This can actually happen - it’s not a myth!
When I was working crazy hours in London, I used to wonder why I couldn’t sleep when I would finally get into bed at 3am, having worked since 9am the previous day. Now I look back and it is blindingly obvious.
I would have been staring at a screen, hyperventilating with stress for 17 and a half hours, getting in a cab anxiously running through all the things still to be done, and then jumping into bed expecting to immediately sleep.
I’d been telling my body that it needed to stay awake to “survive” all day. With nothing to tell it otherwise, it was damn well going to keep me awake so I stayed alive even when I hit the pillow.
Let me explain more…
Getting out of flight or fight mode
This is essentially what acute stress is. And sometimes it’s really useful - it keeps you alert, so you can protect yourself from danger, or concentrate on a pressing issue. Your brain sends chemical and nerve triggers putting your body and mind into a state of hyper-awareness.
This might be exactly what you need to get you through a busy day (though I would strongly suggest this should not be every day). It’s exactly the opposite of what you need to go to sleep.
So before going to bed, you must get your body out of “flight or fight”, and into “it’s safe to sleep mode”. This might take twenty minutes, but it will more than save you this time in the quality of your sleep after. Trust me, I am reaping the rewards of this now.
“This is bedtime” routine
I know, I know. You’ve heard it before - but have you ever tried your own routine?
It works wonders. By consistently giving your body a set of triggers that say “it’s time to sleep”, sleep with start to come much more easily when your head hits the pillow.
Your routine must work for you. This is mine:
No technology an hour before bed (or at least half an hour)
Tidy my apartment
Get my riding stuff ready for the next day
Dim the lights, and only have a side-light on in my bedroom
Light a particular candle
Do some light stretches
Brush my teeth, wash my face
Write half a page in my journal and three things I am grateful for that day
This might sound like a lot, but it takes between 10-20 minutes, max.
You want to identify things that ground you and help you switch off. For some people, that’s reading, talking to their partner, making a list for the next day or having sex! Whatever works for you, because if it doesn’t, you won’t stick to it.
Getting rid of anxious thoughts
This seems to be one of the key reasons we struggle to sleep. And, in honesty, it’s the thing that still gets me.
Whilst the best solution is obviously to work on reducing whatever is making you anxious during the day time (something I can help with, by the way), there are a few hacks to help you at night.
Get them out of your head: write them down, tell them to someone, say them out loud to thin air. Simple, yet effective.
Recognise that there is nothing you can do about them about right at that moment: when you are getting into bed. There is absolutely nothing you can do about whatever is making you anxious in that moment, in bed. Even if that anxiety is about sleeping.
Give yourself a mantra: try something along the lines of “There is nothing I can do about this right now. I will think about it again in the morning”. Say it aloud, in your head, or write it down three times.
Still need a helping hand?
There are so many great resources out there. You only have to google “sleep meditation” to receive hundreds of options on YouTube. Try out a few and find ones that work for you. Listen fully believing that this will work for you, and don’t try and fight it. This is my favourite.
Headspace is another good app, helping you getting out of your own thoughts, often for just bite size chunks of the day.
Breathe. Slowly and deeply. I like breathing in for nine counts, holding for four counts and out for six counts. Find a rhythm that works for you. Counting your breath works a bit like counting sheep - it distracts the mind enough to switch off from everything else.
Others swear by audiobooks. The main thing is to not stare at a screen.
Detox from technology
You will have seen above that I don’t check my phone for an hour before bed. In my experience very few people do this. An hour may seem like an unattainable feat, so try just 10 minutes, then build it up to at least 20 minutes. If you must must look at your phone, at least switch the screen to night mode so its not sending out whatever that scary blue light is that has been proven to keep you awake.
TV does not help you sleep properly. Ten minutes of TV post 10pm will have me dozing straightaway. With the exception maybe of Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders, who is enough to keep anyone awake. I’ll only then wake up half an hour later foggy and confused and unable to actually get to sleep properly when I make it to bed.
Just don’t do it. You know you shouldn’t, so why are you?
Make your bedroom environment nice
There’s nothing better than getting into a comfy bed, with a nice pillow and freshly washed sheets.
So put that into practice. The other day I got into bed and I had meant to change my sheets. I was tired, wanting to go to sleep and couldn't be bothered. Rather than lying there thinking about how I should have done it and the fact the ones I was in needed a wash, I did it. Getting back into bed, I felt all warm and happy and drifted off to sleep. Gosh, I’m just so zen these days…
Practicalities wise, having a dark, quiet bedroom can have a massive impact. The location of your bedroom may not work for this, so fake it using eye masks and ear plugs (stick with them!) if you need to. Black-out curtains have been my best bedroom friend since I got insomnia during my A-levels. I swear by them.
So there you have it, my guide to getting to sleep quicker. Now, I challenge you to actually create a bedtime routine. We don’t like things that seem like more effort. But getting to sleep quicker and having a better quality of sleep will actually free up a lot more time elsewhere in your life. Trust me.
There is a reason I now wake up naturally at 5.45!