My best talent is my ability to sleep. Most nights I lie down, read a few pages in my book, and fall asleep before I know it. I may sleep until the next morning or wake up for a bit, but I fall back asleep quickly. I think my secret is knowing that my sleep/wake cycle is normal. If I can’t sleep, that’s normal. If I can sleep, that’s normal too, so whatever comes my way, I accept it. I am a sleep genius. Unconscious by 11:30, up at 6 or 7. Keeping to the same sleep schedule is one of my tactics that ensures a good night’s sleep.
It wasn’t always that way. I had terrible nightmares from childhood until my thirties. I’d often feel afraid to go to sleep, as I could sense bad dreams on the doorstep of my unconscious. Sometimes I even knew which of my recurrent horrible visions was on my trail. They were stalking me—I could smell them. I even slept, dreamt, woke up in my dream thinking I had evaded the monster, only to find out that I hadn’t really awakened at all, and the monster was still there, ready to get me. And he had friends. And now I didn’t know if I was asleep or if I was awake. And there was nothing I could do except hide under the covers and wait and hope for morning.
The seeds of these dreams were planted in early childhood by my very difficult family; my therapist and I dug them up and out together. I started psychotherapy when I was around 30 years old, not because of my bad dreams but because of my waking life, which I found unacceptable and wanted to change. Of course, I talked about dreams when they came up. After a few years of therapy, my dream life changed to what it is now, mostly peaceful and often memorable, and I became the good sleeper that I am today. I have never taken a sleeping pill, although I think probably they can be helpful in some instances.
So how did I get to be a good sleeper? The emotional difficulties I was experiencing were slowly changing with the help of my therapist, who taught me how to take better care of myself. My daily life was structured, interesting, and calm, even though I had to work very hard. My yoga practice became steadier, and I learned to trust myself. Yoga and therapy together gave me tools to learn who I was deep inside and what I needed to have a good life. I became much less anxious and depressed. I’m lucky to have had fine teachers to help me along the way.
Sometimes I go to sleep and then wake up at 4 a.m. Always around that time. What happens if I wake up? I look at the clock and say to myself, “Oh, it’s 4 a.m., that figures.” Then I relax with deep, regular breaths. I might recite a mantra. I don’t count sheep; I count blessings and feel grateful. Most importantly, I don’t get angry or afraid. Often when people wake up in the middle of the night they get angry or anxious because they aren’t asleep, and then they decide that they can’t sleep and get more upset, and they lie awake feeling worse with every passing minute. If something like this happens to you, it might be helpful to get out of bed and go to another room and wait until you feel sleepy.
Occasionally pain issues cause people to wake up, in which case the pain must be addressed in some way. When this happens to me, I gently massage the painful area—usually my arthritic knee—or I might, very rarely, take an analgesic.
What if you wake up feeling worried and afraid about something and you just can’t get those nasty thoughts out of your mind? Just as you massaged your painful knee, you can massage your aching brain by switching channels to concentrate on more pleasant thoughts, sometimes even the opposite of what’s on your mind. For example, instead of, “I didn’t, I couldn’t, I won’t be able,” you might remind yourself of what you can do and have done, and what more you might be able to do in the future.
Here are 15 things I do (or don’t do) before I go to bed. You can try them, if you like.
- No rushing around before bedtime. Gradually reduce your activity.
- Do something relaxing, perhaps a few yoga poses such as easy forward bends or legs up against the wall, or some gentle stretching.
- Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
- Shut off the computer, phone, etc., an hour before bed.
- Try not to eat or even snack right before you go to bed. Give yourself a couple of hours between eating and sleeping.
- Finish the chores ahead of time—clean the kitchen, take out the garbage. Don’t wait until the last minute.
- Avoid too much stimulation. No murder movies.
- No crossword puzzles, chess, or anything that might call up the competitive spirit or get your brain over-activated.
- Read something peaceful.
- Listen to calming music.
- Don’t fight to finish what you’re doing, no matter how enjoyable. If you’re sleepy, turn out the light. There’s always tomorrow.
- Make your bed a happy, comfortable place to be.
- Use essential oils—maybe lavender, which is calming; spray it on your pillow and sheets and enjoy the beautiful scents.
- Relish the feel of soft sheets and quilts.
- Make sure your bedroom has enough fresh air and is a comfortable temperature.