Earlier this year, I worked with a sleep specialist. I wanted to regain those luxurious seven and a half hours I’ve usually slept these last several years. But in January, I started experiencing intermittent bouts of insomnia and by February it became chronic. So I sought out a sleep doctor and worked with a specialist nurse to track my nighttime habits.
We went over the usual litany of possible obstructions to sleep: screen time in the late evening, the glow of nightlights, bed comfort, room temperature, unwanted noise, alcohol use, etc. These are all part of what experts call “sleep hygiene.” In other words, how well you accommodate your body’s natural ability to become sleepy and actually sleep. My sleep hygiene was quite good. I’d solved earlier problems of noise and light on my own, which left the last and most common factor in getting good rest: stress.
Investigating my Habits
I’ve experienced it a lot these last two years. The pandemic put a huge strain on our family. We had pets die. My sister was diagnosed with advanced cancer. Despite these circumstances, my nurse told me over 90 percent of insomnia cases are solved with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I was skeptical but willing to try. And so, I began a system of tracking my sleep.
I created logs where I wrote down when I feel asleep, how long I slept, and when/how many times I woke up. I also tracked when I got in bed and left my bed. It was all kind of silly to me since my pattern was stable. Fall asleep for a few hours, wake for a couple hours, then sleep for two hours or so. On really bad nights, I experienced very little if any deep, black out sleep.
Our aim was to figure out how much sleep I could generate. Some folks only sleep about six hours and seem to be fine so we needed to find out how long my body needed. I started staying up until one in the morning and setting an alarm for seven. This strategy didn’t help. I was tired at midnight but then overtired by one and couldn’t fall asleep. Plus, I caught a cold and felt rundown. So I ditched this method.
We talked more about cognitive issues and winding down my thoughts at the end of the night. This has been difficult since I’ve been dealing with all of what I described above. And then there’s always a ton of the next day’s work to think about!
My specialist advised me not to stay in bed whenever I was conscious as this often led to me seeing my bed as a place of worry and stress when it should be a clear-headed refuge. But I like to read in bed before falling asleep. I like to wake up slowly and let’s face it, there was no way I was getting up during the night to sit in a cold quiet house or wash dishes or watch TV.
The Effective Strategy I Discovered
In the end, I discovered a strategy on my own that gave me good solid sleep. It was something unexpected and easier than I’d imagined. And it had no tracking or psychological “shoulds” built into it. And of course no medication.
You might have heard of “morning pages.” It’s the daily ritual of writing three pages of stream of consciousness as soon as you wake up. The idea is to declutter your mind before going on with your day. Start off mentally free and clear. Author Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist’s Way, created the practice. And several creatives I know swear by it.
To be honest though, I could never get into the habit of morning pages. I’ve kept gratitude journals before but not morning ones. After I wake up, I’ve always felt too sleepy to journal and never had much clutter in my head in the morning anyway. I mean, I’d just woken up from being unconscious, which had wiped my worries and concerns away for the night.
So I flipped the habit around. Instead of journaling in the morning, I journaled right before sleep. I free wrote in bed, a stream of consciousness without editing. I started with how the day went. What was bothering me, worrying me, annoying me, whatever. I cut loose, not holding anything back. I bitched, griped, felt sorry for myself, bemoaned whatever went wrong. My grievances tumbled onto the page.
Also, I wrote down my not-so-emotional stuff. What I had to figure out. What I had to tackle. Who to call or email the next day. The stuff that was still unfinished and would carry over into the next day. I dumped it all onto the page.
The Unexpected Happened
After a few days of this, an interesting thing happened. I slept better. I fell asleep more quickly and stayed asleep longer. It was as if I’d drained my brain and it was ready to do nothing else except shut off. Since I’d put all those thoughts and feelings bouncing around in my mind on the page, I had nothing else to mentally spin out about. It was all external and somehow finished for the time being. What’s more, it was in a place I could refer back to the next day if I needed to. But heh, it turned out I rarely needed to.
Since I’ve been writing in my night diary, I’ve slept in a deep blackout sleep most nights. If I do wake up, I’m not automatically stressing so much about being awake or what’s bothering me or what’s on my mind. I feel more clear-headed, more relaxed and I fall back to sleep more easily.
It’s as if the page has absorbed all of my mental junk and is holding it there for me until I’m ready to deal with it again. It reminds me of David Allen’s system of Getting Things Done. He recommends writing out every little and big thing you have to do in order for you to clear your head of the stress that work generates. It’s about dumping all the unfinished stuff out of your mind so you can get organized.
This tactic is in some ways similar. I write for as many pages or as few paragraphs as I need. I don’t judge my writing or my life, I just record. Feelings and frustrations are best. And to be honest, since I’ve been night writing regularly, my days have gotten less stressful. Perhaps because I’m more rested, I don’t know.
Also, I don’t date my entries because I don’t need to review on what day which kind of stress happened. There’s not much point in that for me, although some folks may find that useful. I’m more inclined to write out the stress and move on. In fact, I’m thinking of recycling all my entries at each month’s end so I don’t judge myself for feeling badly about the same thing more than once.
A Recommended Respite
Nowadays, I actually look forward to getting into my bed. I journal and then, when I have nothing more to write, I read a light book and sleep. I encourage you to try it. If you can at least empty your mind of your stress and its related mental junk, you’ll probably be able to shut down for a longer rest. Then, because of that sleep, you might end up having better days since you’ll be rested, more clear-headed, and able to seize the day with more positive energy.
I’ve always thought keeping a journal meant writing long passages of insight about your life and its meaning, a diary a la Anais Nin or The Artist’s Way that someday after you die would reveal who you secretly were. I’ve tried to do this in the past but it never stuck. But after reading Show Your Work, I’ve realized that keeping a journal is the opposite. It can be disjointed, messy, inspired, and mundane. It’s a reflection of the nonlinear mind, of the creative journey. Like a painting of thoughts, ideas, notes, and even drawings, its bits and pieces coalesce to form its beauty.