enough weight. If you’re someone who’s unable to dedicate fifteen minutes in the morning/evening to sitting quietly and doing nothing, then insomnia will gladly keep its hooks in you.
If you’re not sure where to begin, I highly recommend the Calm app for guidance.
Reading for pleasure before bed
I'm sure you've heard this one, so do it! Replace activities on your phone/tv/computer with reading at around thirty minutes before bed. I lean towards fiction because it’s relaxing. Find a genre that leaves you content and you’ll be drifting off in no time.
I’ve never been big on supplementation outside of exercise, but it can definitely give you that extra boost you need. Just don’t become dependent on it!
This helps to increase serotonin, which is great for more than just sleep!
This is great if you’re completely out of whack and travel a lot.
Experiencing cramps at night? Along with a list of benefits, magnesium tablets and Epsom salt baths can help with nightly cramps in a way that hydrating sometimes can’t.
Huge fan! This is great for reducing stress and the physical reactions we have to stress.
This is another fantastic supplement that I’ve enjoyed. It’s great for relieving anxiety (very helpful for me) and has several other beneficial uses.
The same way overcoming stress is a process, so is undoing bad habits that relate to your insomnia.
You can work towards breaking the cycle by
- learning how to relax before bed;
- controlling every aspect of your bedroom;
- and creating a healthy consistency in your life.
The sooner you can get a solid night’s sleep, the sooner you can start tackling everything else that may need fixing. Undo those bad habits and start winning in the fight against your insomnia!
Get Your Shit Together-Literally and Figuratively