One of the features of young-adulthood is being oh God like soooooo hungover and sleep-deprived all the time, darkly glamorous behind thick, black vampire shades and beneath wild bedhead, lurching into your workplace like Death itself with a not now OK scowl and scandalizing all the old married farts and kitten-kitsch-bedecked spinsters with visions of your sexy predawn hijinks. Insomnia is not that.
Even if the effects—exhaustion, bad job/school/relationship performance, just kind of being out of it and sad and confused all the time—are mostly the same, losing sleep because you live your life like it is a goddamn Taco Bell FourthMeal commercial is a very different thing from losing sleep because you just simply cannot fall asleep, even when you want to, even when you are trying to, even when you are panicking and on the verge of tears because you've never been so tired in your entire life and yet still cannot fall the fuck asleep. Take it from me, an internet stranger who slept for, like, eight minutes total from 1999 to 2003, despite a social life as barren as the surface of Pluto: They're different!
The main difference between the two kinds of sleep deprivation is how you fix them. In the case of sexy nightclubbin' sleep loss, you fix this by becoming an Old Person: You settle into a cozy relationship and have kids, and all of a sudden you have the opposite problem, which is that you can't even sit down to watch more than six minutes of Everybody Loves Raymond reruns after your stupidly early dinner without dozing off. In the case of insomnia ... hell, maybe you can fix it, and maybe you can't and will need medication, but you can help yourself by learning some good sleep habits.
That's an entire concept—"learning some good sleep habits"—that seems weird and unnecessary on its face. Like, sleep is a biological imperative, right? So why should anybody need to learn how to do it? The answer has to do with circadian rhythms and sunlight and human evolution and the very fun German word zeitgeber, and it's good to look that stuff up and read about it, but you don't really need to do that to improve your life.
What you need to know is this: Sleep is not just a direct consequence of being tired. Otherwise, the morning commute would feature many thousands more burning car wrecks than it does. On a biological level, your body and brain respond to a certain pattern—a rhythm—that tells them that it is time to shut down for the night. If you practice that pattern, you can help to train yourself to get sleepy pretty much on cue—and to rise and become alert on schedule, too.
Good sleep habits are not a guaranteed cure for sleeplessness. Maybe you will need some other intervention; insomnia can be a serious and tricky ailment, and can have many different causes. But good sleep habits are still good and healthful, and anybody can benefit from learning them. Below, you'll find tips on some good ones to have.
(Note: If you're already somebody who has no trouble falling asleep and staying asleep every night, you probably don't need to be rigid about these. Note also that I hate your guts.)
We'll start in the morning.
Wake up and get out of bed at the same time every day.
Yeah, this is a fuggin' drag, I know. You had bad, shitty sleep all week, and now it's Saturday morning, and it's cold and rainy outside, and dammit, you want to sleep until dinnertime. Don't do it! Force your ragged carcass out of bed and do something. Even if you had a hard time falling asleep the night before; even if all you can manage is to go sit at a desk or table and drool onto it while a bowl of cereal gets soggy nearby, do that.
You might be tempted to say, But I am so goddamn tired, I really need this sleep for my health. Short-term, sure, you might feel better today if you sleep in for a couple of hours. But even that's not guaranteed, and if you're dealing with chronic sleep problems, what you need more than a couple extra hours of sleep today is a sleep pattern than helps you to get a good night's sleep every night.
You're teaching your brain that Sleep Time ends at the same time every day; that, at the same time, every day, you will rise and leave bed and make a clean break with the sleeping part of the day. This will help you teach your brain that Sleep Time begins at the same time every night, too.
Get out of bed all at once.
I used to do this thing where I'd deliberately set my alarm for, like, 45 minutes before I knew I had to be out of bed, because I just loved being able to wake up, go, Oh, I'm so glad I don't have to get up and go to work yet, and fall back asleep for a half-hour. That is just the stupidest thing. It's a voluntary sleep disturbance. The sleep you get after it is garbage sleep—worse yet, it leaves a sticky residue of drowsiness that takes half the day to shake off.
Don't do that. Set the alarm for a time that gives you enough slack to have a nice, unhurried morning, and get out of bed as soon as it goes off. Position it all the way across the bedroom from where you sleep, so that you will have to get up and walk to it in order to turn it off, which ought to wake you juuust enough to make the conscious decision to stay awake. This will make you hate your alarm clock more than you ever knew you could hate anything, but that's okay. It's a sacrifice the alarm clock is happy to make.
Limit your caffeine intake to the morning.
Another drag. I am a bohemian artiste!, you, an office drone with a "manuscript," are protesting. Coffee is the cornerstone beverage of bohemian artiste culture! Honoré de Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day, and implicitly likening myself to Honoré de Balzac is not ludicrous at all!
Listen. It is not complicated. Caffeine is a stimulant. If you drink it in the afternoon or evening, it will prolong your wakefulness. If you are having trouble falling asleep, probably you should stop taking stimulants in the afternoon or evening.
Don't sit in the dark all goddamn day.
Wait. This has nothing to do with sleep. But: Yes it does! One of the most important habits to have, if you struggle to get a good night's sleep, is to make a nice, consistent division between the bright, active, wakeful part of the day (daytime) and the dark, relaxed, sleepy part of the day (night).
As a human being, you are diurnal, meaning that you have evolved to be wakeful and active during sunlight hours, and sleepy and inactive during dark hours. If every hour of your day is just as gloomy and half-lit as every other, this will fuck your sleep shit up: Your brain will not be sure which part is the sleeping part and which is the wakeful part, and the best it'll be able to do is to settle you into a rut of half-alertness that never changes and does nobody any good.
