Something quite magical has been happening in my life, lately — I’ve been getting more than 6 hours of sleep each night. To people who have no trouble falling asleep and staying that way until they get 8 hours, this might not seem like a big deal, but it is to me.
Leading up to my last MTBI, I couldn’t sleep much more than 3-4 hours a night. I got 5 hours if I was lucky. I was regularly waking up at 3 a.m. (after getting in bed around 11-11:30)… just waking up. BAM – I’d be awake – and I couldn’t get back to sleep, no matter how I tried. My system was fried, my mind was fried, my life was fried. I was in a crazy intensely stressful job that was tweaking my PTSD off the charts. And when I fell down the stairs at the end of 2004 and hit my head hard on the top 3 stairs, it was the coup de grace (pun intended) of a long progression of gradually worsening conditions in my life.
In a way, it was a good thing that I had to leave that job within the year after my TBI, but I really miss the money…
Anyway, after I fell, my insomnia did not improve at all. And then more crap started happening in my life — family emergencies and tragedies, medical crises, personal crises… everything got even more intense, even more crazy, and it was impossible for me to tell what exactly was going on or why things were getting so mucked up. It was like my brain was in suspended animation — nothing seemed to be firing properly, nothing seemed to be working as it should. It would have made me nuts, if I’d understood what was going on, but I didn’t.
As you may or may not know, slowly things have clarified for me, and I’ve taken a lot of steps over the past years to set things to right. But one important aspect has eluded me — getting enough sleep. I had gotten acclimated to getting maybe 6 hours a night, and I thought I was doing well when that was happening. But plenty of people have informed me that you really need 8-9 hours each night, if you’re going to function properly.
I took a good hard look at my life, and I realized that yes, I actually was usually exhausted. I was usually overly fatigued. I had just gotten used to the feel of it, I’d acclimated to the experience, to the point where I thought it didn’t bother me. It was just how it was… I had resigned myself to being constantly tired, and I kept myself going on caffeine and projects and having a jam-packed schedule all the time. I left myself no downtime at all. If I had downtime, I just felt bad, so I didn’t bother giving myself any rest.
Like I said, on a certain level it didn’t bother me. But logically, I could see that something was amiss. Everyone was telling me I needed more sleep — from friends to family to therapists to doctors — and it occurred to me that what they were saying probably had merit. They were folks I trusted, and whose input I believed. They had no reason to deceive me, and I had no reason to disbelieve them.
So, going by a purely rational approach, I decided to try to get more sleep. And I tried to stop pretending that being tired all the time was okay.
Taking naps whenever I could, especially on weekends.
Taking Benadryl to knock myself out, when I couldn’t even begin to relax.
Deep breathing and counting my breaths and alternating opening and closing my eyes at longer and longer intervals, so that my body would get the idea I was going to sleep.
Closing my eyes and moving them around behind closed eyelids — like I was in REM sleep.
Sleeping in different places – in the guest bedroom, on the living room couch, in the car.
Tracking the amount of sleep I was getting, so that I could tell — objectively — when I was probably over-tired (when I’m over-tired, it’s hard for me to tell subjectively that something is wrong)
All these things, to some extent have helped me. And over the past several months, I’ve been able to sleep more and more. I’ve now gotten to the point where I can literally sleep 8-9 hours, under the right conditions, which is a really “new” experience for me in light of my past 6 years or so.
I have also found it helpful to learn about the parasympathetic nervous system and the important jobs it does in maintaining health and vitality. Doing things like deep breathing and relaxation to help jump-start my parasympathetic recovery from stress, has been a big part of helping me get to sleep. The more relaxed I am, when I go to bed, the easier it is to sleep.
It might sound basic and obvious, but that fact eluded me for many years.
Recording my hours of sleep each night has been really helpful, just so I can tell how I’m doing and where I need to improve. After all the last thing I want, is to undermine my health just because I can’t subjectively assess the level of my fatigue. If I can’t do it subjectively (when someone asks me how I’m feeling, even if I’m exhausted, if I’m caught up in a project or I’m “locked on target” for something I need to get done, I am honestly feeling no pain or fatigue), I can do it objectively by tracking my hours of sleep each night.
Most of all, I’ve been benefited by listening to Belleruth Naparstek’s “Stress Hardiness Optimization” CD — especially the last 2 tracks for relaxation and restful sleep. I put on my headphones and play the last 2 tracks, and I’m usually asleep by the middle of the first track. If I can’t sleep by then, I’m usually under a few minutes into the “restful sleep” track. In fact, it’s worked so well that I haven’t the faintest idea what’s at the end of the “restful sleep” track, since I’ve slept through it over and over.
I make a point of listening to the CD every day for several weeks, then I’ll take a little break, and go back to it. I’m a real believer in it, and since I’ve become increasingly sensitive to Benadryl (it knocks me out too much over the following days – it has a very long half-life), the guided imagery has turned out to be my “prescription” of choice for insomnia.
So, now I know I have tools to help me sleep when I need it. And that takes the pressure off… which also helps me relax… and sleep.
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