It’s examination time and vet students across the UK are frantically trying to fill their heads with long, complicated words they can’t even hope to spell.
With exams comes stress (which can manifest in many different ways), but as a professional bad-sleeper I wanted to share some advice on surviving an old adversary of mine: insomnia.
Loosely, insomnia means “poor sleep” and could mean anything from having trouble dropping off to waking repeatedly throughout the night.
If you see a doctor complaining of chronic sleep deprivation, they’ll give you a lovely printout describing “the science of sleep” and some advice along the lines of:
- Don’t drink caffeine after midday.
- Switch entirely to decaffeinated tea/coffee.
- Get up and do something if you haven’t fallen asleep within a certain amount of time.
- Read in bed.
- DON’T read in bed.
- Don’t look at a TV or laptop screen for at least half an hour before sleeping.
- Make sure the room isn’t too hot.
- Take a relaxing bath before bed.
- Use your bedroom only for sleep.
- Don’t eat too much or little before trying to sleep.
- Do some exercise throughout the day (but be careful with timing – the gym “high” after a workout can sometimes keep you up too).
- Do eye exercises to tire your eyes.
- Try breathing exercises to aid relaxation.
- Try natural remedies.
- Try writing down your thoughts.
- Sleep wearing earplugs.
- Try to clear your mind with meditation.
…and probably many more.
Having battled insomnia for the best part of 10 years, I have tried all of the above with varying degrees of success. With that in mind, here are some of my personal findings.
For me, cutting down on caffeine is completely out of the question, especially at exam time. I drink a lot of tea and my body is used to it; I will often have a tea just before bed and sleep just “fine” (for me, that is). That said, I have tried cutting down and switching to decaf, but it doesn’t make a difference and, quite frankly, tastes foul.
At exam time, I tend to switch to a combination of coffee, Pro Plus and energy drinks in order to say awake following a bad night of sleep. But the main point is to know your limitations – don’t take two Pro Plus at 8pm if you’re not used to caffeine and then expect to be able to sleep straight away at 11.
My main problem is that I overthink things, and once I have thoughts racing through a brain that can’t switch off, I’m in for a night of no sleep. However, I’m much better at managing my sleep now than I was a few years ago, and I think the main reason for this is that I aim for less sleep.
While there are a multitude of studies that claim “X amount of hours is the optimum”, I’ve found I sleep more fully the less hours I get. If I stay up until 1 or 2am and completely crash, the sleep I do get is generally of a much better quality – and it’s far better than trying to go to bed at 10pm and only achieving three hours of sleep because I’m simply not tired enough.
For me, quality of sleep is more important than quantity. I know some people swear by nine hours sleep, but for me, five or six is about normal, so find your personal optimum and work with it – don’t try and force yourself to comply with an “official” optimum recommended by some study or other.
But what about those killer nights when sleep will just not come?
When I first experienced bad sleep, I used to write down my thoughts, no matter how nonsensical or ridiculous they might appear should anyone ever read them. This helped a lot as a way of channeling them and “emptying” my brain a bit.
More recently, I’ve been using the natural Rescue Remedy. I wouldn’t say its an absolute quick fix for everyone, but it does work wonders for some people. My partner has always slept soundly but recently suffered a bout of stress-related insomnia. After a few drops of Rescue he was out like a light every night!
If you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, the worst possible thing you can do is sleep in in the morning or nap during the day.
Tempting as it may be, the quicker you kick your body back into a normal sleep pattern, the better. It’s far better to force yourself to stay awake than nap in the afternoon and find yourself wide awake the next night too.
I often go through a few weeks of “normal” sleep and then have a few nights when I get about an hour at most. But if I force myself to stay awake during the day, after three or four horrendous nights, my body/brain crashes and restarts itself into it’s normal rhythm. You’ll be surprised how well you can function on less sleep than usual.
Doctors will only prescribe sleeping tablets if you’ve tried absolutely everything else, but even then I’m sceptical – I’ve tried them before and they simply don’t work for me, so if it does come to this, don’t expect miracles.
Insomnia can be incredibly frustrating and often upsetting for those not used to it – and often, for those who just have the odd bad night, something from the list of recommendations given by a doctor may work.
My final bit of advice would be that, when insomnia does strike, try not to get frustrated – you’ll only go round in circles and get yourself even more wound up. Just hold on to the fact that your brain has to rest at some point, and sleep will come, even if not as sufficiently as you’d like for a few days.