Update 1/4/2013: I adjusted some details to better reflect my even-more evolved sleeping habits.
Yesterday I shared some of my tips and tricks to help you join the “nine is the new eight” snooze club. Today, I’m going to tell you what I do when I wake up in the middle of the night – from a dream, to pee, or just because – and need to get back to sleep.
Make up a story.
One of the ways I’ve learned to trigger sleep is by telling myself a story. Like any good ritual element, it’s the same story every night, vividly imagined in great detail. I like to think about it as active dreaming: I’m consciously imagining a dream while I’m awake to trick myself into falling asleep and maybe, if I’m lucky, continuing that delicious dream in my subconscious.
And now, in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll even share what my active dream is. This is my fall-asleep-fantasy when my mind is conspiring against me and won’t let me nod off.
I’ve just received some of the best news of my life: I’ve been invited to follow Social Distortion on their world tour to chronicle the whole thing in a blog for fans. Today is the day that I’m meeting Mike Ness and the rest of the band in person. Our appointment is at the Continental Club where they’re doing a soundcheck before their exclusive, invite-only show that night.
When I walk into the Continental – cool, dark, loud – they’re playing “Ball and Chain.” I try to hide in the shadows so I can watch without disrupting the band. After a few songs, Mike Ness (Mr. Mike Ness!) looks down from the stage, gives me a nod, and says in his just-gargled-with-gravel voice, “What do you wanna hear, writer girl?”
I somehow find my voice and request “Highway 101.”
Usually I’m asleep before the whole song is played through.
The idea is to envision a “happy place” that you want to visit in your dreams: an idyllic beach, a stroll along the Mediterranean, a conversation with a loved one… whatever. Visualize yourself there and instruct yourself that when the story is half over, you’re going to fall asleep and continue the story in your dreams.
NOTE: This sleep-story has been updated in my noggin Now, when I can’t sleep, I imagine myself walking the cobblestone streets of Prague. It’s chilly, the air smells fresh, and I’m just wandering, enjoying the sites and sounds of the Old Town Square.
Relax your body.
When I’m antsy and can’t stop flipping my pillows and smoothing the blanket, I do a deep relaxation-visualization exercise that, when done properly, lowers the heart rate and relaxes the body. Here’s how to do it:
Lie on your back with eyes closed, arms a comfortable distance away from your body with palms facing up, legs comfortably apart with feet gently falling naturally toward the outside of your body mid-line. You might want to remove the pillows from under your head so you’re lying flat.
Quiet your body, and imagine that your limbs and torso are getting heavy.
Focus on your breathing: inhale for four counts and exhale for eight counts through your nose. Turn your attention to your rib cage and envision your torso gently expanding on the inhale and contracting on the exhale. It’s all seamless and easy and smooth…
When your breathing is rhythmic and flowing, imagine a warm, gentle sun shining on you. It’s warm but not bright, so your eyelids stay relaxed. Feel the sun easing the tension from your face. Relax your eyebrows… your jaw… your neck… your tongue inside your mouth. Continue the rhythmic breathing and feel your head grow heavy.
Now the sun begins to move across your body. Visualize each body part as the sun warms the muscles…
The sun moves to your chest. Your shoulders relax into the bed as your chest expands and contracts with your breath. Your ribcage and abdominal muscles are relaxed. Your torso feels heavy and sinks gently into the bed.
The sun moves to your left arm, and its warmth radiates from your shoulder to your elbow to your wrist to your hand. Your arm is heavy and relaxed. Now the sun moves over your right arm: shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand. Your right arm sinks into the bed.
Now the sun moves to your waist and hips. Your muscles relax further and continue to feel heavy. The warmth moves from your left hip to your left knee, your calf, your ankle, and your foot… slowly relaxing each muscle group. Then the right hip, knee, calf, ankle, and foot. Your whole body is now relaxed and quiet. Your limbs feel both heavy and weightless.
Return your focus slowly to your breathing: in for four counts, out for eight counts. Imagine your torso gently, slowly, effortlessly expanding and contracting.
I rarely make it through the whole exercise before falling asleep. If I do make it the entire way, I feel very calm and sleep is usual not far off.
This is also an excellent exercise when work, family, or life in general has you feeling like a rubberband that’s about to break. If you do this routine outside of bed, you might want to cover up with a sweater or light blanket; you can get a little chilly when you deeply relax and control your breathing. At the end of the exercise, come out of the relaxed mode by slowly wiggling your fingers, then gradually opening your eyes. Return to full consciousness and slowly move into a standing position.
I don’t count sheep. I count stairs. Backwards.
I imagine a staircase like this one from the Dr. Seuss book Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?…
… a pink, floating set of stairs in a dark, comforting, edgeless space. I imagine myself in my leopard pjs, standing at the top, and as I walk down the stairs slowly, one at a time, I count backwards from 100. 100… 99… 98… 97…
True story: I’ve never made it further than 68.
My dad is a chronic bad sleeper… in his bed. But put him on the couch with an afghan or in a La-Z Boy with his feet propped up, and he’s off to dreamland. (Update 4/6/11: Since switching to a paleo diet in 2010, my dad is no longer a bad sleeper. He is a regular sleeper. How great is that?!)
Sometimes when the bed just isn’t working for me, I try the couch as a last-ditch effort. I grab a blankie and the throw pillows that are usually just decoration on the couch, and curl up. Zonk.
Give into it.
Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to hang out with Morpheus. Try not to be too stressed out by that, because you just make yourself more miserable.
If none of the tricks I’ve shared work, and you’re lying in bed, torturing yourself with watching the clock, GET UP. Go to another room and flip through a magazine, read a book, watch a late movie, cook something… do anything to take your mind off not sleeping.
After half an hour, talk yourself back into bed and if you’ve missed a significant amount of your nightly sleep, consider killing your alarm and skipping your workout the next day. Truly restful, restorative sleep is as important to your training as the actual training.
Back under the blankie, try one of the exercises above again. If it doesn’t help, get up and take advantage of the extra time in your day – then try to squeeze in a nap of 30 to 90 minutes sometime before 5:00 p.m. If you make it to dinner – cranky but still vertical – skip the nap and get your fanny to bed at 9:00 p.m. … maybe with a spoonful of Sunbutter coconut butter in your mouth.
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