Sleep gone to the devil? It’s horrible, but this is what’s been helping me.

From ‘Only If You Dare’ - illustration by me, for Josh Allen’s book. I know just how this poor little lad feels! ©Sarah J. Coleman

My sleep disruption began many months ago as a product of, I think, a combination of pandemic, work anxieties, and a major hormonal re-wiring (the whole dashboard out, y’know the kind).

I would get to sleep just fine, but wakefulness would boot me out of my slumber every single night, always around 3am, and last anywhere from an hour to…the rest of the night.

I’m my own boss, which means that technically I can ‘get up when I want’, but I really can’t; I still have a full 8+ hours of work every single day, clients depending on me, and the other, myriad responsibilities that come with running a small company. And the later I would get up, the worse I felt — physically and emotionally, since there’s still a stigma attached to ‘people who get up late’ — and the more I worried about the whole thing.

I recently shared a couple of things on social media and in my regular newsreel which clearly rang a bell with a lot of people, so I’m sharing and expanding on those things here.

So, the causes of waking up I couldn’t do an awful lot about, but I could control how I felt before I went to sleep, during wakefulness and during the day. I quickly established that late caffeine was one factor (after about 20 years of being completely caffeine free, I’d gradually discovered the joys of strong fresh-ground coffee again over lockdown). So no coffee after 2pm — 3m at a push. After that, all-decaf-everything.

The I worked out that I was eating too late at night — has to be before 8pm now — ideally at 7 — or I really am affected. Your poor body’s trying to digest when you should be asleep!

THEN I realised I was still on my phone answering email and messages late at night, sometimes actually in bed — in my book, that’s a a dirty habit, but one I found I’d slacked into (that’s why they call it ‘sleep hygiene’).

And finally, I clicked that I wasn’t getting enough fresh air during the day; I’m a lifelong gym-goer but it’s not the same as the outdoors and vitamin D, so I started walking. A LOT. Didn’t matter when — sometimes a ‘commute to work’ walk of a mile, sometimes a mid-afternoon one of 3 miles or more, sometimes one of those plus another mile just before bed, or just a tiny ten minute walk by itself last thing, if I really couldn’t manage to get out in the daytime. Walking is famously underrated, and it comes with the opportunity for thinking time, podcasts, checking out some new music, or just silence.

And this bit is important:

I realised that when I was waking up (always around 3am) I was bothered and anxious — but I wasn’t waking up BECAUSE I was bothered and anxious, I was anxious because I had found myself suddenly awake. I changed my mindset (which took a little while) and flipped it around, so that when I would find myself awake, instead of going “ohhh nooooo I’m awake this is hell not this again I don’t want to be” I would blink a bit and go, “oh, ok! Looks like I’m awake. OK; no bother. We’ve been here before. You woke up because you were just a bit hot/thirsty/uncomfortable. Have a drink of water, shuffle about, maybe go for a wee, try again.”

And THAT last change has made the biggest difference. I don’t fret about it any more, and I remind myself that in the middle of the night, because you have no other distractions — even simple visual distractions like other people and your surroundings — your mind focuses entirely on what it’s worrying about, so those things seem HUGE and insurmountable.

And they are not!

If I really, truly cannot get back to sleep, I get up and try to sleep somewhere else — one of the sofas, I’ve even tried the cool living room floor — or in extreme circumstances I go to my desk because I may as well be doing ‘something’. But I don’t set my expectation too high; doing any little job in the middle of the night is a bonus, but your aim is to get into bed and back to sleep.

©Sarah J. Coleman

The other important realisation that unfolded over time was that a good night starts with a good evening.

These are the steps we take now, to make sure we give ourselves the best chance of sleeping, and staying asleep. These aren’t ads, by the way; they’re just what we use, and what we like. No-one has paid me to write this! (I don’t do that, before anyone else asks).

1. No caffeine after 2pm.
OK 3 at a push, but anything after that will probably cost you in the small hours!

2. A couple of hours before bed: hot chocolate with reishi mushroom and ashwaganda.
Both help the body to unwind and get ready for sleep. You don’t need to add sugar, but we add a dash of maple syrup.

3. If hot chocolate’s too much for that time of night, we swear by Pukka ‘Sleepy Tea’

4. About half an hour before bed: a couple of Lemellos.
These little all-natural capsules take the edge off the white noise of anxiety and worries safely, and without any after/side effects (and no dependency issues).

5. I’ll have my earphones next to me in bed in case I wake up, and if I do I’ll listen to some rain sounds (very soothing, especially for someone like me who loves any tale beginning with ‘it was a dark and stormy night’) or do some breathing.

They both sound a bit clichéd, but there’s a reason for that — they work!

Remember: this is just what’s worked for me, over two years or so of trial and error, and changing one thing at a time then observing the result. Some of these might work for you too. They might not, but give them a go!

Hope it helps.

Sleeping…but awake...but OK with it, actually. ©Sarah J. Coleman

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Sarah J Coleman

Artist + illustrator of over 800 books and owner of the same amount of pens. Enough to write you a picture AND paint you a story. inkymole.com / inkstagram.ink