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Falling asleep fast (1): Mental Exercises

March 26, 2018

Trouble sleeping? See our series of sleep-hacks.

Here’s what you need to know: insomnia is real. It affects everyone, not just the over-sixties or the compulsory three out of ten people. It can strike at any time and last for anything from a few hours to the rest of your life. Everyone has a brush with sleeplessness now and again, usually at the most inopportune moments. Such as when there’s an early flight to catch in the morning or a career-making interview just hours away. Ask yourself: does it sometimes take you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep? Do you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night for no reason? Do you sometimes wake waaay before your alarm, unable to get back to sleep? Well then, bad news: you have insomnia.

That’s according to the National Sleep Foundation, who defines insomnia as the inability to fall/stay asleep despite having the opportunity. If you have insomnia, chances are it’s caused by AAADD. (Asthma, arthritis, allergies, depression or dietary imbalance.) Don’t stress, AAADD is not a real thing. And these days garden variety stress or anxiety is just as likely a cause of insomnia. And who doesn’t have that?

Off course, the worst thing you can do (in your effort to fall asleep) is try really, really, really hard to fall asleep. Counter-intuitive AND counterproductive, see? The problem of sleeplessness has boggled many a mind, some of them proper scientific intellects. They have (some in isolation, some in collaboration) come up with various methods and practices to aid in falling asleep. We’ve helpfully compiled these into a list. Since it’s a very long list, we’re going to make a meal of it and do it in a couple of sittings. We’ve roughly divided these morsels into different courses, depending on their focus: mental exercise (in this issue); preventative- or preparative measures (next issue); and physical adaptation. So bring on the appetizers!

Stay Awake!

You can see how they arrived at this one, can’t you? If trying to fall asleep keeps you awake, trying to stay awake should put you to sleep... And they call themselves scientists! Miraculously, this roundabout theorem seems to work. When put to the test (in a small study at the University of Glasgow) insomnia sufferers told to attempt to force themselves to stay awake nodded off faster than their counterparts, who received no such instruction.

Don’t cheat (like reading your favourite author or leveling your online character) just challenge the ceiling to a staring contest.

Keep a journal

If you’re anything like Sarah Jessica Parker in I Don’t Know How She Does It (i.e. professional and stressed), you lie awake at night making mental to-do lists on your bedroom ceiling. The problem with these list: they’re ephemeral - in the true sense of the word - and they will haunt you / keep you awake if you let them.

By reducing the things you’ve done (and have yet to do) to paper, you’re doing exactly that: reducing them. Once captured, your can safely file and store them away / put them out of your tired mind … which can then finally take a rest.

The 10 minute trial

This is especially helpful if you’ve woken up and can’t get back to sleep. Engage in 10 minutes of pointless, busy activity where (to quote Drew Carry) ‘the rules are made up and the points don’t matter’. It should require you to apply your hands and your mind to something other than your daily travails.

Prof Richard Wiseman, of the University of Hertfordshire, recommends a jigsaw or coloring in. With tons of adult coloring books and children’s puzzles available, you should be sawing timbres in no time.

Progressive relaxation

This is a technique touted by the Foundation. While in bed, concentrate on one major muscle group at a time (thighs, buttocks, stomach, biceps) and tense them one by one for a count of five. Wait 30 seconds before moving on to the next group. Repeat. If you’ve got superb muscle awareness, you can include toes, calves, neck, gums … whatever you can manage.

If done correctly, this will consume your attention, drive out distraction and slip you smoothly into slumber.

DIY Acupressure

Please note: acupressure not acupuncture. (If you’re going to get needles involved, you should see a doctor.) According to Chinese alternative medicine, there are several pressure points on the human body where gentle pressure can help re-harmonise your energy, relax you and help you fall asleep. Most notably, the depression on the top of the foot, behind and between your big toe and the little piggy who stayed home.

If you’re just not that supple, you can make do with the pressure point midway on your brow, in the little hollow where it meets your nose.

Breathing exercises

This is a great way to occupy your mind and lull your body into a restful state. Perhaps the most well known is the 4-7-8 method championed by wellness author, Dr Andrew Weil: inhale gently for a count of four; hold your breath for a count of seven; exhale for a count of eight. Keep it up until you’re out.

Alternatively, blow bubbles. (Yes, like the toddlers do!) The controlled breathing necessary to create a successful bubble serves much the same purpose - just don’t get soap in your eye!

Address your anxiety

This is the catch-all, the root of the problem we are trying to treat in this and the follow-up installments to this piece. There is no easy cure for modern day anxiety but you should, at least, be able to put your burdens aside long enough to grab some shut-eye. If none of the techniques or practices described herein manage to untether you from your troubles, it may be time visit the doctor, the Wizard of Oz or perhaps the BedKing.

Tune in to our dreamscape again next month for the second course of our monophasic feast...

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