Everyone has talents. Some people are gifted musicians. Some are brilliant chess players or able to run a 10-minute mile without wanting to die. I am a talented sleeper. Yes, whoever or whatever is in charge of doling out skill points decided to put the vast majority of mine in ‘sleeping’, with a small smattering in ‘remembering the lyrics to one-hit wonders from the 80s’. I am the type of person who rarely, if ever, has problems sleeping.
A few years ago, I had a friend peer pressure me and several others into getting a sleep tracker app on our phones. We would sit and compare our nightly sleep amounts and quality of sleep before class (never let it be said that grad students are boring). I consistently had an average sleep quality of about 90%, compared to my friends who usually hovered closer to 70%. Some of this ability is probably genetic; my mother has slept through fire alarms on at least two separate occasions. However, like any talent, it has been further cultivated through decades of practice. If you’re one of the 60 million Americans (Zoinks!) who suffer from insomnia, here are some suggestions:
This is a pretty basic way of getting yourself to fall asleep. On the rare occasion where I don’t fall asleep right as my head hits the pillow, this is usually sufficient to get me snoring like a drunk lumberjack within minutes. There are a couple ways to trick yourself. The proverbial ‘counting sheep’ is one way, but if you want to be more hip with the times (the practice of ‘counting sheep’ is believed to date back to the 12th century, at least), there are other options. You can count corgis or pugs, which are usually my go-tos. The key is to pick an animal that is cute and non-threatening. It should be an animal that you like, but not so much that your mind becomes occupied with how cute/beautiful/majestic it is. I would also suggest avoiding creatures like elephants, because thinking about the ivory trade is generally not conducive to getting a good night’s rest.
Of course, there are other ways to bore yourself into slumber. One of the other thought exercises I like to do is sort people into Hogwarts houses. The Harry Potter universe reminds me of my childhood, and is generally pretty soothing. While I know a bit about Harry Potter, I’m not one of those adults who is obsessed with it. Plus, it’s pretty easy to use people’s superficial personality traits for this. It doesn’t require much thought, and there’s no real consequences to getting it wrong. Did you accidently sort Jeff as a Ravenclaw when he’s really a Hufflepuff? Who the fuck cares? He’s never going to know. And even if you tell him, if Jeff is the type of person to throw a temper tantrum about you missorting him in an effort to attempt to get to sleep, he’s not worth your time.
Similar to boring yourself, tricking yourself also relies on a variety of thought exercises. The most basic of these is telling yourself, “I am extremely tired and could fall asleep at any second.” Another good way to trick yourself is by feeding into every person’s innate desire to be better than everyone else. Snuggle yourself into your bed, and say to yourself, “Wow, this is a really comfortable bed. In fact, it might be the most comfortable bed in the universe. I’m so comfortable right now. I bet everyone else wishes they were this comfortable. But they aren’t!” Sometimes your feeling of smug superiority will be enough to lull you to sleep.
Of course, you can also do what my mother used to advise me to do when I was a small child and imagine that you’re on a peaceful ocean, rocking back and forth in a comfortable boat. Looking back, this was probably dubious advice for someone who is prone to motion sickness.
Adjust the Temperature/Light
Some people have no problem sleeping in any environment. For example, I once fell asleep in the auditorium during a state-wide middle school band concert. For others though, the room has to be pitch-black with the thermostat set between 73.2 and 73.6 degrees Fahrenheit. For all you tender little orchid people out there, I suggest paying attention to the temperature, light level, and humidity. Is it too bright? Get blackout curtains or a sleep mask. Bonus points if it looks like that one Holly Golightly wears in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Is it too warm? Use a thinner blanket, or stick your feet out from beneath the covers. You’ll be amazed how quickly you cool down. Obviously if it’s too cold, put on warmer pajamas, or get heavier blankets. It’s not rocket science.
Make a Nest
I have no scientific proof of this, but I firmly believe that when people have trouble sleeping, it helps for them to channel that anxious little primate brain of theirs into building something that will keep them safe from predators. Chimps and bonobos (our closest relatives) both build arboreal night nests to sleep in. Of course, you could always try to go outside, climb your nearest oak tree, and sack out for the night. But if you aren’t especially fond of falling out of trees or getting the cops called on you by your nosy neighbor, you can always make a blanket nest in the comfort and privacy of your own home. I like to make mine on my bed, because I don’t hate myself, but the couch or floor are other options. There’s a lot of nest building that’s really up to personal preference, but here’s what I recommend:
- Step 1: Gather a very soft, comfortable blanket and lay it down on a flat surface. This is what you’ll be sleeping on. If you’re one of those mutants that has to sleep on a sheet, obviously this is fine too.
