The insomniac struggle is real



This used to be me too. I had great success with Sleepio, and although I still have bad nights, I’m a lot better most of the time.

It feels quite expensive for what it is (a lot of online animated videos and a few tools - afaik you still need to track your own sleep times manually or with some other app), but it’s money very well spent in my opinion.

This is me, spot on, except that I usually go to sleep OK these days, it’s that I wake up around 3 or 4am and start this process. The whole Stage 5 thing - beating myself up over some unresolved self criticism - is way unhealthy and I find just so disgustingly weak and sophomoreish. Gak. Oh, wait there I go… self critical death spin! BLOW THE CANOPY! PUNCH OUT!

When the weather is fare and I’m feeling mentally healthy, this is when I get up and go run. When the weather is foul and I’m feeling mentally healthy, this is when I get on the bike trainer and spin a few miles. When the weather is whatever and I’m feeling mentally unhealthy, this is when I get up and drink coffee while screwing around online. Thank god for Boing Boing.


I’ve had trouble with insomnia off and on, I’ve discovered that listening to something (usually a podcast) can stop my brain from accelerating out of control, both when I’m going to sleep and when I wake up in the early AM. I turn the volume down so that I have to hold my head still to hear it, and in 10 minutes or so I’m out.

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The really fun ones are when I wake up at 12am, lie there for another two hours trying to get back to sleep while my brain runs around in circles, finally decide I may as well make use of the time doing something on the computer… and then finally get hit with a wave of sleepiness an hour before I need to get up normally for work.


The US Air Force has done some work on getting their pilots to sleep or nap as quickly as possible ('cuz the killing can’t stop, eh). They’ve found that cooling the body, or even just cool air directed at the cheeks, helps in falling asleep.

So, wear a barely-warm-enough bathrobe for a bit, do not take a hot shower, and read Marco Polo’s Travels before going to bed. That last one, it works!

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Sounds obvious, but sometimes I forget – I sleep so much better from two main things: no caffeine after 10 in the morning, and half an hour or so of some sort of cardio.

I read somewhere recently that a lot of the time we think we’re awake, we’re actually dreaming we’re awake. I wish I could remember my source, it suggested laying quietly with eyes closed as the best strategy. You might find yourself thinking, “damn I’ll never get to sl…zzzzzz”

The research, if I recall, involved actually observing people who reported insomnia; their perceived amount of sleep was less than the measured amount, by several hours.

P.S.: Funny comic is funny.


This really speaks to me. It’s always great when you suddenly wake up at 4 AM, and your brain becomes active enough to think but still tired enough to be really dumb. It makes the whole dwelling-on-your-shit-life thing a whole lot more creative.


There are a couple of behaviors described in the comic that I think make the situation worse. The main one is the quest to get comfortable. You need to find some position that doesn’t make you deeply uncomfortable, and then decide to stick with it and not adjust. The blanket thing: choose to be a little uncomfortable. Just accept that it’s not going to be perfect and stop trying to correct for it, because correcting for it is part of what’s keeping you awake.

To deal with the other issues you need to practice some meditation techniques. If you are having trouble sleeping, these techniques are worth learning, because they work. The main technique is the basic notice and allow cycle: notice that some thought has come up. Allow it to be there, and accept it without resisting, but don’t try to analyze it or engage with it. Focus your attention on your breath, or on the feelings in your body. After a while the thought will go away. It may come back, but if you keep doing this, you will get to sleep faster.

If it’s something really bad, the kind of thing that wakes you up and keeps you awake at 4am, then the technique I’ve been using is to just get up and meditate on a cushion for a half hour. No computer stuff, no entertainment. I’ve had some really great meditations this way, and then when I go back to bed my mind is quiet and I can go back to sleep. It’s amazingly effective.

Four other habits I try to follow are to avoid drinking any caffeinated beverages more than about five hours after waking up, to avoid consuming anything with significant sugar in it within a few hours of bed, to avoid going to bed on a full stomach, and to avoid heavy exercise within a few hours of sleep. When I screw any of these up, getting to sleep is harder, but using the notice, allow, move attention technique does still work–it just takes longer.


Oh, one last thing: I am absolutely merciless about eliminating sources of light in the place where I am sleeping. At a hotel, I pull the blackout curtains. If I need to sleep past dawn, I wear eye shades. If I go to the bathroom, I do it in the dark, or with the light dimmed down so low it’s barely on.


This is fascinating. And easy to prove true, I guess.

I had bad insomnia for so long. I would be in sleep limbo for 4-5 hours a night. I’d be not quite awake, not quite asleep. Eventually I would doze off, getting only like 3 hours of real sleep.

Finally figured out it was my pain meds. Go figure. So now I have to cut them off med day so they are all out of my system so I can sleep at night. More pain, but more sleep.

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I think alcohol makes it worse, at least in my case. E.g. that glass of wine after dinner turns into sugar, so around 2 in the morning the cylinders are firing again. That may not even be how it works… Just as likely that I’m no longer tired after going through one sleep cycle (IIRC, 3 hours for most of us) so of course I wake up.


Also: bluish-spectrum white lights are worse sleep disruptors than more yellowish incandescent, supposedly because it messes up our internal perception of what is day or night based on sunlight (or something, too lazy to find proper citations but I’m sure you can find them if you want).

In my experience, avoiding screen time just before bed (TV, computer, phone, tablet and the sort) helps with falling asleep earlier. A software solution like F.Lux can help in the case of nighttime computer use, and for some reason the soft glow from my Kindle Paperwhite doesn’t seem to affect me the same way so I can get sleepy by reading just fine.

Or just get some cool shades.


First time through I read that as “no cocaine after 10 in the morning”

Which really would also be a sound policy.

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Have a wank.


Great that you have routines to deal with this.

Another suggestion: take a “mindfulness” class. (eg )

“Mindfulness” is meant for exactly this type of situation. While it doesn’t work for everyone, nor does it address every situation, mindfulness techniques can be a very handy tool. Every little bit helps. These tools have helped several folks I know.

Ugh. For reals.
I’ve dealt with some flavor of this for a long, long time. Now, given my chronic sleep deprivation, my current mistake/coping mechanism is, when woken at ~4am say “f- it” and wake up, go downstairs, and try to do something productive.
This is likely not a good strategy.

Using screen time actually helps me avoid the run-away-brain… I put my tablet on the dimmest setting (looks black with even a wee bit of ambient light); don my yellowish-orange reading glasses and play Sudoku at a level that keeps me engaged without too much actual brain power required – I usually fall asleep in 10-15 minutes max. If I just lay there and try to sleep it will take me anywhere from 15 min - 4 hr to fall asleep.