Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep. It runs the gamut from acute, i.e. once in a while and usually because of life circumstances, to chronic, which refers disrupted sleep that occurs three nights per week or more. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 40 million Americans experience insomnia annually, so I know I’m not alone. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m a 33-year-old woman who has endured several sleepless nights a week since I was 10 years-old.
For me, the worst part about insomnia is just how terrible the sleeplessness makes me feel. I know there are people who say they can do “just fine” on six or less hours of sleep, but I’m not one of those people. When I do manage to get eight or nine hours of sleep, I feel like a superhero. After a night of bad sleep I can barely function. I feel like a fog has engulfed my brain as I reach for sugary foods that only end up making me feel worse.
Of course, I’ve tried all the standard ways to improve my sleep. I can recite them all by heart: Don’t consume caffeine after noon. Avoid electronics around bedtime. Keep your bedroom cool and dark. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. Come up with a bedtime routine. The list goes on and on.
While I sometimes thought some of these tricks helped for a time, I never saw any long-term success with them. And then the coronavirus pandemic started.
How COVID (and Sex and The City) Helped Me Cure My Insomnia
As it became clear just how bad the coronavirus pandemic had become, I started to feel a loss of control over my life that left me a little numb. So I started doing something very unlike me: I pulled my laptop into bed with me when I got drowsy at night and watched an episode of Sex And The City, my ultimate comfort show.
I expected it would mess with my sleep, but I didn’t care — what did sleep matter when I didn’t have anywhere to be in the morning? Surprisingly, the opposite happened. Even with that evil blue light streaming into my eyeballs when I was supposed to be meditating, taking a warm bath or reading a book, one episode of the show lulled me to sleep and kept me asleep all night long.
And guess what? I’ve been sleeping well ever since.
While there are no guarantees when you’re an insomniac, I seem to have found a rhythm that works for me most nights: I stop checking my work email after 6 pm. I distance, but don’t totally separate, myself from my phone after dinner. I take a hot shower. And I get in bed nine hours before I have to wake up to provide myself a buffer if it takes me a while to fall asleep. Then, I fire up my laptop and watch half an hour of TV.
How I Made My Own “Rules” of Sleep
It’s easy to think that when you’re not following certain prescribed “rules,” you’re doing it wrong. But if I’ve learned anything recently, it’s that paying close attention to your own needs might just help you make a set of rules that actually work.
When I chatted with therapist Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., LPCC-S (OH) and Clinical Director of Talkspace, she encouraged me to think of these sleep rules as things that work for “most,” not all.
“A general rule of thumb is to avoid screens for about an hour or so before bedtime,” she explained. “The reality is, for some people, falling asleep with the TV on produces the type of consistent background noise, routine, and comfort that helps facilitate sleep.”
Will I ever be one of those people who gets a solid eight hours of sleep every single night? No way. But allowing myself to make my own sleep rules has provided me a whole lot of freedom that I didn’t know I needed. As O’Neill said, “Getting too caught up in the process of what you should or shouldn’t be doing can actually end up being counterproductive to facilitating sleep.”