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Advice for anxious sleepers

July 31, 2014

When I was young I used to suffer from depression from time to time, sometimes pretty badly. But ever since I had kids, I suffer much more from anxiety. It’s never been paralyzing but it means I have trouble falling asleep about once or twice a week because I can’t stop fretting. I’m jealous of people that can wander off into fantasy land and imagine landing on the moon or walking across a grassy plain in a magical land, but that’s not me. I basically have no imagination and spend my brain cycles trying to solve really concrete problems, and if there’s something out of my control then it bugs me and I have trouble letting go.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with this problem, and maybe I should be learning to meditate or something so I’m better at flexing my imagination muscles. Bring on the advice. In the meantime I’ve developed intense and complicated coping mechanisms. Here are a few in the form of friendly advice to all who suffer from anxiety at night:

  1. First of all, don’t worry about being worried. Chances are the next night you will be super exhausted and catch up on sleep, no harm done. Important to keep in mind!!
  2. Second, I really like to listen to the radio. Sports radio is almost always soothingly boring (although lately, what with all the wife beating talk, it has been less than helpful), and of course an actual baseball game is perfect, because nothing ever happens.
  3. But my husband can only sleep in total silence. Here’s the solution to this problem, which helps a LOT:

    Product motto: "This pillow speaker has saved a marriage or two ..."

    Product motto: “This pillow speaker has saved a marriage or two …”

  4. If that isn’t enough, then I usually go to the living room and watch boring movies on Netflix.
  5. I found the best, most boring movie EVER yesterday which I wanted to share with you. Namely, Nature’s The Private Life of Deer. That was seriously boring, and yet funny and nice too, especially when the “ghost deer photographer” was whispering to the camera about his strategies in tracking the ever-elusive albino deer in the northern woods.
  6. The video for that is available here, but I urge you to save it for when you have trouble sleeping and are trying not to think of something anxiety-provoking, it’ll be perfect.
Categories: musing
  1. redbirdheather
    July 31, 2014 at 10:08 am

    You might find this interesting as well!


    It does sometimes seem truly odd, but it looks to be a vibrant online community that has genuinely helped a lot of folks. (Plenty of variety, too – the tapping and scratching fingers really do it for me, but your deer tracker also sounds like he’d fit right in!)


  2. July 31, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Cathy, sorry to hear about your problems. Fortunately I don’t have much trouble falling asleep, but occasionally I do. What works for me is to: (1) ignore the temptation to get out of bed, it will only exacerbate the problem, and (2) remember that perfect beach you enjoyed [in Hawaii, Israel, …] or Yosemite (did you not go there when you were at Cal?) and now picture yourself there OR have yourself an Aunt Pythia vision (your husband’s sleeping and you are not actually cheating). This doesn’t deal with anxiety, of course, which should be treated, and I know it’s easier said than done.


  3. eightnine2718281828mu5
    July 31, 2014 at 11:06 am

    also try boring movies/music in unfamiliar languages


  4. Christina Sormani
    July 31, 2014 at 11:08 am

    A professor I had in graduate school (it might have been Peter Lax) suggested sleeping while thinking about math problems. So I always do mathematics right before going to bed. Sometimes I end up staying up very late doing mathematics but at least I am doing something I love to do that is productive for my career.


  5. Min
    July 31, 2014 at 11:53 am

    I used to frequently wake up around 2 a.m. and not be able to get back to sleep. I am not a worrier, so mental tricks sometimes worked. The best was counting backwards from 1,000. But finally I figured, what is the point of **trying** to get to sleep, especially if it does not work? So for me the best thing was to get up and do something physical.

    But really, what is the point of boring yourself? What animal besides humans tries hard to go to sleep?


  6. lontjr
    July 31, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    I’m sure you’ll only get a few million suggestions: maybe the next number for the Slate thing.

    If you pursue meditation, and this may be a good exploration, I would look for something called Clinical Standard Meditation. Most of the others include a component, while not specifically spiritual, at least icky for me: something like lovingkindness or some other term for a right attitude. Meditation is a mind trick, requires no attitude, just practice. I’ve stopped listening to Sam Harris, owing to silly gun control statements he tends to make, but he might point to a good, non-sectarian method.


  7. July 31, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    Melatonin tablets. Start with 1mg. These are super cheap at GNC and the cherry ones are tasty.

    Listen to audiobooks. This will stop your mind from racing and flex your imagination as you start visualizing what’s happening in the book, next stop dream land.

    I have the same problems and have searched for years for solutions. This is as close as I’ve come to a silver bullett but there are some caveats

    Melatonin doesn’t seem to work on everyone, in which case try some magnesium (doesn’t work for me but others swear by it).

    Do not listen to exciting books (fiction or non-fiction) or you’ll stay up in anticipation of what comes next. I recommend the extended Star Wars books for being entertaining without being great.


  8. July 31, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    Nothing profound or new in my advice which would be for some form of physical exertion… I’m a huge believer in activity/movement for depression or anxiety; a rousing game of tennis, or ping-pong, a gym workout, or jogging, dancing, or simple home calisthentics, jumping jacks, rope skipping, just running up/down a staircase… preferably something that gets the heart rate up and maybe a little sweat forming!


  9. July 31, 2014 at 2:31 pm

    The Private Life of Deer….boring? There is nothing humdrum about an even-toed ungulate, my friend.


  10. July 31, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    No advice. Whatever you are doing. It is working.


  11. July 31, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    I am a card-carrying person with a lot of imagination but I would never imagine just wandering across a grassy plain, because that would be dull. The trick is to problem-solve about problems which do not actually exist, such as what you would say to Spock if he showed up on your doorstep.


  12. mathematrucker
    July 31, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    My own sleep-inducing technique is to read a book, preferably a really scary nonfiction one. I’ve found this to be superior to just laying in bed with my thoughts.
    BTW, you might try submitting your question to the renowned advice columnist named Aunt Pythia. She gives awesome advice!


  13. Dave
    July 31, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    Try listening to every word of an audiobook in a language you don’t know that well. There’s no time for your own thoughts, and you drop.


  14. August 1, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    1) The Private Life of Deer is riveting, if those pests are endangering your garden, and you need to get into their heads to devise tactics against them. Perhaps in Manhattan, not so much.

    2) I too read the Times on AMSR (from the first comment) but I found the tapping and scraping sounds creepy. However, searching YouTube I did find an 11-hour recording of an electric fan. That works great (and better than the white noise from a dead TV I used to use.)

    3) Counting backwards from 400 never fails to put me to sleep. The white noise in #2 prevents me from waking up.


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