Insomnia, and Falling Asleep as an Activity


The comment policy for this post is different from my usual one. It’s at the end of the post. Content note: passing mentions of depression.

There was a time when sleep was easy. It was so easy, I literally didn’t understand how it could be not-easy. I lay down at the end of the day, and in ten minutes I was asleep. It felt like pure, physical cause-and-effect: falling asleep at the end of the day was like falling down if I rolled off the bed. It just — happened. How could it not happen?

But age happened, and menopause, and post-trauma, and depression, and anti-depressants with a stimulant effect. Sleep got more and more elusive. At this point in my life, some degree of insomnia is no longer the exception — it’s the norm. And I had a realization a little while ago that’s been helping me deal with it:

Falling asleep is no longer something that happens to me. It’s an activity. It’s something I do.

I can’t just lie down at the end of the day and expect sleep to happen. If I lie down and let my brain do whatever it’s inclined to do, it will stay up until at least four in the morning. At best, it’ll think about blogging ideas, book ideas, self-aggrandizing fantasies, re-casting of favorite TV shows, movie mashups, social plans, to-do lists, made-up theologies — it’ll just generally entertain itself. At worst, it’ll replay its long litany of fears and regrets and worst-case scenarios. What it will not do is shut up and go to sleep. It wants to be awake.

So to fall asleep, I have to go through a deliberate series of mental techniques. I have an assortment of mental images I bring to mind that help me fall asleep, images of totally comfortable and safe places: gently rocking boats on quiet lakes, huge beds with heaps of pillows and perfectly soft bedding. I often meditate when I’m trying to fall asleep, if the comfy mental images don’t work. When my train of thought starts to dissolve into disconnected nonsense, I have to focus on the nonsense: or more accurately, I have to focus/not-focus, in that meditative way where you keep your attention on your train of thought while letting it go where it’s going to go.

I also have a pre-trying-to-fall-asleep routine, consisting of a series of games I play on the phone in a particular order, followed by reading whatever book I’m reading. I know, I know, looking at electronic devices is lousy sleep hygiene, I’m looking at ways to wean myself off of it. But right now, this is what I’ve come up with to distract my mind from its anxieties and derail it into another track.

My mind, on its own, will not go into sleep mode. I have to consciously and intentionally put it there.

This creates a weird relationships with tiredness and exhaustion. Obviously, I’m more likely to go to sleep if I’m tired — but if I’m too tired, sleep becomes harder, not easier. It can mean being too tired to go through my falling-asleep routine. And it can mean being too tired to muster up the discipline to make myself do my routine. Even when I’m not exhausted, falling asleep is a battle between my executive function and the childish part of my brain that wants to do what it’s enjoying right now. When I’m exhausted, executive function rarely wins. So if I’m seriously tired, my brain will, paradoxically, stay up for hours.

Part of this is anxiety and post-trauma stuff. Falling asleep means loss of control: I’ve never been good at that at the best of times, and when I’m feeling freaked out, sleep can feel like death. Part of it is the flip side of that coin: my brain enjoys being awake and alive and thinking about stuff, and it’s reluctant to let go of that, even for a few hours. And part of it is almost certainly just physical. Insomnia is common with age, and it’s common with the meds I’m on.

Accepting this kind of sucks. I’m glad I’ve figured it out, it means I can get some sleep, but I’m not thrilled about it. Sleep is supposed to be a comfort, it was for years, and I don’t like feeling like it’s a combatant.

Other insomniacs — is this a thing for you, too? If so, what techniques help you? I don’t so much mean general insomnia techniques (although I do have those, like no chocolate after 7 pm and no email or Facebook for an hour before I go to bed, and I’m okay with hearing more). I’m more interested in this “falling asleep as a conscious activity” thing. Do you do it, too — and if so, how? And what about the meta? Have you found ways to make peace with this?

Comment policy: If you yourself have insomnia, I welcome suggestions and perspectives on managing it — but please frame them as what works for you, not as prescriptions for me or anyone else. If you don’t have insomnia, please don’t give advice of any kind. Thanks.

