I’ve been suffering from insomnia for as long as I can remember. Even as a child, I have very vivid memories of screaming and crying, never wanting to go to sleep. I’m not sure why — I did have frequent nightmares as a kid, so maybe that was the cause of it. But, being a very sensitive person, I think this nightly trauma affected me on a deeper level than it does most kids. And as a result, as a small child, I stayed up late with my parents on a nightly basis, never really developing a bedtime. I literally have memories of watching ’90s-era Saturday Night Live and the David Letterman Show with my parents at night…and I’m pretty sure those shows aired at a time of night when 5-year-olds shouldn’t be awake.
Needless to say, I became conditioned to staying up late and fearing sleep. And as an adult, my problems only got worse. I cannot tell you how horrible insomnia can be. If you’ve experienced it, you know what I mean. You feel completely powerless. As the clock ticks toward 2, 3 and 4 a.m., you begin dreading the following day, knowing you’re going to be running on two or three hours of sleep max. Some things are just different for you if you have insomnia. When friends or romantic partners tell me they’re “going to bed early to get 8 hours of sleep,” that literally means nothing to me. I can go to bed early all I want, but there’s no guarantee that I’m going to fall asleep within two or even three hours. That concept is just completely foreign.
I’ve seen what sleep medications can do to people. I’ve never been interested in prescription meds, but I’ve tried pretty much everything else, including “going to bed” at the same time every night and forcing myself to wake up early every morning despite having had only four hours of sleep. Nothing worked.
But, there’s a happy ending to this story. About five months ago now, something remarkable began to happen: I realized that certain behaviors I’d been repeating nightly were calming me down at an earlier hour, helping me feel relaxed enough to get ready for bed. Then, I started adding a few new things into my nighttime routine and, to no one’s greater surprise than mine, I found myself drifting off within 30 minutes of lying down to sleep.
IT WAS LIKE WINNING THE LOTTERY. And it kind of happened by accident, to be honest. In the past few months, my quality of life has improved dramatically. I no longer fear going to bed. And frankly, I don’t sweat it if I don’t fall asleep right away. Instead, I just focus on looking forward to this relaxing nighttime routine. You are going to find that some of the tips in my routine are things that other people advise against—but I don’t care. This is what works for me, and if it can help anyone else who suffers from insomnia, it’s worth sharing.
Before 8 p.m.
Before I start my nighttime routine, I get a few things out of the way. I take care of my skin by washing my face and doing my nightly skincare routine. I stop eating around 7:30, and then I sip on either peppermint tea or triphala tea (I’ll write more about this later). I catch up with my friends, family and boyfriend, and then I say goodnight. When I head upstairs to get ready for bed, I am no longer available — including via phone. After 8 p.m., it’s me time.
8-9 p.m.: Watch, Read or Listen to Calming Media
So, here’s the part that a lot of sleep experts advise against. I literally log on to YouTube two hours before I want to go to sleep. Most experts will tell you that looking at a screen can jolt your brain into “awake” mode, as the blue light in the screen signals to your brain that it’s daytime, suppressing the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
That’s all well and good, but anyone who has any form of anxiety knows that repetitive media (un-stimulating things that you’ve probably seen numerous times and that are calm or happy in nature) can go a long way toward calming you down. (Hello, Bob Ross.)
So, I turn on YouTube and watch my favorite videos about things that I already know. It’s calming, it’s repetitive, and it makes me happy. If reading books or listening to podcasts is more your jam, then go for that. My sister loves to watch Gilmore Girls every night before bed. We’ve both seen the show seven or eight times through (I’ll be real: she’s probably seen it more like eleven or twelve), so it’s not as though she’s glued to her TV…it just has a repetitive, calming effect because it makes her happy and she knows what to expect.
BUT, there’s one caveat. If, like my sister and me, you prefer visual media, it is important to block that blue light that can tell your brain to wake up. There are actually ways to do this. I downloaded f.lux, an app that automatically changes my computer screen’s color in order to block blue light. It’s synced to a timer. So, my computer automatically changes to a warmer, less bright tone at 8 p.m., and then gets progressively darker until 10.
