How I Beat Insomnia

Posted on June 8th, 2011 in Commentary by EngineerBoy

Don't watch this to go to sleep...

First, let me say that I am not a doctor and I make no claims that what worked for me will work for anyone else, or that anyone else should try the things described here.  However, I did want to relate what worked for me so that others who may have had it work for them could see they are not alone, or those thinking about trying it will see that there is at least one case where it worked.  The ‘cure’ described here goes against every piece of conventional wisdom and medical advice that I have ever seen about insomnia, which made me doubly motivated to share it, since I know that it works for me.

When I was in my early teens I had an episode of sleep paralysis, described here. It was very disturbing, and from that time up until my 40′s, I struggled with insomnia.  I tried many things:

Sleeping pills: knocked me out, but I did not feel rested, and I did not want to take pills regularly even if they worked.

Sleep hygiene: trying to sleep in a dark, quiet place simply does not work for me, to this day, and all the wind-down, no-TV, no-computer stuff did nothing more than make me even more unable to sleep.

No caffeine: I would go caffeine free for months, with no effect.

No food after 6pm:  Made no difference.

Diet/exercise: No difference.

Etc.

I tried anything and everything, but I would just lay wide awake, mind racing, then typically fall asleep at 5-6am, then have to wake up at 7am and start all over again.  This went on, to varying degrees, for *decades*.

However, as the years passed I found that there were certain combinations of factors that usually resulted in me falling asleep.  I’m a fairly old fart, and when I was growing up there weren’t VCRs, DVDs, or TiVos, there was just the TV, and what was on, was on, and that was it.  However, once the age of VCRs started, I began collecting movies, usually my old favorites.  And I began to notice that when I couldn’t sleep, and I would go out to my recliner and pop in an old, favorite, well-known movie, I would usually go to sleep in my chair, and usually stay asleep.

And, if I happened to wake up, I could rewind the movie to where I had fallen asleep, start watching again, and fall back to sleep.  And this worked pretty much like clockwork.  Not perfect, but it worked 80%-90% of the time.  In fact, it worked so well that it started to relieve the tension that I felt at bed time, and sometimes allowed me to fall asleep in bed and get a good night’s sleep, because I knew that if I found I couldn’t sleep, I could go out to the living room, pop in an old movie, recline, and go to sleep.

I realized that having the distraction of something to watch, and having it be something that was entertaining (because I already knew I liked it) without being engaging (because it was something I had already seen and knew the story), allowed me to disconnect and drift off to sleep.

Watching something new didn’t work.  Watching the news didn’t work.  Listening to music made my skin crawl.  Reading would rarely work, because I couldn’t force myself to reread books that I already knew, and new books either bored me because they sucked or engaged me because they were good, but in neither case did it put me to sleep.

Then, as cable TV channels proliferated, it became even easier, as all the old shows that I knew and loved were in high rotation on Nickelodeon, TBS, WGN, local affiliates, etc.  So, I didn’t necessarily need to go out to the living room and pop in a tape, I could watch the TV in the bedroom and get the same result, usually.

However, watching TV in the bedroom wasn’t necessarily universally popular either, as the flickering images and sounds that put me to sleep didn’t necessarily work the same magic on my wife.  Also, it was hit or miss on finding something sleep-inducing.

Then along came TiVo, and the advent of cheap, small LCD televisions.  Today, we have a regular TV and TiVo in the bedroom, but I also have a small LCD TV (7″) on my side of the bed, below the level of the mattress where only I can see it, also connected to the TiVo.  I also have a pair of SleepPhones plugged into the little TV, which I can wear to go to sleep.  So, now, my nightly routine is usually to turn on my little bedside TV (on which I have the brightness turned way down to decrease the flicker effect), put on my SleepPhones, put the TiVo on some old show, and then go to sleep.

Just like that.  In fact, many nights I don’t even watch the little TV, I just drift off to sleep naturally.  But, if I wake up in the night and can’t get back to sleep, I can turn it on, put on the headphones, and doze right back off.  Also note that after a while the stretchiness of the SleepPhones starts to wear out (they are essentially a headband with little imbedded speakers that align with your ears), so when I fall asleep and move my head, the little speakers move off my ears so that I don’t hear the TV as I sleep, usually.

So, this has become the nearly perfect solution.  The light from the little TV doesn’t bother my wife, the SleepPhones are comfortable, the TiVo has a nice selection of shows, and I sleep very well every single night.

Note that I have a job where I am frequently awakened in the middle of the night to deal with issues, so being able to wake up and fully engage in work, then disengage and go right back to sleep is critical for me, and this works.

Your mileage may vary, and again this goes against almost all aspects of sleep hygiene.  But it works for me, and works 99.9999% of the time.  It has changed my life to the point where I don’t even think about sleep any more, I just sleep.  After decades of having every single night be a stress-filled struggle, it’s an amazing difference.  And it’s been working for over a decade now, so it’s not something new and novel that is working because of the placebo effect.

For those of you struggling with sleep issues, I can only suggest that you keep an open mind about what the experts might say about dealing with it, as every person is different, and what works for one person, or even the majority of people, may not work for you.  So keep trying, because only by trying new things will you ever find what works for you.  Good luck, and good night!

2 Responses to 'How I Beat Insomnia'

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  1. Voidable C said,

    on April 1st, 2012 at 12:51 am

    I’ve been having sleep problems for the past fifteen years or so, pretty much since I hit puberty. I have bouts of tiredness throughout the day all the coffee and 5-hour energy drinks do nothing. I get home around 6-6:30 and could easily lie down and pass out for an hour or two with no problem.

    However, come 9 or 10 at night, BING! I’m wide awake. I try and lay down around midnight, but not a chance I would fall asleep before 3-4am. It’s very frustrating, I wake up tired, I’m tired all day, tired when I get home, but wide awake the one time I should actually be tired.

    I’ve tried everything you’ve tried. Pills work, but I wake up groggy. No food late, no stimuli, various soothing sound and guided meditation apps on my iPhone. No bueno.

    The only thing I found that works is throwing on an old DVR’d Seinfeld episode that I’ve seen a thousand times and a pair of wireless headphones my wife bought me for Christmas. She makes fun of me in the morning with the headphones all mushed in the side of my face.

    It’s not a perfect solution, but at least I’m sleeping.

  2. EngineerBoy said,

    on April 1st, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    Voidable C,

    Old Seinfeld reruns are on of my staples as well. Still funny on repeat viewings, but I know them all so well that they don’t *engage* me and keep me awake.

    And I used to use wireless headphones as well, until I got the setup going with the SleepPhones. More comfortable (for me) and no worries about batteries running out, interference, etc.

    Glad you have been able to find some relief as well, insomnia is a whole lot of not fun.

    Scott

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