Insomnia, and Falling Asleep as an Activity
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15 thoughts on “Insomnia, and Falling Asleep as an Activity

  1. 1

    I have found the YouTube section called ASMR. And I don’t do the talking ones..but the crinkle ones and the tapping ones. It’s odd. It’s like falling asleep with a family moving around in the next room. I work nights so sudden noises or taps would wake me up. I seem to sleep through more of this if I have asmr going. I wear a sleep mask and just have the pleasant noise going.

  2. 3

    I have struggled with sleep problems (mostly delayed sleep phase) for my entire life. Working nights helps, though I struggle to stay awake in class and such. The biggest problem I have is STAYING asleep, rather than initially falling asleep – after a few hours I wake up.

    OTC medication (antihystamines) help, and wearing an eye mask has helped a lot, but mostly having the executive functioning skills to make myself go back to sleep is really hard for me. The only thing that seems to help, though it’s not always effective, is listening to certain audiobooks. They have to be not super interesting, and have a very calm male reader with no weird vocal quirks. The Bridge by David McCullough works well, as does The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich because I’ve actually listened through it enough times that nothing is new to me anymore.

    Luckily the Audible ap has a sleep timer. I set it for half an hour. If I’m still awake when it stops, I generally give up.

  3. 4

    I’m a beader; I like doing lots of different things with beads, though bead embroidery is my current thing. When I can’t sleep due to pain, I’ll bead. The process is somewhat meditative and relaxing, especially if I listen to a nature sounds album or some Buddhist chant while I do it.

    When my brain really, really wants to churn away like a mad hamster on a wheel, I’ll read. I choose the material carefully though; non-fiction, something that I’m intellectually interested in, but not something that is going to get me emotionally involved. That last bit is key. If I get emotionally wrapped up in it, then I’ll go to bed and the hamster will just have new reasons to run.

  4. 5

    I had a lot of the same issues falling asleep, but I recently went on CPAP. Weirdly, I’m finding it makes me fall asleep a lot faster. You’d think having to adjust to a face mask with a 1/2 tube coming out of it would make it harder to sleep, but I really conk out faster than I used to. My only theory at this point is that it sort of involuntarily makes you aware of/focus on your breathing, and doing that is supposed to be one of the keys for meditation/relaxation.

    I’ve also been using f.lux on the Mac to change the color balance of my screen to a warmer palette. It’s supposedly helpful in eliminating some of the impact that blue/white light shining in your eyes has on your sleep cycle. Can’t say it’s been a huge difference for me, but your mileage may vary. Sadly, no iOS version available, unless you’ve jail broken your phone.

  5. 6

    My ability to fall asleep depends clearly on my level of stress. Right now it fucking sucks with a job I’m actually underqualified for and lots of work. I “daydream” stories to keep my brain from thinking about work. There are a few that are particularly effective, usually because they’re about safety and being cared for.
    The next thing might be TMI, but I’ll share it anyway: masturbation. The hormones released relax me very much and it also helps against cold feet.

  6. 7

    I don’t know if I have insomnia, as such. That said, some things that sometimes help me fall asleep:
    * Earplugs. All I can hear is my own heartbeat and breathing. Usually this is a good thing, though sometimes it makes things worse.
    * Consciously physically relaxing my whole body, one limb at a time, more or less, starting at my feet and moving up. Sometimes I visualize gradually exhaling a black cloud within me with every breath.
    * Giving my wife a back rub.
    * Read a book (even on my phone).
    * Admit defeat, get up, type everything in my head into Evernote. Downside: All too often I find that there were only three things in there! 🙂
    * Sleep somewhere else, e.g. on the couch. I call it a “change of venue”. Sometimes this gets a cat-in-the-lap, which is also nice.
    * Lower the thermostat to make it cooler.

    @Jerome McDonough: re: f.lux: I recently discovered a similar setting in my iPhone, Night Shift. Settings -> Display & Brightness -> Night Shift. It might or might not do any good, I dunno yet.

