relaxation

10 tips to non-medicated sleep (and not counting sheep)

If anyone is not feeling stressed right now, please raise your hand.

I didn’t think so.

This COVID-19 pandemic, earthquakes, economic downturn, social isolation, being home 24/7, trying to educate stir-crazy kids, constantly sanitizing and cleaning every surface and anything that moves, (and the list goes on), is wrecking havoc on our health. Mental, physical, social, and emotional health is taking a nose dive.

Some of the common symptoms in this uncommon time are irritability, lack of motivation, fear, frustration, anger, hopelessness, and insomnia. Lack of sleep just exacerbates all the others. I’ve had insomnia off and on my whole life, thanks to genetics and an overactive mind. Every time I lay down my head on pillow and try to fall asleep, thoughts pour into my head like a flowing faucet. Literally a river of thoughts that won’t turn off. I’ve tried counting sheep, but that doesn’t work.

Once I took a vacation to Puerto Rico and did not sleep for 5 days. And that was on vacation when I should have been the most relaxed!

However, during this pandemic, I have slept incredibly well. That’s because I have learned how to fall asleep without drugs or counting sheep. On rare occasions, I’ve taken a Tylenol P.M. or Melatonin, and it’s been years since I’ve taken Ambien. I’m handling the current situation better because I get a full-night’s sleep. I know there are some who need to take sleep medication, but for those who want to explore other options, I’d like to share 10 tips with you. I start with the most obvious, small ideas and work up to the most powerful, big ones.

Number 10. 

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Eliminate any food and drink after 8:00 p.m. or earlier, if possible. No caffeinated drinks in the evening. Avoid drinking water right before bedtime so you don’t have to get up to go to the bathroom.

Number 9.

nap

No naps. Keep a regular daily schedule as much as possible. Sleep, or circadian rhythms, is your body’s patterns of knowing day from night. If you take a nap longer than 30 minutes, you disrupt that pattern by going too deep into sleep during daytime hours. If you must take a power nap, make it 5-10 minutes.

Number 8.

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Regular exercise. Even with the COVID-19, we are (especially ) encouraged to get outside, drink in some Vitamin D, and move our bodies. This is true All. The. Time. not just during a pandemic. With gyms closed for the time being, you’ll have to get creative and more determined. Every day I try to do some gardening, exercise on the stationary bike, or walk for 30 minutes around the neighborhood.

Number 7.

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Do not take a device to bed with you or watch TV in the bedroom. If you have trouble like I do, it could be that you are inputting to much information for your brain to process. My mind is like 101 computer tabs open, holding me hostage. Use the few hours before bedtime to NOT watch a movie or scroll through social media, watch the news, or anything that would open another tab to deal with. There’s a lot of science that cautions us to not have the light from screens tricking our eyes to thinking it’s daytime.

Number 6.

Young woman practicing yoga, touching toes in apartment

Relax and stretch muscles. You can have a body massage if you’re lucky enough to have someone to do that for you every night. If not, I’d suggest taking a hot bath, a long hot shower, and stretching. Yes, that’s right, I said “stretching.” There are amazing benefits to stretching out our muscles. You may be doing this before or after a workout which is great! If you do it before bedtime, you’ll find that stretching out releases endorphins, a great “feel good” chemical to your brain. Static stretching increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation. I can literally feel my body relaxing while I stretch. And when I wake up, I feel So. Good.

Number 5.

App-Store

Meditation apps. This tip is becoming rather popular now, with the Mindfulness Movement. I love that we are using our powerful minds to harness energy and direct it for good. Another similar idea is to have white noise to help soothe the mind.

Number 4.

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Insomnia is a by-product of anxiety for many people. Many people with anxiety and sleep disorders swear by weighted blankets. This may be the cure for you. Weighted blankets are filled with small objects like glass beads or metal pellets to make it heavy. The feeling of having something holding or hugging you close, like a blanket, is very calming. Research shows that weighted blankets are used in therapy known as “deep touch pressure stimulation” which aids in the production of sleep-help hormones

Number 3.

recorderYear ago, before cellphones, I was working full time in a very demanding job. My boss taught me a great trick to clear the mind at bedtime. She had a hand-held voice recorder with mini-cassette tapes inside. She kept it on her nightstand and when her faucet-thoughts started flowing, she reached for her recorder, and put those ideas on the tape. Once she could clear her mind by having something else keep her thoughts organized and safe, she could fall asleep. Today, we can use any app or “voice memo” or reminder on a cellphone. Some people prefer to get up and journal or write down their thoughts to have the paper remember it for them. Whatever you need, use it. 

Number 2.

breathing

Deep breathing. This has been a game changer for me. It came out of guided meditation practices. I don’t normally go through guided meditation these days, but I do the breathing that is so essential to relaxation. Like stretching (#6), deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and the supply of oxygen to your brain. Rather than counting sheep, I lay in bed and do the slow breathing in, counting 1-10, then hold, and release like slowing blowing through a straw, 1-5. Doing this helps me re-center, and focus on the breath. If my mind begins wandering, I bring it back to the breath. I don’t judge my wandering thoughts, or dwell on them, but gently guide them back with the breath. If you concentrate on this exercise, you will probably find, like me, that you have fallen asleep without even realizing it. It literally wears you out.

Drum roll….Number 1.

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Make friends with insomnia. This is something I discovered on my own, but it’s backed up by research. I had been fighting my insomnia like it was an enemy I took to bed each night. I wrestled with it, coaxed it, bribed it, bargained with it, resented it, and felt powerless by it. Insomnia was like a living presence that had control of me. I decided that the energy it took to fight it and the resentment I felt because of it was part of the problem. I decided that I needed to take back control. So I made friends with it. I didn’t judge it or myself anymore. Quite a few nights, I just lay there, at peace. I was in state of total relaxation all night and I didn’t let that upset me. The goal wasn’t to “get to sleep” anymore. I just enjoyed resting. I enjoyed the quiet. I began thinking of my blessings. I filled my mind with gratitude, and for the chance to spend just laying there. I welcomed it. When I did that, it changed my life. No longer did I feel a victim to insomnia. I fact, I never acknowledge I had insomnia anymore. Instead, I have a chance to lay in bed filled with gratitude.

These are the secret tips of a lifetime of trial and error. I feel compelled today to share them in the hopes it might help someone else who struggles with sleep disorder. Life is hard enough without being tired of the fight to sleep. I wish you all the best in your quest for rest.

Good luck, and good night.