Sleeping like a baby? Dealing with insomnia

By Aislinn McDonagh

As someone who has suffered from both insomnia and glandular fever (also called mono, which, if you are lucky enough to have never suffered it, is a viral disease lasting several months at a time which has a primary symptom of exhaustion and fatigue), I am able to come at the issue of sleep from both angles. Not sleeping enough wasn’t fun, but neither was sleeping all the time.

Sleep is important for our health, but also our mental health and emotional wellbeing. Having an unusual (or non existent) sleeping pattern can lead to problems with work, problems with friends, and a perpetuation of the problems (like anxiety or physical illness) which have caused the sleeping problems in the first place! When I could not sleep, I had no energy to socialize or work, and when I was constantly sleeping, I had no time, which only led to me being more and more concerned about my sleep, and likely to lay awake worrying. For those of us at university, it is especially important in exam season, as sleep is essential for the consolidation of memory.

That all sounds very doom and gloom, but having been through both sides and come out swinging (and napping), what have I learned?

Firstly, how do I sleep at night? Well, first of all, the best way to have a good night is a good day. Get up in the morning, be active, even if that’s just walking to lectures, eat well, and make sure you’re hydrated. I know, I know, I sound like your mum, but it’s true!

Secondly, advice usually given is to have a bedtime routine, which you do every day, to prepare your body for sleep. For some, that is showering, or having a cup of green tea, or just washing your face; others might have more elaborate or precise routines. Although it is more complex than this, think of it like simple pavlovian conditioning; if every time you are are about to go to bed you do the same thing, you will begin to psychologically associate that action with sleep, making it easier, or even automatic, to sleep afterwards.

Relatedly, many of us, particularly those living in small student accommodation, live our whole lives sat on our bed. We work on our bed, socialize on beds, maybe even eat sat on the bed. Keeping your bed as a place for sleep (or other bed-specific activities wink wink) will stop you associating it with things that keep you awake and alert, particularly work. You can’t sleep at your desk, so don’t work in your bed.

Lastly, if you are struggling to sleep because your mind is buzzing or you are worrying, mindfulness activities can be extremely helpful. Adult colouring books are everywhere now, but originated as a mindfulness activity. They give you the chance to focus on a simple activity and cease thinking about external factors for a few minutes, while creating something pretty. Also, basic breathing exercises help to not only clear your mind, but slow your heart rate and physically prepare your body for sleep. Personally, I imagine a constant line of breath, and focus on making it as smoothly undulating as possible, like a sinusoidal curve.

A final tip which has personally worked for me is listening to audiobooks when you go to sleep. Apps like audible have sleep timers, so you can set the book to play (quietly) from your phone for 8, 15, or 30 minutes to relax you and send you to sleep. Now part of my bedroom routine, I rarely make it past the first few sentences, such is the extent of my conditioning! The best audiobooks for this are those with softly spoken narrators, and which you know well, so you are not focused on the plot but rather simply enjoying a familiar story. Some people like Stephen Fry’s Harry Potter audiobooks for this – personally I get too caught up in the Golden Trio’s adventures, but it is often a good place to start if you don’t listen to audiobooks often.

Most of the tips above are about how to sleep better at night, but as I said, I have experience of what it is like to be simply exhausted and sleeping all the time as well. The first piece of advice I would give to someone who finds themselves consistently exhausted or sleepy for an extended period of time is to see a doctor. Fatigue is often a symptom of other medical problems, including glandular fever but also anemia, depression, or metabolic diseases. Snap with extended periods of insomnia, see a doctor, and do not suffer in silence. Even if they can’t help you directly, having a doctor’s note is essential for negotiating extenuating circumstances with the university. Be honest with your friends and family, and first and foremost prioritize your sleep. If you have to miss a night out, or a house meal, to sleep then that’s okay. Sleep is important, healthy, and cuddly.

Sloth on.

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