I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know? – Ernest Hemingway
I’ve never been a particularly good sleeper. Whether it’s too light, broken or even non-existent, my mind and body have never really allowed for consistent, deep and uninterrupted rest.
My inability to slip into a trance once my head hits the pillow peaked in mid-2012 (which was ironic, given that it was in 2010 and 2011 that I purposefully survived on 4-5 hours of sleep every night, and the new year was supposed to be when I ‘caught up’).
I would, without fail, wake up every night at the intervals of 2am, 3am and 4:30pm. Why these times of the night, I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that the intermittent insomnia I experienced was driven by an overly active and analytical brain that refused to just relax. For too long, I believed I could think my way out of my depression, rather than allowing my feelings to come to the fore so I could manage them accordingly.
Applying this black-letter approach to a hugely idiosyncratic and personal illness was, of course, ill-advised. Not only could I not think my way out of my depression, but attempting to do so only exacerbated the issues I was facing.
Which brings me back to sleep.
It was only when I allowed myself to feel what I needed to feel, and stopped trying to intellectualise an emotional and psychological condition, that I was able to relax. Of course, it was excruciating to feel the full weight of particular feelings. But, by facing them head on, I was able to run the gamut of emotions required in the day, and once it was time for bed, I was prepared.
In short, worrying about and critically analysing my depression only made that depression worse.
It wasn’t a magical, one size fits all solution, however. There are a number of things I needed to do – and still do to this day – to ensure that I can have a good night’s sleep. And on the irregular occasion that I don’t have a pleasant slumber, I am able to retroactively identify what it is I did, or didn’t do, that prefaced it.
• I no longer spend time on my laptop – watching a TV show or movie, or perusing social media – before bed. The bright screen strains my eyes and keeps me up.
• I read at least half an hour every night before turning off the lights. I find it soothing and peaceful, which helps me transition to slipping into a stupor.
• I ensure that I have completed some form of physical activity that day, or even that evening, as this helps me feel like I have earned my sleep.
• I leave my phone on the other side of the room, so that I am not tempted to reach down, pick it up and scroll through the Facebook newsfeed again. If I wanted to do that, I’d have to get out of bed to do so…and in this cold winter, I’m not willing to get out from under the sheets.
• I write, in a notebook I keep on my bedside table, three good things that happened to me on that day. Being able to remind myself of positive experiences or occurrences puts a smile on my face, and negates any stress I might have on that day.
I’m not a medical professional. But there’s no denying the nexus between sleep and mental health, both positively and negatively – good sleep helps foster our emotional and physical resilience, just as a poor sleep hinders it. Anyone who has found themselves grumpy and irritable after a bout of insomnia can attest to this.
My advice is to establish what rituals might improve your sleep and, conversely, which ones might prevent it from occurring.
These rituals won’t always be fool-proof; I had an awful sleep a few nights ago, for example. But putting them in place gives me the emotional security of knowing I’ve done all I can do ensure a peaceful slumber and, more often that not, they work. At the very least, my sleep is far better these days than it used to be.