Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Learning to Sleep Naturally

This is a topic I've learned a lot about during my recovery.  Learning to fall asleep without prescriptions or herbal remedies is one of the best things you can do to help yourself.  You can wean yourself off them, and the result will be much better feeling mornings! 

Bipolar specifically is a disorder of speed.  I think of it as like a computer that is either going too fast or too slow for it's design.  When you can't sleep it's because things are going too fast.  So the entire goal is to slow down.  My sleep process has 4 steps and takes about an hour:
  1. Make notes
  2. Slow down physically
  3. Slow down mentally
  4. Set intentions for sleep
But before you even get to the 4 steps, you should start planning for sleep at least an hour before.  Turn off the tv and the computer well before bedtime.  If you're listening to music choose something relaxing.  Make your bed environment as nice as possible.  These things seem obvious, but they all help signal yourself that you are serious about sleeping well.  Now, here are the details on the steps:

1.  Make Notes

So often I used to lie down for sleep, and then find myself thinking about all the things I have to do tomorrow.  Now I write them all down before I turn off the light.  Keep a notepad by your bed for this purpose.  If you think of more things after you lie down, it is best to turn the light back on and write them down right away.  Trust me, this will get you to sleep sooner.  If you try to "just remember" them, you spend so much effort "remembering" that it delays your sleep.  When you write it all down, it helps clear your mind.

2. Slow Down Physically

Get in bed and turn the lights very low.  State your intention:  "I intend to slow down my body and prepare for sleep."  This keeps you focused.  Relax.  There a lot of different relaxation routines out there.  Sex, by the way, is NOT recommended for insomniacs at bedtime, although earlier in the day or evening I think it IS helpful.  I have my Level 1 Reiki certification, and I will often do 20 minutes of Reiki on myself at this point.  Or, here is a really good relaxation routine I learned from tv many years ago:
  • Imagine that your left arm is very heavy.  Say to yourself 3 times "my left arm is heavy."  Feel your arm sinking into the bed.
  • Imagine that your right arm is very heavy.  Say to yourself 3 times "my right arm is heavy."  Feel your arm sinking into the bed.
  • Now apply the same routine to both arms at the same time.
  • Do both legs.
  • Arms and legs all together.
  • Now, imagine that your arms and legs are warm.  Say to yourself 3 times "my arms and legs are warm."  Feel how warm and heavy they are.
  • Imagine that your whole torso is warm, repeating the words 3 times.
  • Feel your heart beating.  Say to yourself "my heart is slow," 3 times.  Feel your heart slowing down.
  • Focus on your forehead and feel that it is light and cool.  "My forehead is cool," 3 times.
  • Finally, feel how much more relaxed you are.  Say "I am at peace," 3 times.
Sometimes I skip ahead to Step 4 at this point, I am so ready to sleep.  But, I am more likely to stay asleep and sleep better if I can do Step 3.

3. Slow Down Mentally

For me, this is the most important step.  If I feel off the next morning, it is usually because I skipped this step.  If you have trouble staying asleep, this is the most important step for you too.  Basically, it is a form of meditation, where the entire focus is on interrupting the cycle of internal chatter.

Many people feel they are bad meditators because they cannot stop their thoughts.  The benefit of meditation is from the effort, not the result.  As long as you keep trying, you are benefiting.

A meditation timer is a very, very helpful thing.  You don't want to be constantly wondering what time it is.  I have the Enso meditation timer, which I LOVE.  The best thing about it is that it has a choice of chimes, and you can set the volume pretty low, so you are not jolted out of your meditation by a shrill chime.  It is a little expensive, though, and most smart phones can download a timer app.  A digital kitchen timer or yoga timer will also work.  Don't use anything that ticks!

So, you are already lying relaxed in bed with the lights low.  Set your timer.  I generally do 20 minutes, but if you are a beginner meditator I would start with 5 or 10 minutes.  State your intention:  "I intend to slow down my mind and prepare for sleep." 

Choose a point of focus.  The most common one is your breath, which is a good one for many people.  I often have sinus issues, though, which makes focusing on my breath a little stressful, which is undesireable.  So I will focus on the sound of the furnace or fan.  Find something neutral and stick with it.  I will use the breath for the rest of this discussion, but you use what works best for you.

Feel your breath going in and out of your nose.  Focus on the sensations, cool air in, warm air out.  Think only about how the air feels going in and out.  As soon as you find yourself thinking about something else, stop, and refocus on your breath.  Don't beat yourself up, don't wonder why you started thinking about that, just stop, and refocus.  Keep doing that for the entire time.  Seems simple, right?

What this does, is that it breaks the cycle of all your worries and internal chatter that you are carrying from your day.  Tell yourself that during the meditation time there is nothing as important to think about as your breath.  You have already written down everything you need to do tomorrow, so you don't have to think about that.  You are just going to think about your breath.  That is the only important thing right now.

Sometimes I fall asleep before the timer goes off.  That's ok.  If you are still going when the timer chimes, you will notice that your thoughts are coming much slower now, and any sense of urgency is gone.

4. Set Intentions for Sleep

Turn off any lights, and get into your most comfortable sleep position.  If you are really sleepy now, jump ahead to stating your intentions.  If you are just feeling mellow, take a minute to appreciate how relaxed you are, and how comfy your bed is.  The sheets are nice, the pillow is nice, etc.  Keep your attention close, don't go off on a tangent about washing your curtains or organizing your closet.  Stay focused.

State your intentions.  I always cover all the bases:  "I intend to fall asleep quickly and easily, to sleep deeply and well, to have pleasant dreams, and to awaken refreshed and ready to go!"  I am almost always asleep within 5, sometimes 10 minutes of stating my intention to sleep. 

On the rare occasions when I am really wired, I find it is best to get up, turn the light on, and do something constructive.  Usually I will plan something, a project or an activity that has lots of steps, and write it all down.  If something is bugging me I will try to write down what it is and get to the core of the problem.  If I am awake late at night it is usually because I am a little hypomanic, and I know that I need less sleep at those times, so I don't worry about it.  It is very important not to worry.  If you are finding yourself worrying about anything, be clear with yourself that it is not important right now and you can think about it during the day if necessary.  Sometimes I repeat the meditation step, or restate my sleep intentions, and then I will sleep.

The longer you stick with this routine, the easier it gets, and you and your body learn what it takes to fall asleep and sleep well.  Don't expect miracles!  If you normally fall asleep around 3 am, don't expect to be asleep by 11.  Time your routine to end at about 2:45 am, and each night make it earlier by 15-30 minutes, depending on how it goes.  You want to build a habit of success.  A little bit of variation is natural, depending on your activity during the day.  But stick with it, and pay attention to how much better you are feeling in the morning.  That is the reinforcement that keeps you motivated.  Sweet dreams!