Sleep is a pillar of health. When it's going well, you don't notice, and when it's not going well, it's a wee bit of a disaster.
As a kid I was a horrible sleeper. I would bundle myself up with just my mouth visible every night, fearful of every creak in the hallway, every rattle of a pipe. I had a series of night lights, insisted on the door being open with the bathroom light on so I could sleep. I would sometimes fall asleep right away, but inevitably wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to drift off again.
My night light was the shape of a little turtle. He was the best.
Confession time: I snuck into my parents room to sleep until I was 13. My mind would take off imagining home invasion, kidnapping and all matter of monsters visiting in the night until I was in such a panic, heart pounding, that I would dash out and sneak into my parent's bed, inevitably waking them up. Even then, safely nestled in bed, I would have an eye on my parent's closet, staying alert to make sure nothing went awry until I would have worn out my little heart and finally pass out.
What started as an act of desperation became habit. My coping strategy depended on others and so I never really learned to self-sooth. I still wrestle with the embarrassment of how I couldn't sleep alone.
I'm generally an okay sleeper nowadays. As a 29 year old who has lived abroad, I have had to pull up my boot straps. However, I still struggle with home invasion anxiety when I have, say, flatmates away, or like recently as I've been visiting my parents, a house to myself.
Having a whole family to yourself sounds luxurious, but it is actually a huge creator of panic and dread for me. It stands, yet again, that there are a thousand instances where an anxiety causing event has gone under my radar as "normal" for so long, I haven't even ventured to try and make the situation better because I couldn't see the water, like that fish metaphor.
I love a good pond.
Last week, with just myself in the house, I would start to feel fear as soon as it was dark. Is someone watching me as I close the curtains? Earlier, when I was on the porch, could someone have snuck in and now are waiting for me to sleep before attacking? Is the alarm actually on? Which lights should I leave on to fool someone into thinking there's more people here?
It was miserable, to be honest, and I would end up scrolling through my phone, trying to distract myself as I lay in bed into the wee hours of the morning.
This is not a solution.
This happened for 3 nights until I said enough is enough. I was too exhausted and fed up to continue.
So how do you teach yourself how to self-sooth at a later age?
Well, I was at the end of my rope and needing to change something. So I did what any self-respecting older millennial would, and I started googling.
Time to experiment.
First, I found this Reddit post, which was reassuring in that, yes, this happens to many folks. What I found especially intriguing was how this writer shared that it was often when she came home from being abroad that she experienced paralyzing fear. I definitely drew parallels with my current situation.
After that, I found this website: https://positivepsychology.com/ and specifically this article which would be my guide: https://positivepsychology.com/self-soothing/ for my "experiment" of trying to change my pattern and therefore my results.
So that night, I tried something different. No screens past 10, sleepy time tea, a book, and I consciously decided that it would be better to be unafraid and yield to potential death, than agonize over what might be. I planned to report back the next day, with the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Sunrise or sunset. Your choice.
DAY 2: The morning after.
I don't think I discovered a cure all, but there are several things I did last night that helped me sleep better. Not completely undisturbed but better. Here's my tips from following self-soothing advice.
A: While it was still light, I did my lock up. Checking doors, etc. I found that as soon as it was dark, I hated walking near windows because of something that could be watching me. Doing this when it was light made it a lot less nerve wracking and stopped the fear adrenaline rush that usually came with it. I also covered the windows in my room thoroughly so I wouldn't have to do that while it was dark as well. I turned on my bedroom light so I wouldn't come down in the dark. I made it a cozy and safe space.
B: I've been watching Better Call Saul late into the night, avoiding bed, but I knew that the screen and the stressful content wasn't helping. So last night, I watched a romance, something I had seen before a few hundred times that made me feel happy and all ooey-gooey inside. I also had a screen cut off of 10, so at that time (still a bit light outside) I went to my bedroom, sleepy time tea in hand.
C: Before last night, I had been taking my phone to bed with me and ended up surfing through instagram to distract my mind from imagining murderers. I still took my phone to bed, but I found a relaxing sleep meditation track on Spotify and played that while I read a book of European fairytales (not the creepy ones). The combination was distracting, stimulating but not in a way that would keep me up.
D: When it came time to turn off the light, all the steps I had taken to not introduce stressors into my environment made it so I wasn't operating in a state of panic. It was as if I had self-soothed myself into a calm space before I had had a chance to be afraid.
E: This didn't feel like a direct effect, but before heading to bed, I was out for a walk and did a very short workout on a nearby field. I don't want to discount the positive affect of even a couple minutes of exercise and fresh air and seeing that the world around me was joyful. It got me out of my head and into physical reality.
Other things I did...
F: Don't get me wrong. My imagination still tried to get in there. At one point I thought to myself "well, if I can imagine scary things, couldn't I imagine body guards?" So that's what I did. I imagined these big, green plushy monsters (kind of with a Totoro shape) at either side of my bed. I didn't really believe these guys could fight off a real intruder, but they gave me the mental fortitude to fight off the imagined ones.
G: While I was trying to fall asleep I talked to myself in my head, imagining designing clothing, things that were really engaging visually. I find this sometimes helps me sleep. It's creative and distracting.
Imagining colourful things oddly helped.
H: At one point I had a strong bout of fear. My heart beat picked up, I started getting scared. Instead of trying to pretend it wasn't happening, I paid attention to the feeling, and tried to wrap it with love, rather than muscle through. I breathed, started my sleep meditation again and allowed myself to just rest, telling myself that even if I wasn't sleeping, I was still in bed and that was all the win I needed in that moment.
"My bed is a cozy, positive safe space where I feel relaxed and joyful" and repeat.
I am not a psychologist, mental health practitioner or anything certified. I only know my own experience and from this bad week of sleep to this one night of better rest, it seems that the set up is really important.
And not just the physical set up, but the mental one. The whole day I had realized that the house now held a negative, scary energy in my brain when I thought about going to bed. So I started swapping out the thoughts with something like "this is a safe, cozy house" instead.
A last thing I learned via the positive psychology link above was the amount of self-compassion I can give myself when I'm in these situations. Instead of beating myself up over my fear, I acknowledged and leaned into the truth that this is a common fear, I'm not crazy or losing my mind. I was reminded to remind myself that I'm only human, this is one of my tics (with work, I don't think forever) and that I forgive myself for being afraid.
Not sure counting these would help... but vair coot.
What I wouldn't forgive is doing the same things over and over and hoping for change. That's not for me. I like to learn about my mind and new, kind ways to approach my anxiety triggers.
One victory doesn't win a war, but it might make you a little more prepared the next time you go into battle.
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