I’ve struggled with insomnia my whole life. It’s partly because I think a little too much, and sometimes when I lie down and get quiet in my body, my mind thinks it’s a great opportunity to pipe up and tell me all kinds of things I probably don’t need to know and won’t remember in the morning. Good sleep hygiene—keeping phones, computers, and work out of the bedroom; keeping it dark and quiet in there; going to bed and waking up around the same times; exercising—these practices have been helpful, but they are no match for my monkey mind. Here are some tips that have helped me negotiate with my head when it’s on a pillow:
Set aside thinking times. Set aside time every day to think your thoughts. Mental processing is important, and if we don’t give ourselves enough time to do it, the mind will take advantage of those first few undistracted moments when we lie down to sleep to pipe up. Getting into a routine where you give your mind the space to talk to you helps provide an outlet for those thoughts. I meditate for ten minutes when I first wake up in the morning and then journal for ten minutes right after that. You may have a different routine that works for you, like taking a walk or spending a few minutes drawing in the afternoon. Anything will work as long as you have regularly scheduled time alone, in relative quiet, where your mind is not otherwise occupied. No, watching TV or scrolling Facebook don’t count.
When you can’t stop thinking, feel. Once you have regular thinking times set aside, remind your mind that you have dedicated time the next day to for thinking. I sometimes say to myself when I’m in bed, “This is a time for dreaming or for feeling, but not for thinking.” It’s very difficult to think and feel at the same time. I often focus my attention on following my breath down into my belly and consciously relaxing there. It gives my mind something to do that’s not thinking, exactly, and it does help me relax at the very least.
Rest. When I was a kid with insomnia, my mom used to tell me (surely trying to get me to go back to bed so she could get some sleep herself) that if you couldn’t sleep, at least you could rest. Sometimes the mental loop that keeps us up is the one that’s frustrated that we are awake and counting the hours before we have to get up. Rest is better than nothing, and it can actually be quite rich. Setting yourself up in a restorative yoga posture can trigger your nervous system to calm down, and you can get a refreshing rest even if sleep doesn’t come. Here are three options:
Sleeping Baby pose requires two long pillows. From lying on your belly, prop one bent knee up on one of the pillows. The other pillow will go diagonally under your face (turned in the direction of your knee) and under the same arm and shoulder as your bent knee.
Waterfall pose is also easy to do in bed. One pillow goes under your head, another under your mid-back, below the shoulders, and a third can go under the knees.
Waterfall can easily become Side-Lying pose: when you turn to your side, one pillow is under your head and the other under the curve of your waist, allowing the shoulder to relax between the two pillows. Optionally take the third pillow between your knees.