  7. 8

    I don’t have any issues with staying asleep– you could drop a train next to my head and I’d hardly do more than roll over– but getting there, egad. All my life. Mostly I have formed an identity which consists, in part, of the label “night person.” I don’t actively try to fall asleep any more, I just accept it when it starts to happen, which is an improvement over the past when I’d fight sleep without really realizing I was doing so, or when I’d take so long falling asleep that I’d lose my sleep window and have to stay up all night so I wouldn’t miss an early alarm.

    What not trying to fall asleep looks like for me is usually going to bed or laying on the sofa with the TV on. If no TV is available then a book can do but there’s about a 50/50 chance that reading will keep my brain awake rather than lull it into slumber. If I turn the TV off too soon, my brain will latch onto some wistfulness or anxiety and marinate in it, so timing is key. Do not turn it off before I start drifting, make sure it’s on a channel that won’t give me nightmares (no movie channels!) if I doze off before hitting the clicker.

    Mostly I sleep around 5 or 6 hours a night and then play catchup by accidentally sleeping until noon every few weeks or so. It’s a well established pattern, and one I have come to accept, more or less.

  8. 10

    I got f.lux for my computer and Twilight for my Android phone to massively dim and redden my electronics before bed. It doesn’t lessen the intellectual stimulation, but it helps with the light keeping me alert. Along the same lines, I use only soft white light bulbs after dark, not daylight or true spectrum.

    I also like podcasts for storytelling that forces me to pay attention, yet slow down compared to reading or anxious thoughts. There’s even a podcast called Sleep With Me that is specifically meant to help you fall asleep – droning, soothing, rambling, kind of interesting but not too interesting…

  9. 11

    I wouldn’t say I have insomnia, but when my anxiety is out of control I have trouble falling asleep.
    I’ve discovered a podcast called Sleep With Me. I couldn’t even tell you what he talks about: for me his voice is like mental teflon, my brain just slides right off it, but because he’s actually talking and it isn’t just white noise, there’s still something to hold enough of my focus that I don’t start thought processes of my own. Most times, it works really well for me.

  10. 12

    One of my techniques is mainly concerned with reducing anxiety and making peace with my insomnia – as I lay there in the dark I repeat to myself, “A rest is almost as good as sleep. I’m quiet, I’m relaxed, and this alone will do me some good”. I try to enjoy the physical aspects of lying in bed, like a comfy mattress and warm blankets. This prevents me from getting into a negative feedback loop where worry about not sleeping is the main thing keeping me awake.

  11. Tim

    I share Benny’s success with audiobooks, and also use the half hour sleep timer partly to avoid endless rewinding the next day!

    It works best for me using a book I’ve read or listened to before, some favourites are Bill Bryson’s books which he reads himself – especially At Home, and also Richard Dawkins’ Ancestor’s Tale, but I think the key thing is either being very familiar with the book or not finding it too interesting. At best it’s like a bedtime story!

    Other factors: I’ve been much more physically active recently, lost some weight (something I owe a debt of gratitude to you for Greta, as I was greatly helped by your old blog posts on your journey there. My heartfelt thanks for sharing those.) I’ve also drastically reduced my caffeine intake and use f.lux and Night Shift mode on any devices I can. It’s hard to weed out which of these is any more effective than another, and still occasionally it just doesn’t work and that hamster runs all night. Good luck and good sleep folks.

  12. 14

    I’ve had insomnia since the rather tender age of 10. I’ve used various things others have talked about: audiobooks, cannabis, f.lux, change-of-venue (that’s what I’ve always called it too, @Larry Clapp! how funny is that?), purring cats, lowering the temperature, etc.

    The biggest thing that helped me was aggressive sleep hygiene. In the bed I have in the bedroom, I don’t read anything exciting, use my laptop or my phone, nap (for the most part), or do really kinky stuff. The bed is for cuddling cats and people, more-vanilla sex, and nighttime sleeping. Sometimes, I’ll watch a calm TV show or read non-exciting fiction in bed, but that’s with the intention of going to sleep. If I can’t sleep, then I go to the couch or the guest bedroom.

  13. 15

    One thing which helps me is doing slightly boring mental work, e.g. counting backwards from 100 in threes, or trying to think of a painter whose surname begins with a,b,c etc.
    Also seconding the eye mask.

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