I have no idea how many people experience genuine insomnia in their lives. Maybe everyone has it at least once, maybe brought on due to stress or self induced through too much intake of stimulants like caffeine. Chronic and repetitive insomnia though is something I’m confident very few people do suffer from, but it is often one people can sympathise with as sleep is such a precious thing.

My experience

For over a decade now I have had regular bouts of insomnia resulting in sleeping patterns which either varied massively or simply didn’t exist beyond a snatch of sleep here and there. It was probably initially brought on by stress of my final year exams at university, so strong it became that a professor actually gave me a medical pass on one minor exam because he could see I was physically incapable of continuing. After that I fell into a regimen of sleeping around 2-3 hours a day between around 5am and 8am varying to perhaps just an hour of fitful sleep or some blessed days where I got in excess of 4 hours.

Often I can tell several hours in advance when I am not going to be able to sleep. In much the way you know you simply can’t continue when you are truly tired and simply have to stop for sleep before getting up early, I can feel by a certain point in the evening that I simply won’t get to sleep when I want to. To be able to fall asleep reliably, or just quickly, is something I envy in people because it is something I have been unable to do for many years. So many in fact that I don’t remember what it is like to rhythmically fall asleep and wake up around the same time.

What this has resulted in is a sleeping pattern these days which varies greatly, and having not run with the 9-5 schedule in a few months it hasn’t been getting better lately. Sometimes I will fall asleep at a reasonable hour (which by my standards is anything from 10pm to 2am) and wake in the early morning. The difficulty though is often because I haven’t slept well for the days in the lead up to this day I end up sleeping longer, often into the middle of the day, which of course then throws off attempts to fall asleep that night.

Solutions tried

Over time I have tried a huge number of remedies: over the counter drugs, proscribed drugs from the doctor, herbal remedies, alcohol, exercise (yes, all kinds of exercise), mental routines, old wives remedies (hot milk, with a touch of honey, in a warm mug) and many more. Often they haven’t worked, or have been so inconsistent that it is unreliable.

When my insomnia hasn’t been as bad for a period of time I often find that stretching out, wiggling my fingers and toes, rotating ankles and wrists, gently moving arms and legs then flexing my spine helps to bring on that feeling of preparedness to sleep. However I can rarely feel comfortable and drop off to sleep straight away.

In extremis I will have to reset my body clock by staying up all night deliberately, aiming to be awake for over 24 hours to force my body into a state of sheer physical exhaustion and need to sleep. Often I will need to do this every few days for weeks on end with varying degrees of success as sometimes I simply fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon.

Making a new habit

Over the last few weeks I have been focusing more and more on my patterns, and thus trying to find a way to create a new habit. In essence a healthy sleep pattern where I go to bed before midnight and wake up early enough in the morning to lead a normal day is my ultimate goal, and something I am adding to my new years resolutions for 2013. My aim with this blog is to solidify how I am going to achieve that, and maybe help others find a way to beat their own insomnia through making their own choices.

Working backwards

As a standard I want to start the days work at 09:00 as is the norm for pretty much anyone who works in the service sector like I do, which allowing for time after getting up to shower, eat breakfast and commute (which while I freelance is realistically speaking my morning skim of Reddit and Google Reader feeds) means being up at 08:00 as a bare minimum. If I want to go to the early morning swim session at my local pool for half an hour of lengths I would need to be leaving the house at 07:00 approx, but I’ll leave that for later.

The first hurdle

In reality I know that I am not a morning person, I am grumpy and slow to do anything first thing. Guilty very much of hitting the “snooze” function all too often this will be the first and possibly hardest part of forming my new habit. Part of the cause is that classic – human apathy, just not wanting to get up and go, usually brought on by a lack of sleep. It is worsened by the fact I rarely have anything prepared for the morning, so I think this is the first step to resolving this issue.

I like a day that is a mix of both prepared plan and a random element, something my varying psychometric test results over the years has helped me to realise fully. So taking it simple, once I get up I should have something there for breakfast but I have the choice of eating it before or after my shower, as well as a variety of options open to me. That and making sure there are some warm clothes I can grab and put on means I can avoid that “Ugh, its cold outside my duvet” thinking and actually get up.

Of course being the grumbling morning person I am the breakfast options need to be relatively simple and quick which rules out the fry up during the week. Having rediscovered my love of porridge that gives me a warm option which can be mixed up using raisins or currants and cinnamon for some difference in flavour, and as I keep some weetabix and rice crispies in stock for minime that gives me something for other days. I just need to make sure there are clean bowls and not stacked on the side waiting to be washed … Going just a little further I do enjoy a bowl of fruit so in due course I’ll try and get back into the habit of making up some fruit salads for the fridge.

Actually waking up

Of course all the preparation is pointless if I don’t actually get up! Fortunately I have found that on my phone I can use the Alarm Clock Plus to set a mathematical challenge to wake myself up and not just press a button in my sleep. This is a great little app and I thoroughly recommend it to any android users looking for an alarm clock with options to suit. My plan is to have the alarm set for 07:30 and then again at 08:00 so that I get a kick and a backup to make sure I do get up on time. Maybe in the future I won’t need both, sometimes I have managed to get up after a first buzz and turned off the alarm during breakfast, but for now I’m planning for my failure to get into the habit straight away.

On top of setting an alarm I know that the ideal of not eating less than 12 hours from when you plan to wake up actually works reasonably well. Whenever I am resetting my body clock I always make sure I eat regular small amounts through the night in order to keep my body going, and then have a proper breakfast and lunch followed by small dinner around 17:00. This means no eating after 19:30 in the evening going forwards, something which may prove a test of my willpower I suspect.

Finally of course I have to actually go to sleep at a reasonable time, which means going to bed in anticipation of that. Apparently the average person takes between 5 to 10 minutes to actually fall asleep once getting into bed. You lie there and pretend to be asleep, eventually convincing your body that you are and the brain drifts off. So if I want to get 8 hours sleep I need to be asleep by 23:30, which means trying to sleep by 23:15 and with my habit of reading before sleep means I need to go to bed around 22:30.

Establishing the cycle

This isn’t going to take for me straight away, I know that there will be nights where I can’t get to sleep on time, so there are going to be some rules with regards to trying to sleep I will try to follow to start pushing my body into that pattern.

If it gets to 03:00 then I plan to stay up all night. The reasoning is that the human body goes through 90 minute cycles during sleep, from light to deep sleep passing through R.E.M. somewhere in there, and thus there would only be half of the night left for me to sleep. Not to mention that by that point I will have been in bed but awake for at least 4 hours.

Similarly I don’t intend on going to bed before 21:00 if it can be helped. Just like trying to get up at the right time I don’t want to push my sleep cycle the other direction either. Particularly since most of my hobby time happens in the evening during the week, and I’d like to stay happy as well as sleeping properly.

So, in summary …

The rules

  1. Have breakfast options ready
  2. Set alarm and backup alarm
  3. Get out of bed at 08:00, use that willpower
  4. Don’t eat after 19:30
  5. Go to bed after 21:00 and by 22:30
  6. If still awake at 03:00 stay awake

I’ll let you know how it goes later I guess!

Anyone else have habits they are trying to break or change? What are you trying to do about it? Let me know in the comments.