Ever since I can remember, there have been occasional nights where sleep just refuses to settle into my bones. Iâ€™ve developed some strategies for dealing with these brief bouts of insomnia. If itâ€™s cool weather Iâ€™ll open a window, then lie on the bed without any covers until I am very cold, then cover myself up and let the soothing warmth of the comforter pull me under. I get up and read on the couch and drink something warm and non-caffeinated until I feel drowsy. Or, I just accept my fate and get up and do something.
Those occasional random nights of sleeplessness stopped being a big deal when I made my peace with them. The other kind of insomnia I experience is a little tougher to shake. In moments of big change, stress, and pressureâ€”say, just before getting married, just after publishing a big story, or while in the process of moving, or in the midst of an important decisionâ€”I get anxiety insomnia. Instead of drifting off to sleep, my chest gets tight and my breathing gets shallow. I can feel every heartbeat. I just canâ€™t quiet my busy mind. (Apparently Iâ€™m not the only one.)
When I first experienced this, in college, a friend shared a trick that I still use. She was experiencing the same anxiety-driven sleeplessness, and her therapist offered up the following advice: Think of something relaxing and fun. Conceptualize that activity or narrative as a tape that you can pop into the cassette deck of your mind. Actively gather a couple at any given time. Then, when youâ€™re in bed, watching the minutes tick by, just pick your tape and press play. (Iâ€™m old enough that evoking the era of mix tapes on cassette is a pleasantly nostalgic experience, but if â€ścassette tapeâ€ť is an abstract concept to you, try thinking of it as a soothing playlist instead.)
It really works. Right now the â€śtapesâ€ť I have in heavy rotation include a bathroom remodel, and various ambitious cooking projects, including sourdough starter and the Zahav lamb shoulder. Sometimes I build a capsule wardrobe for myself in an alternate reality that doesnâ€™t include my children or ketchup, or I plan ahead to next yearâ€™s garden. These tapes are generally very process-driven and free from serious emotional content, somewhere at the junction of things I will eventually do and fantasy hobbies that I wish I had time for.
This technique has some basis in brain science. Itâ€™s not unlike the technique known as â€ścognitive shuffling,â€ť devised by a Canadian cognitive scientist. A growing body of research indicates that meditation and mindfulness can be effective treatment for chronic insomnia. A study published in the journalÂ Sleep in 2014 found that meditation-based therapies significantly reduced the severity of chronic insomnia, echoing a study from decades earlier.
These studies were small, and more research needs to be done to prove the point. And of course, true meditation is far more intense than making a few mix tapes your mind. Thatâ€™s part of the brilliance of the tape method, though. For occasional, topical insomnia, itâ€™s a very easy way to quiet the mind andÂ get a little more sleepâ€”or at least feel less frantic about the sleep youâ€™re not getting.