Things I learned while experiencing insomnia and practicing DBT
I’m writing this at 3:03 a.m. My usual wake up time for work is between 5 and 7 a.m. (depending on what follows).
I tend to roll my eyes at wellness articles about “sleep hygiene” and “morning routines.” Sometimes, I do fall asleep with my phone in my hand. Sometimes, I take melatonin (which never works well for me so I don't know why I do). Sometimes, I lay awake for hours. Sometimes, I wake up at 2 a.m. and just don’t get back to sleep.
This problem I developed back in November – insomnia – isn’t the result of the things I am or am not doing “correctly” during the day. It’s not as simple as cutting out caffeine after 3 p.m. (as my roommate says, “Sometimes, you just gotta have that evening coffee”). It is not related to the amount of exercise I do nor the type of exercise itself. I do the things I need to do for my body to feel comfortable and functional.
I began individual DBT in October 2017. At that point, I had suffered through a few weeks of deepening, crippling depression and suicidal ideation. I was tired of going through these phases, recurring year after year, and being unable to navigate them effectively. I researched, finally giving into what I knew I needed. I found a DBT program. I shelled out the cash and accepted the lifestyle limitations that came thus.
This combination – financial limitation and the inability to sleep – is not new to me. But this is the most productive it has been, and finally controllable to a degree. I can shift my schedule, I can spend mindfully (efforts ongoing) and I can accept that sleep might not be part of the plan on any given day.
Studying DBT (yes, a study; a personal practice as much as a group education, but that’s another article) has given me the tools to accept and understand my insomnia. At full volume: IT DOES NOT CURE IT. Just as DBT will not cure my Borderline Personality Disorder. Insomnia has been as much a part of my life as Borderline has, and they’re similar in that they are stronger some days and just background noise on others. You don’t “cure” mental illness, you manage it. This is a concept I’ve struggled with since being diagnosed, but alas, same goes: accept and understand.
Keeping in mind DBT is an ongoing practice, my experience is not being shared as a, “DO THESE SIMPLE THINGS TO HELP YOURSELF!” thing. I’ve framed them, semantically, as goals. Keep this in mind if you’re trying to apply the practices to your own life. For example: The goal is to stop ______ in order to be at ease with _______. I’ve also provided the actions (DBT skills) I have used in each scenario. Please read these tips mindfully and work out what will fit your needs.
Here is what I learned studying DBT alongside the most irritating insomnia of my adult life:
Stop judging the insomnia; stop judging yourself.
You quickly come to resent insomnia and your inability to feel refreshed after any nap/full sleep cycle. You will likely be pissed off that you can’t get comfortable, that you did all the god damn things that magazine told you to do to wind down before bedtime. Your phone is at the other end of the room and your sleep mask is on, the diffuser is pumping Stress Release molecules and your temperature is fine. Recognize that this is not your fault; you did not ask for the insomnia, but the insomnia chose you.
Practice radical acceptance: Okay, I can’t sleep right now, even though I feel I did everything I could. It’s annoying, but that seems to be how it is right now. That’s okay – it’s not bad or wrong.
What else to do: Get up and do something else. If sleep is coming, it’ll come. If it’s not, at least you’ve planned your day.
Do not underestimate the power of the right environment.
I just described what my bedroom is like every night (preferred Saje diffuser blend omg make me an affiliate pls, sleep mask, temperature), but there are so many more elements to it. Some people swear by leaving the bed for only sex and sleep, but that might not be for you. Maybe it's the only place you have to do homework, it’s the only place you feel safe eating. Whatever it is, make sure you add happy elements to it. The bed is currently your entire library, but if you’re ready to sleep, it should become your bed once more.
Observe and describe: Notice how your bed makes you feel. Do you love it? Do you hate your sheets? Do you feel calm when your childhood blanket is within reach? These are sensations that will contribute – or negate – your sleep experience. Again, don’t judge them. Just bring awareness to what’s going on when you’re trying to rest.
What else to do: When I lived with my parents, I was confined to a tiny room and my bed became everything from a dining room table to a desk to a gym. I was able to burn incense and buy really comfortable pillows. I now live alone and have taken it further – dried eucalyptus abound (you can pick it up fresh at the grocery store for like $10 and just dry it on your own), soft yellow lights, minimal decor, and the most beautiful quilt I’ve ever seen. I try to limit the bed to sleep and sex, but I also write and drink tea and talk to my dog there. Whatever.
It’s okay to remove yourself from the situation.
Like I said, I started this article at 3 a.m. I fell asleep earlier after therapy and now I cannot get back to sleep. Radically accepting the situation, I got out of bed without judging myself for being unable to sleep. It’s just not happening right now, and although I have to be up in a few hours, it’s okay that I’m doing something other than rolling around in bed, cursing my brain and body for not shutting down. I try not to associate negative feelings with my bed (I am superstitious in this way and regularly Palo Santo the shit out of my room), so the best thing for me to do when I’m restless is to get out of it. And here I am, having dinner and writing for the first time in a week.
STOP: STOP is a distress tolerance skill – being unable to sleep is distressing. STOP stands for: Stop, Take a step back, Observe how you’re feeling, Proceed mindfully. You’re laying there, freaking out over how quickly the time to wake up is approaching. Now stop it; catch yourself in the act. Take a breath and step away from the edge. You probably feel irritated, upset, ashamed, angry. That’s okay. Now, what will help you feel better about the sleeplessness? You know it might be hard to fall asleep, so you need to do something else that won’t lead you further into your negative feelings.
What else to do: This is where I choose to get up, stretch, eat something, make tea, or read. I’ve gotten over how weird it might seem to my coworkers that I send emails at 2 a.m. and I get some work done. I take my dog for a walk. Or I listen to a podcast that I don’t want to give my full attention to just to be distracted.
Realize that there is no “right” way to fall or stay asleep.
This was a big one for me. I have read those wellness blogs obsessively, have followed those Instagram accounts and felt ashamed of my life. Well, truth is, no matter what anyone tells you, there is no fucking one-size-fits-all-if-you-try-hard-enough way to sleep. I used to try and always sleep with a pillow between my legs because I’m a heavy side-sleeper, and eventually tried to coax myself into sleeping on my back BECAUSE I heard that it was the only way to sleep “properly.” I promptly began chastising myself for “not being able to sleep properly.” Freaking out about this to my chiropractor, she let me in on some real shit I hadn’t heard from other chiropractors or wellness practitioners: “I can tell you the “right” way to sleep, but your body is going to do what it finds comfortable.”
Paced breathing: Ground yourself, fool. Take a diaphragmic breath in for 6 counts, then out for 8. Repeat until you feel less spazzy. Then, flip to your side using the pillow of your choice and understand that the only “right” way to sleep is the one where you get to enjoy the action, not wishing you had a billion dollars to subscribe to goop.
What else to do: If a medical person tells you how to sleep because it will keep you from dying, listen to them. If you’re sitting around Googling “natural ways to fall asleep properly,” log the fuck off. You and your body know what’s good for you.