The Anti-Sleep Routine That’s Actually Helped My Insomnia

published May 11, 2021
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Take a bath. Put on some lavender-scented lotion. Dim the lights at 10 p.m. Have a mug of Sleepytime tea. Read for 20 minutes. Get in bed. Put on eye mask. Hope for the best.

Does any part of this nighttime routine feel familiar to you? If it does, you’re in good company. It’s the routine I tweaked and tried to perfect it for years, in the quest for a fool-proof bedtime formula. I built it step by step, incorporating elements suggested by my therapist, my doctor, friends, and the real ones over on the insomnia subreddit. Who needs get-rich-quick schemes when you have a fall-asleep-quick scheme?

But — as you might guess if you, like me, deal with insomnia regularly — the formula didn’t always work. In fact, it usually didn’t. I would do each step dutifully, checking it off as I went, in pursuit of my ultimate goal of head empty, no thoughts, just sleep. In February, the routine had become so ineffective that I hit rock bottom. I found myself wide awake in bed at 3 a.m., Googling, “I forgot how to fall asleep.”

And that’s when I stumbled across the advice on (where else?) Reddit that started to change my relationship to sleep and my bedtime routine: I had to throw out the routine altogether.

Several Redditors suggested reading “The Sleep Book” by Dr. Guy Meadows as a step toward developing a better perspective on nighttime and falling asleep. I bought it immediately and began working my way through the five-week guided program. Some of the advice was things I’ve known for years: keep a regular bedtime, avoid caffeine after early morning, get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, only use your bed for sleep and sex.

But there was some advice that I hadn’t already heard, and it changed my mindset so much that I noticed a complete 180 in how I approached sleep within a week. Here is the no-routine breakthrough that has actually somewhat successfully worked (if you struggle with sleep, you’ll know that that’s a ringing endorsement).

Don’t define yourself by your ability to sleep.

“I’m an insomniac.” “Well, I never sleep anyway.” “Couldn’t sleep last night, what else is new?” If you’ve had an in-depth conversation with me in the past five to 10 years, you’ve probably heard me say something like this. These were things I said out loud, but more importantly, told myself internally, as well. I was resigned to my insomnia, versus accepting it, which was quite literally setting myself up for failure.

In Meadows’ book, he says, “If you ask a good sleeper what they do to get to sleep, chances are they will shrug and say, ‘Nothing.’ they simply put their head on the pillow.” This… completely blew my mind. People don’t lie down and immediately think “I have to fall asleep now, if I don’t, I will only get six hours of sleep and then I will be too tired for work tomorrow.”?

I decided to challenge myself: I would stop using sleep issues to define myself during the day or at night, and actively catch myself before saying or thinking anything along those lines. It absolutely takes time, but it also started to work. I felt freed from the grip of a condition I assumed would be constant and chronic. On its own, I don’t think this would be completely effective, but paired with the other things I learned, it definitely was a stepping stone toward success.

Dismantle your elaborate nighttime routine.

Yes, getting relaxed and sleeping in a dark, quiet room are good things to do. But as Meadows points out, popping in ear plugs, watching TV to distract your thoughts, and coming up with all kinds of solutions to your sleep problem may actually end up being counterproductive.

Your brain naturally wants to problem-solve and come up with solutions when confronted with an issue like insomnia, but “problems arise when you start to behave in a way that amplifies your insomnia,” Meadows writes. “Your actions may help to get rid of unwanted thoughts, sensations and urges, and even sleeplessness in the short term, but they end up making sleeping less likely.”

How so? Well, you might become so reliant on these products and habits that, if there comes a time when you can’t use them, you definitely won’t be able to sleep. It reduces your trust in your natural ability to sleep — and it also puts sleep on a pedestal. If everything you do is for the purpose of sleep (“I am taking a bath so I can sleep later,” “I am putting away electronics so I can sleep later,”), sleep becomes that much more elusive.

So instead of having a multi-step routine that makes you say, “I can’t sleep if I don’t do it,” chip away at that routine. Meadows doesn’t recommend cutting everything out in a reactionary way, which also puts sleep on a pedestal. In fact, you can retain some elements of the routine you like. But do them because you like them or because they make you feel good, not with the sole purpose of making you sleep.

And don’t worry about it if you still toss and turn at night.

Wow, telling someone “don’t worry about it” when they have a problem? What could possibly go wrong? But as a constant worrier, I can tell you that, when it comes to sleep, it’s actually pretty good advice.

Remember that thing about good sleepers I told you before? Here’s another secret: They don’t stress if they have a night of bad sleep. “The most important thing to note about a normal sleeper is their willingness to relax and be quietly wakeful in the pre-sleep phase,” Meadows writes. “They aren’t trying to force sleep upon themselves […] knowing that even if they don’t sleep, they are still getting some much-needed rest.” HUH!

Experiencing insomnia my whole life has definitely made me catastrophize one (1) sleepless night the moment it begins to set in. But now, instead of telling myself I will fail like I have before, that it’ll hurt if I don’t sleep, or that I’m a lost cause, I instead try to accept it and know that yes, the next day might be rough, but I’ll get through it. I try not to fear the grim reaper of insomnia, but instead take its hand and ask it to tell me a story.

Does all of this always work? No. But I’m having fewer sleepless nights, and on the ones when I am laying there awake, I’m not stressing my mind and body about it. And it turns out that this is pretty helpful.