So. Quit with the goth shit. You are not a bat. Turn some lights on! Open the blinds! The feeble, sickly glow of your computer display does not count. Get as much light as you can during the daylight hours. On a related note:
Expose yourself to some sunshine, ya big mole rat.
I saw some kind of documentary thing on TV once that included a segment about a community that lived above the Arctic Circle; during the winter, when the sun stayed below the horizon all day, the little kids in the school would be taken to a certain room at regular intervals to kinda hang out with a big ultraviolet lamp for a little while, so they could get some Vitamin D in their sad, dark lives. It was a striking, memorable image: a buncha hardy little Arctic kids, just hangin' around in this barren, gloomy, blue-lit room, chilling with a UV lamp like it was their buddy. The point here is that exposure to sunlight is good for you, and you need it, and you're lucky if you live below the Arctic Circle, because you can get it by just going the fuck outside instead of huddling next to a UV lamp like a refugee in a science-fiction dystopia.
This is doubly important if you spend your days in a gloomy blog cavern (like, for example, the Gawker Media office, which at the height of midday is precisely twice as dark as the bottom of the Mariana Trench). Go the fuck outside! On as many days as it's not pouring rain, try to spend some time outside.
That brain-dead feeling you get at the end of the evening, when you're crabby and slow-witted, and your head feels like it's full of oatmeal—that's not precisely the same thing as being physically tired. If you can, during the actual daytime part of the day, do something that requires actual physical exertion. Walk to work. Sneak off to the gym during your lunch break. Suplex your boss through a plate-glass window. Something.
Try to do this during the actual day; in the immediate aftermath, it'll actually give you a boost of energy that'll make falling asleep harder, so you don't want to do it in the evening. Especially if you make a routine of nighttime physical exertion: That'll confuse the hell out of your body.
Don't take naps.
Ohhhh but [famous genius person] took 74 30-second naps per day! Cram it. Maybe some people can take naps. You, insomniac who put on a T-shirt as a pair of underpants today because he has not been more than 35-percent conscious in six months, are not one of those people. For you, drooling insomnia zombie whose eyeballs are drier than the surface of Mars and twice as red, your body is all fucked-up and confused about which part of the day is the wakeful time and which part is the sleepy time. You have to teach it. So, stop sleeping when the sun is up. Save your sleep for nighttime.
Start winding down a good 90 minutes before bedtime.
Work, dinner, the gym, parenting, social activities, whatever: Start wrapping these things up 90 minutes before bedtime. Again: You're teaching your brain that there's a clear distinction between Doin' Stuff Time and Snoozin' Time. You can accomplish this distinction by putting a big impenetrable border between the two: Winding Down Time. Some Damn Peace and Quiet Around Here Time.
So. Turn off the lights in your home, except for one light in whatever room you're in. Lower the volume on the TV. Finish eating and drinking for the day (in particular, eating in the evening can make sleeping more difficult; drinking might make you need to pee in the middle of the night). Change into the kind of ratty pajama-type clothes you'd never wear in public, so your fear of public shame will keep you from going anywhere.
Also, this is just my hunch, but turn off the computer/tablet/smartphone, too. Shit's overstimulating.
Go to bed at the same time every night.
Yeah, this one's another bummer. It's an important one! But it's not nearly as important, or nearly as big a bummer, as the next one.
Don't do anything in bed except for falling asleep and sleeping.
No, please, put down the gun. Listen! If you like to read or watch TV or browse the internet in bed, and you don't have any trouble falling asleep, you may keep your routine. This is advice for people who have a hard time falling asleep. Those people may shoot me with their guns.
Don't read in bed. Don't browse the internet in bed. Don't watch TV in bed. (Don't even have a TV in your bedroom.) Hell, roll down onto the floor next to the bed to have sex. In fact, don't even lay in bed, trying to fall asleep, for more than 20 minutes. Don't do anything, anything, in bed, except for falling asleep and sleeping.
This is so super-duper important for people who struggle with insomnia. You need to build an association, in your head, between getting in bed and falling asleep. Your bed should be the only place you fall asleep, and falling asleep should be the only thing you do in your bed.
As a practical matter, here's how that should work. Say you go to bed at your appointed bedtime, but you can't fall asleep. You're laying there, blinking in the dark, tired but not sleepy. After 20 minutes of this, of relaxing and breathing slowly and giving yourself a chance to fall asleep, get out of bed. Go sit—sit and not lay down—in another room, with just enough lighting to read by, and read a book for a bit. When you start to feel drowsy—when you get to that point where you're reading the same line over and over again but not comprehending it, or the book falls into your lap, put the book down, turn the light off, and go back to bed. If you're not asleep in another 20 minutes, repeat.
This can make for a shitty night or two, at first, repeating this pattern until your brain and body figure out that your bed is for sleeping and not for casting your imagination 20 years into the future and working yourself into an acute depressive episode over anxiety about whether you'll have made anything of your life by then. But, after that, you'll likely notice that you start getting drowsier as soon as your head hits the pillow at night.
At which point—congratulations!—you will have made a successful transition from Sad Insomniac to Well-Rested Person with a Boring Nightlife. That's actually a better thing to be! You'll look better and live longer and, when you speak, it will be in clear, coherent sentences and not garbled, circular gibberish. People will like you more! You'll like people more! They'll invite you to cool shit, and you'll say, Oh I'm sorry, I have to be home by 8 so I can turn the lights down and start preparing for my rigidly regulated bedtime.
And then they won't invite you to things anymore. The jerks.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.
Image by Sam Woolley.