How I Curated My Bedroom To Help Deal With My Insomnia

updated Jul 30, 2020
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(Image credit: David-Prado/Getty Images)

I spent several weeks staring up at my ceiling. “Do I have three hours before my alarm, or is it only two?” I’d wonder while waiting for sleep to come. Finally, I described my insomnia to my doctor.

“You don’t have a sleep problem, my dear,” she says. “You have a stress problem.” She diagnosed me with burnout. I was shocked. Technically, it’s a mix of exhaustion, depression, and anxiety, but the long road to recovery is the same.

I’d been pretending the symptoms weren’t symptoms. I wrote off the increasing irritation, the gastrointestinal distress, the resting heart rate of 140, taking forever to recover from colds and minor injuries, and seeing my life as an endless to-do list. These are just signs of being too busy, right? Wrong.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one struggling to find restful sleep. The CDC says one-third of Americans are sleep deprived — in fact, March 15 is World Sleep Day, which is organized by the World Sleep Society to raise awareness about sleep.

My GP prescribed a do-list of things to get better: sick leave, a psychologist, kundalini yoga, medication, even a beach vacation. I researched a few sleep tricks on my own, too.

Dr. Rohit Budhiraja, a Harvard Medical School professor and sleep expert, has said that light, temperature, and calming the mind are essential for good sleep. I could tackle two of these right away.

At the height of my burnout, I was working in a well-paid executive job. So while it was harder to get the stress under control, I was at least able to pay for a few upgrades to improve my sleeping situation. I started with a new foam mattress (this one if you’re curious) to ease my back pain that had crept up from too much time spent hunched over a desk. The foam also helps to regulate body temperature. I even installed new windows with noise-blocking glass and built-in room-darkening shades.

Now, my burnout is in remission, but I’m on a more limited budget as a freelancer and management consultant. I also moved into a new apartment about a year ago, and now my bedroom changes need to be more modest. I rent my apartment and I’m wary of investing in anything I can’t take with me if I move. Plus, as a travel writer, I’m on the road a lot and need most of my sleep aids to be portable.

(Image credit: Amazon/Bucky)

To combat my hardware store blinds (plus the flashing smoke detector lights irritatingly common in hotel rooms), I use a sleep mask. My fave is by Bucky, because there’s room for my eyes to blink beneath it. Even the ritual of putting it on my forehead signals to my brain that it’s time to sleep.

Dr. Elliott Lee, a sleep specialist in Ottawa, Canada, recommends white noise machines, according to an interview with the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health. Mine is a loud fan, which helps to mask the garbage trucks in the alley and my loud neighbors upstairs.

Lee also shared that lower body temperature is essential for falling and staying asleep. With the fan, I can stick a leg into the breeze—my top sheet must never be tucked—without even waking up.

Soft cotton sheets soothe me in summer, but in winter I prefer t-shirt sheets that don’t send me into shivers when I climb under. On particularly cold nights, I slip a heating pad under the covers while I take my shower.

I don’t travel anywhere without my sleeping scarf (no, it is not a security blanket!). This lightweight square of cotton serves as a top sheet in hotels that ludicrously omit them, bunches around my neck for better support, or warms me in over-air conditioning.

My biggest sleep challenge is, still, turning off my brain at night. My trick is to listen to podcasts (I know I can re-listen in the morning to anything interesting I miss). It’s like a Pavlovian response: My brain has learned that podcast + not standing up = unconsciousness. I’ve even learned to sleep on planes.

(Image credit: Amazon)

Not wanting to subject my partner to my podcasts, earphones are essential. I love my beats x cordless earphones for their eight-hour battery life and the sturdy band that connects them so they don’t get lost amongst the pillows. I’m curious to try the new earphone-embedded headbands for even more comfort.

I’m still working on getting my bedroom into ideal sleep shape. I’d love to install dimmer switches and could up the tranquility by reducing some bedroom clutter. In the meantime, I’m dreaming of upgrading to brand new fancy sheets.