Things to try in bed

It’s been a while since I’ve had time to write about a topic at any length, but today’s post is all about treatments for insomnia: things to try while waiting for your brain to switch off at the end of the day. I’m particularly interested in imaginative and quirky treatments that get invented because when you’re lying awake in bed, inventing a new 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 — but even if useless it might still be interesting.)

I’ve developed a technique 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 method, I want to emphasise that it’s not my first port of call when I can’t sleep at night, but more of a last resort when everything else has failed. My first resort is to deal with any physical barriers to sleep. 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 tense, give them a massage. Here’s a picture of a coffee mug I keep by my bed to use as a massaging tool (notice the rounded edges):


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 if that doesn’t work — and I continue to feel frustrated with myself for being unable to sleep — do I move on to the following visualisation exercise. Such an exercise could easily be counterproductive if resorted to too soon, as it would be futile if you’re not really tired, and frustration might prevent it from working for you in the future. Worse still, if you go to bed thinking, “I can’t wait to try out the new insomnia cure I read about on the Internet“, your chances of staying awake while that excited are excellent. Perhaps the best way to treat insomnia is reluctantly.

Anyway, the technique I came up with involves a number of stages. Stage one is as follows:

  • By moving your eyes underneath your eyelids, trace the shape of a letter ‘A’ being drawn just in front of your face — imagine a point of light tracing out the shape of the letter in the same way that you would draw it with a pen. (Note: I actually imagine the letters in lower case, but I don’t suppose it matters.) Don’t draw breath until you’ve finished drawing the letter.
  • Having completed the letter ‘A’, breathe in, out, in and out. Feel your body relaxing as you breathe out.
  • Do the same thing for the letter ‘B’, then for all the other letters, taking two deep breaths in and out between each letter and the next.

At this point, give yourself a chance to fall asleep naturally. But if you really can’t, here is stage two:

  • Draw the letters ‘A’ through ‘Z’ with your eyes again, but this time, draw them tilted at 45 degrees. (I tilt them anticlockwise, for what it’s worth.)
  • Breathe as per stage one.

Again, relax, and try to sleep.

In stage three, the letters are drawn sideways; in stage four, 45 degrees short of upside down, in stage five, entirely upside down, etc. The rotated letters are more taxing on the brain (which is the point), and you must resist the temptation to move your fingers to help you visualise them. If you get all the way to stage eight and still can’t sleep, I have no further advice.

In all stages, if you feel physically uncomfortable at any time, put the technique on hold while you deal with your body’s needs.

Some things to note:

  • This is a very meditative technique, involving the focus of consciousness on specific sensory sensations. This suits me, but it doesn’t suit everyone. We all have different levels of optimal stimulation.
  • That it is a process — with a beginning, middle and end — seems important. Some alternative techniques involve doing something over and over until it works, but for me, that would only lead to anxiety over how long I’ve been awake. Psychologically, knowing exactly where I am on a well-defined journey is far more conductive to my peace of mind.
  • I wonder if the rotation of letters interplays somehow with the loss of spatial direction we experience as we drift towards sleep.

Finally, the killer question. When all is said and done, does my technique actually work?

Subjectively, yes. By saving me from lying there feeling frustrated and angry with myself for failing to switch off, it can 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. That counts for something.

Objectively, no. I don’t believe I get to sleep any faster if I use this technique than if I don’t, and it makes no difference to when I get up in the morning or how refreshed I am when I do so.

But because subjectivity is important, I call that a qualified success.

2 Responses to “Things to try in bed”

  1. mike Says:

    I find that working out guitar chord shapes in my head is a good visualization exercise that helps me get to sleep.

    The larger point seems to be to keep the mind occupied doing something that is not unpleasant (unpleasant thoughts often being the source of insomnia in the first place) until whatever it is can take effect that shuts down the conscious mind. Any purposeful mental activity (and not boring or frustrating, as you say) should do it. Hence the famous example of counting sheep.

  2. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    There’s a balance to be found, in that the activity should be neither too simple nor too stimulating. Different activities will achieve that balance for different people.

    My parents are opposites of each other in that listening to speech (say, on the radio) sends my mother to sleep but wakes my father up, whereas music sends my father to sleep but wakes up my mother.

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