- Step 2: Take several large blankets and arrange them into a vaguely oblong/circular shape large enough for all (or most) of your sleeping body to rest in.
- Step 3: Grab your preferred number of pillows and arrange them in a comfortable position inside the circle. I like to sleep with three pillows which, according to a mental health evaluation I recently took, makes me a sociopath. But I’m a well-rested sociopath, so who’s laughing now, BuzzFeed?
- Step 4: Take whatever sheets/blankets you want on top of you and put them on top of the nest.
- Step 5: Burrow into that nest like the filthy primate you are, confident that you will be safe from any jaguars that might be stalking you in suburban Massachusetts. Unlike the nests of other primates, though, I would advise defecating elsewhere.
Flip Yourself Over
This is something I have apparently done since infancy, much to the befuddlement of both my parents and people who hosted slumber parties in elementary school. If I wake up in the middle of the night and am unable to fall back asleep, I turn myself over in bed so that my feet are by the headboard and my head is by the footboard. Don’t worry, I move my pillows first. Of course, this really only works well if you’re in bed by yourself. Actually, no. It works fine if you’re willing to be that close to another person’s feet. I am decidedly not, so I generally don’t do this when sharing a bed. But sometimes a change of perspective is nice, and sometimes that means sleeping in your bed like a complete weirdo.
Sleep on the Couch
If you have a comfortable couch, consider moving there. Even if you end up going back to your bed after a few minutes or hours, sometimes there’s less pressure about falling asleep on your couch than on your bed. This also ties in with my theory about flipping over, where sometimes having a change of perspective is nice. Everyone always thinks that sleeping on the couch is indicative of a troubled marriage, but I would rather have a partner who slept on the couch when they couldn’t sleep, than a partner who kept me up because of their insomnia.
Before you start clutching at your pearls, know that I live in Colorado. When I say ‘drugs’, I mean marijuana. I don’t advocate for anyone suddenly deciding that black tar heroin is a good way to cure their insomnia. That’s kind of the definition of extra. Are the kids even saying ‘extra’ these days? Let me know in the comments so that I can be hip with the lingo. Word.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a state where recreational marijuana is legal, I highly recommend you read this Brief Overview: Pros & Cons Of Medical Marijuana and its effects of using it as a sleep aid on an as-needed basis. Usually a small amount is good. I tend to do about 1/4 of a gummy when I have trouble sleeping, compared to my usual dose of 1/2 a gummy when I want to actually be pleasant to interact with. My advice, especially with edibles, is to start with less than you’d think you’d want. The idea is to take enough that you start feeling relaxed, but not so much that you see the trees outside your window melting. With edibles, that can be a delicate dance. Vaping usually works better in terms of dosage, but it takes slightly more setup than popping a piece of candy in your maw.
Of course ‘drugs’ can also refer to sleeping pills, which is a topic that I know next to nothing about. I will say, however, that I am a bit wary of them. While I don’t think Big Pharma is injecting pills with gluten in an effort to turn our children autistic, I also don’t think sleeping pills are for everyone. Before I get on my soapbox about over-prescribing, let me just say that if insomnia is a persistent issue for you, you should talk to a doctor. Presumably, they will tell you what you need to know. And if you have another brain chemistry issue going on, they might be able to help you with that.
This might sound bizarre, especially being both a former Wisconsinite and someone who was just advocating for the recreational use of marijuana, but it’s a good idea to avoid alcohol. Or, at least, avoid it when you’re trying to sleep. Weekends are about you, fam.
Get a New Mattress
Look, I get this isn’t doable for everyone. But, if you have the funds, consider getting a new/better one. Years ago, someone told me the phenomenal adage, “always spend more on the things that go between you and the ground for extended periods of time. Erica why are you looking at me like that? It’s deeply unsettling.” Buying a nice mattress will greatly improve your sleep quality. Not only that, but you’ll spend less money on tylenol because of that spring that kept poking you in the leg. Are you having problems sleeping? Was your mattress around when Jimmy Carter was in office? If you answered ‘yes’ to both of these questions, perhaps there’s a connection.
At the end of the day, some of us are just better sleepers than others. Some of that might have to do with lifestyle choices, like diet and exercise. But some of us are just good at powering down our brains when we want. If you’re not one of those people, I legitimately hope you found something here that’s useful. Full disclaimer that I have no medical training (because human bodies are disgusting), so all of this should be taken with enough grains of salt to make the average person’s ankles swell up like two meat balloons. These are just some tricks that have worked for me, a person who would probably go to the Olympics if competitive napping were a sport. I’m not saying I’d get the gold, but I think I’d have a decent chance at bronze.