For a long time, my blogging has mostly been limited to collections of links, largely because I never feel I have time for thoughtful, introspective blogging when there are a thousand other things I feel guilty about not getting around to. However, I recently passed some important milestones in getting those other things done, so now I’m going to indulge in a blog post of the old style, wherein I take a topic and write about it from a personal perspective.
This one’s about sleep. More specifically, it’s about treatments for insomnia: things to try while waiting for your brain to switch off at the end of the day. I’m not interested in generic advice that you can get from a random website, but rather, in the imaginative and quirky treatments that get invented because when you’re lying awake in bed feeling bored, inventing a new and original cure for insomnia gives you something to do. Of course, when you do eventually drop off, it usually has nothing to do with the experimental treatment you were trying out, confirmation bias and all that.
I’m talking visualisation exercises, breathing exercises, that sort of thing. My goal is more about being interesting than being useful, and I find the diversity of quirky insomnia cures interesting. I’ve developed one of my own (which I’ll describe in a moment), and if you’ve invented one too then please consider sharing it in a comment.
Before I describe my own technique, I want to put it in a broader context. This visualisation exercise is not my first port of call when I can’t sleep at night, but more like a last resort when everything else has failed. Such exercises are not magic spells, and in my experience they will not work if your mind is not ready. Moreover, if you make a habit of resorting to them too early, then it wouldn’t surprise me if frustration with the technique prevents it from working for you in the future. The most counter-productive attitude would be to go to bed thinking, “I can’t wait to try out the new insomnia cure I read about on the Internet“, because excitement and sleep do not mix even when it’s the treatment itself that you’re excited about. The attitude I recommend is that you are prepared to use a visualisation technique if you need to, but sincerely hope it won’t come to that.
My first port of call is to deal with any physical barriers to sleep. My second port of call is to wait. Only after that do I resort to a visualisation technique to help my mind over the brink of unconsciousness.
Here are some examples of the physical barriers I have in mind. If you’re thirsty, get yourself a glass of water. If your toenails are scraping uncomfortably against the blankets, get up and trim them. If your leg muscles are sore and need to be stretched, do some exercises under the covers. If the muscles of your belly are too tense, give them a massage. A good belly massage does wonders for me when I want to relax, and I keep a particular coffee mug by my bed as a tool for that purpose – so that I can press down hard into my intestines and hear them squelch. For obvious reasons I use a mug with smooth, rounded edges to its base; here’s a picture.
When I’m satisfied that I’ve overcome any physical barriers as well as I can, I wait, and give my mind a decent chance to get to sleep of its own accord. Only when I’m aware that I feel frustrated with myself for not managing to sleep – when I hear myself thinking thoughts like, “Dammit, why the hell can’t I bloody well sleep!” – do I move on to the visualisation exercise.
That exercise involves a number of stages, each of which is effectively a distinct exercise in itself. Between one stage and the next, I repeat the whole process of dealing with any physical barriers (e.g. with another massage), and then waiting until I once again hear myself thinking frustrated thoughts over my failure to sleep. Even during the various stages, if I suddenly feel the need to give myself another massage or to give my legs another stretch under the blankets, I put the visualisation on hold while I deal with my body’s needs.
Here is stage one of my technique.
- Imagine the letter ‘A’ being drawn in the air in front of your closed eyes. (I actually visualise the letters in lower-case, but I’ll type them in capitals to make this description easier to read; I shouldn’t think it matters.) See it as a point of light tracing out the shape of the letter in the same way that you would draw it with a pen. Feel free to move your eyeball under the lid, but resist any urge to trace the shape of the letter with your finger (this is more of a temptation in later stages). Also, when you’re tracing letters of the alphabet, don’t breathe, but trace them in between breathing out and breathing in again.
- Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Feel your body relaxing as you breathe out.
- Do the same thing with the letter ‘B’. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. Continue all the way to the end of the alphabet.
Then relax, and remember what I said about giving yourself a chance to sleep between stages. When you’re ready for stage two, here it is.
- Repeat the alphabet visualisation as per stage one, but this time, imagine the letters to be tilted at a 45 degree angle (I usually tilt them anticlockwise, but it doesn’t matter.)
This is harder, because you have to mentally rotate the letters, and with any luck this will help to wear out your over-active brain. As for the remaining stages:
- Repeat the alphabet thing, but each time you do so, tilt the letters 45 degrees further around from where they were in the previous stage. For example, in stage three they will be sideways and in stage five they will be upside down.
- If you get all the way around (eight stages) and you still haven’t fallen asleep, get up and do something, e.g. check your email. When you go back to bed, consider doing the whole exercise again, but rotating the letters clockwise instead of anticlockwise.
If you still can’t sleep, then your insomnia is too severe for my method. Now, a couple of comments in conclusion.
As you’ll have noticed, my visualisation technique is a process, with a beginning, middle and end. It comes with its own measure of how long you’ve been doing it, and how long you’ve got left. The alternative would be an exercise that involves doing something over and over until it works, but that, in my experience, is a bad idea because it only leads to me getting bored and impatient and desperate to look at a clock. Psychologically, knowing exactly where I am on a well-defined journey is far more conductive to my peace of mind. This might be different for other people.
Finally, the killer question. When all is said and done, does my technique actually work?
That depends on what is meant by the question. Does visualising rotated letters of the alphabet get me to sleep any faster than simply waiting it out? I can’t honestly say that it makes a great deal of difference. But to me, the true measure of whether the technique is useful is this. By saving me from lying there feeling frustrated and angry with myself for failing to switch off, does it make the journey toward sleep more pleasant than it otherwise would be, so that subjectively it seems faster, irrespective of how long it really takes? Yes, it does. Definitely.
I call that a success.