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One of the biggest problems that has been with me from even my earliest years has been insomnia. For as long as I can remember I have struggled not only to fall asleep but also to get back to sleep after having woken up during the night. The night before I began writing this article, I woke up at about 3am and was forced to stay awake for a further hour and thirty minutes before my body was able to fall back asleep. Over the years I have gained a few tricks for helping with insomnia which I will share with you. But first a story.
When I was child my mother passed away due to cancer which she had been battling for a number of years. I was maybe 4 - 5 years old. I have practically no memories about who she was or our relationship. Even though I was present at the wake and at the funeral, I don’t think I ever truly confronted that reality and so I have never been able to effectively deal with it. This early trauma, I think, might have been the first trigger to any and all future mental conditions including my insomnia. I often feel very relaxed during my day but the minute my head touches my pillow I get a sense of being overwhelmed, as if my brain was saving everything I should have thought about for that day just for bed.
Do not get me wrong, I do not sit awake at night and think about who my mother was, but rather this was my first experience as a young child that things can go wrong, in fact, things can go very wrong and they need to be dealt with or else they will continue to plague you throughout your life, I never dealt with her passing and it still gets to me from time to time. Take something small that has happened to during your average day. I don’t know about you but if I have an argument or a disagreement during the day it will be in my head all evening waiting to present itself fully, once I get into bed of course.
One thing I have learned about insomnia is that overthinking is your worst nightmare, and forcing yourself to sleep will not help! Say it again! If your body does not want to sleep you will make yourself feel even worse by sitting and thinking about it. This works particular well when you have woken up in the middle of the night; if you find yourself lying bed awake for no reason, do not lie there with your eyes closed for hours because it will not work, get up and read or do something relaxing (NO SCREENS), have a caffeine free tea or some water. The most important thing is accepting your situation and roll with it. Often you might just have to accept that it will not be your night for sleeping, but you have a much better change the next night for a good sleep! Also, don’t nap!
During one of my midnight, sleep deprived google searches for things that might help I stumbled across an app called “Headspace”. At the risk of sounding like I am being paid for advertising an app, which I am not (though I would love to be!), this one has been really great for me getting on track with anxiety and mindfulness. I began using headspace before I’d go to bed. If you are unfamiliar with the headspace platform, you are basically met with a number of different guided meditation sessions from which you can pick the length of time you would like to do it. I would normally select the 10 to 15 minute “unwind” before trying to sleep. A very soothing voice takes you through your breathing and what to do with your mind when trying to fall asleep and I was completely over the moon with how it was working. I would get into bed, put it on and be asleep before it had finished. I believe the effectiveness does not come from the mediation itself, but rather it comes from focusing your mind on a task that is not so engaging that it keeps you up but not so dull that it allows your mind to wonder. A fine line to walk, believe me!
For me, the app was that perfect middle ground and I was able to follow it enough that my mind was active but not so active that I could fall asleep without thinking too much about it.
As I said before, closing your eyes and trying to force sleep might be one of the worst things you can do. I used the Headspace apps free version for a couple of nights before I was convinced I needed the paid version which, as a student, I couldn’t really afford. One evening whilst scrolling through Spotify I noticed, Headspace was free for students with a Spotify account!
Needless to say I was very excited and instantly signed up. I know I am rambling a little bit I swear it is linked, because those 5-10 minutes or 15-20 minutes a day of working through your selected meditation is the very essence of mindfulness. Not the meditation itself but rather the practice of self reflection. The ability to sit and be with yourself both calmly and comfortably without constant overthinking and anxiety is what mindfulness is all about.
Believe me, I didn’t just get the app and suddenly my insomnia was cured, nor did I just accept my mothers death nor did I accept any of the bad things that have ever happened in my life, but I took the first step and that is the most important thing you can do. The app might not work for you long term but it is a first step. Once you have accepted that something is wrong and that you need to change you have started a mindfulness journey. The difference between then and now, for me, is simple.
I still have insomnia but I no longer lie awake at night and think about all the sleep I am missing out on because again that just makes things worse. Now, I get up and I breath for 5 minutes, or I read for as long as I need. Sometimes I make tea (I know I said no caffeine but I am an absolute sucker for breakfast tea and a tonne of honey). If I do not make it back to sleep, that is okay! Because I know tomorrow night I will.
What I am trying to say is that calmness and inner discipline is what is getting me through the nights when I think I’ve had enough and just want to take a sleeping tablet (I used to take “Melatonin” which leaves you feeling like s*** the next day, I do not encourage sleeping tablets for long term help, maybe they are okay for one or two nights if you have a reason and a medial professional has given you the all clear, but remember that painting over a dent in your car doesn’t fix the dent - you need to fix your problems not mask it and tablets won’t fix it - but more on this next time), and I won’t lie to you, it’s really damn hard to master your thoughts, I have been practicing mindfulness for a number of years and I am not even close to it but what I can do is be with my thoughts peacefully, allow them to play themselves out however many times it takes and to calmly set them aside when I am ready to sleep.
I am not a professional. I am not a doctor and I am not a therapist. I am just a regular old student, getting through a music degree who struggled for years with mental issues, found a way of pulling myself out of those holes and is now sharing what has happened in the hopes that it might help even one person out there and if it does I will be happy. So if you take anything from reading these little anecdotes and stories so far let it be this;
Absolutely, undeniably and unequivocally the only thing that will ever help you with your mental health is you!
Get your own mind together enough to say “I am taking the first step to make this right” and then take it! Learn to stop overthinking about the world or about that person who hurt you (chasing down that bully from high school won’t help). Learn to be by yourself and learn to focus your mind. Be mindful about who you are and what YOUR brain is doing.
Accept the bad things that have happened to you, because bad things happen to everybody, and start taking the steps to move on. The only thing that has ever helped my insomnia long term, has been learning to be with myself, forget about the past (because it is done and gone) and just being in the present with the people I know today and the way I feel right now.
Published in MinfulDevMag issue #5 – Back to Issue TOC