I’ve always considered myself somebody who slept pretty well. If I was awake during the night, it was because something stressful was going on in my life. However, my bad nights of sleep increasingly began to outnumber the good, but I never thought that I had insomnia. Insomnia sounded serious, like something other people had, but not easygoing me. (This is a joke. I’m not easygoing.) But lately, my sleep had become more fragile and I’d lie in bed with my heart pounding for no good reason. Often, I’d wake up around 1:30 or 2 AM and struggle to get back to sleep, maybe for two or three hours. And then when my unforgiving alarm woke me up, I felt draggy and pessimistic. I had dark circles under my eyes.
I didn’t think my not sleeping well was that big of a deal. Most of my girlfriends don’t sleep well and with good midwestern reasoning, I thought that it could be worse. I started going to bed earlier and earlier, but still woke up tired. I thought that I was just somebody who needed a lot of sleep, not somebody with a insomnia. But once I fixed my problem, I realized that it had been worse than I had realized.
Our Brains Need Sleep
Recently I was listening to Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherzai’s podcast on brain health and they were emphasizing the importance of restorative sleep for Alzheimer’s prevention. They said that if a person needed more than 9 hours of sleep, something was wrong with the quality of their sleep.
This made me think – maybe this was my problem. I was in bed each night for at least 9 hours, but was not well-rested. Maybe I didn’t have a quantity problem, but a quality problem.
Tracking my Sleep
I wanted to get to the bottom of this and so in true business school fashion, I began tracking the quality of my sleep, along with the variables that I knew impacted it: yoga, meditation, going out for dinner and intense exercise. (Some sleep experts recommend tracking alcohol, caffeine and screen time, but these didn’t seem to be an issue for me.) Each morning, I would grade myself based on how well I had slept. I would then indicate what I had done the day before to help improve my slumber.
After doing this for about a week, I noticed that I wasn’t sleeping well most nights (lots of C’s and D’s). On my bad nights, I also didn’t do many of the things that would help me sleep better. In fact, many times, I was not doing *any* of the things that I knew would help me rest. I think of myself as somebody who does yoga and meditates, but when I looked at my track record, it painted a different picture. Seeing it on paper was alarming. My perception and reality were surprisingly different.
This realization made me to take a good look in the mirror. I wanted to sleep better but was choosing to not do everything possible to make it so. Hmm. It sounded like I was either dropping the ball or not sincere in my desire. Either way, it was time for me to get serious about making some changes.
Ready to Try Anything
I desperately wanted to sleep better and was ready to try anything. I started with the hardest thing first: meditation. I began using the guided meditations on Tara Brach’s site. And now that I had a goal of sleeping well, I made time to do so. In fact, meditation became one of my highest priorities each day. I did it during the day for 20 minutes with a guided meditation and then right before bed for 15 minutes. This is a lot of meditation! But 35 minutes during the day was better than 2 or 3 hours of tossing and turning during the night.
I didn’t change anything else. And immediately, immediately! I started getting A’s in sleep, night after night. I began waking up before my 6 AM alarm went off, feeling rested and ready to get up. Also, now that I was actually sleeping in bed and not just anxiously lying there, I discovered I didn’t need as much sleep as I had thought. Now that my sleep is restorative and continuous, 8 hours in bed is plenty.
A Different Person
After a good night’s sleep, I’m more positive, resilient, optimistic and calm. I wake up with an expectant feeling that something really good might happen, like tomorrow might be Christmas morning. My husband says that the difference in me is visible; I no longer look weary. The dark circle beneath my eyes have faded. I’m less anxious. Because these changes have been so dramatic, I think my insomnia was worse than I had known.
I’ve also realized that when I’m sleeping well, I have fewer complaints. In fact, because nothing is really bugging me, I have less to talk about with my girlfriends. I don’t think of myself as a complainer, but now I think I kind of was. I was tired and things sometimes got under my skin.
I understand that sleeping well is a lifelong struggle for some and it’s not possible for everyone. And what works for me, may be of no help to you. But you might want to try tracking your sleep, along with whatever variables might be relevant to you. When you see it on paper, it’s harder to ignore the role that we may play in what happens at night.
The reward of good sleep is monumental. It benefits long-term health, but also brings with it the immediate reward of feeling great. It has changed the quality of my life.
If you have sleep challenges, I hope you can find some improvement too. Whatever you need to do, the rewards are worth it.