You can also buy blue light-blocking goggles. They’re real sexy. My favorites (they’re only $9) are the Uvex Skyper Blue Light Blocking Goggles.
9 p.m.: Turn On My Essential Oil Diffuser
Essential oils are a fabulous way to relax and calm down. The science behind aromatherapy is actually pretty stunning; scent can dramatically influence mood, and in the case of getting read for bed, it can go a long way toward making you sleepy.
I use this oil diffuser ($30), which I personally love. I like it for a few reasons: 1. it’s cute, 2. it has a timer on it so you can diffuse your scents for 1, 3 or 6 hours, and 3. it also has a built-in gentle light that comes in a whole bunch of relaxing colors. I use this as a nightlight of sorts. I usually set my light to a deep purple color and scent the room with lavender essential oil, though sometimes I’ll throw peppermint or eucalyptus in there. But there are plenty of other oils that can be extremely relaxing, such as vetiver, bergamot, chamomile, frankincense and ylang ylang.
9-9:30 p.m: Foam Roll or Gentle Yoga in Silence
Next, I take out my foam roller and slowly, rhythmically roll out my muscles. Foam rolling is great for the lymphatic system, and can also reduce muscle tension and improve cellulite. There are TONS of health benefits to it, actually, so I’ll elaborate more in another post. But suffice it to say, it can be very relaxing, much like a little self-massage.
Sometimes, if I’m in the mood, I’ll do some gentle yoga instead. And by gentle, I mean REALLY gentle. You don’t want to get your heart rate up, or you could risk “waking up” your body. Don’t do any backbends either…backbends cause the heart rate to quicken, having an energizing effect.
Whichever option I choose, I do this in silence, basking in the gentle purple light and fragrance emanating from my essential oil diffuser. I try to focus on the scent of the oil, the feeling in my muscles as I stretch them out, and the gentle bubbling sound that the diffuser makes.
9:30: Self Foot and Hand Massage
This part is short, but I really enjoy it. I give myself a little self-massage, concentrating on eliminating tightness and stress in the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands. I use this fragrance-free moisturizer, which is also available at Thrive Market and Whole Foods, because it’s perfect for sensitive skin.
9:45 p.m.: THE MOST IMPORTANT PART: Listen to a Podcast and Fall Asleep
LISTEN TO A PODCAST?! WHAT YOU TALKIN’ ABOUT, MAGS??
Yep, I listen to a really monotone, generally unexciting podcast every. single. night. I know that some “sleep experts” say you should seek out total quiet when you’re trying to go to bed, but the opposite is true for me (and many people with insomnia). Here’s why.
The reason that many of us can’t sleep at night is because we are unable to turn off our minds. Yes, theoretically, meditation should be able to help us develop this skill over time. But my meditation practice is something that I do actively, during the day, when I’m fully conscious and awake. It may strengthen my mind enough that someday I can shut it down easily and will no longer need podcasts. But for now, listening to a podcast occupies my mind so that I can fall asleep while I’m listening to it. I’m not going to lie: This has worked like a charm.
Currently, I’m listening to History of the Crusades. I hate to mention a podcast for falling asleep to it, as that will make it sound super boring (and this podcast is actually brilliant!), but I do think you should pick a subject that doesn’t exactly invigorate you. You want it to capture your attention, but not leave you spellbound. For me, that’s the subject of history. And you also want to choose a podcast with a relatively gentle speaker, rather than someone who’s laughing a lot or talking excitedly.
…As a bonus, I have learned TONS about the history of Europe and the Middle East, all within the 10 minutes it takes me to fall asleep. 🙂
I hope this routine will help you as much as it has helped me! If you have suffered from insomnia, you know how debilitating it can be.
Do you have a nighttime routine that’s really helped your insomnia? Maybe what works for you will work for someone else. Please share your own nighttime routine below so others can try it out!