Falling asleep can be tough, even after attempts to remove all distractions. Sometimes I find myself too worried or anxious to fall asleep, other times it is like my mind just wont shut off.
Obviously living with bipolar disorder complicates things for me when it comes to sleep. In depressive phases I might feel like I can sleep for days, but there are times when I feel exhausted but can’t seem to fall asleep. Other times manic energy or a racing heartbeat makes it difficult to physically relax, not to mention hypomanic or manic flights of ideas that leave me constantly grabbing for a pen while I’m lying awake.
In these situations there are definitely times where I feel compelled to use a sleep aid and any number of attempts on my part to try to slow myself down to sleep seem to fail, however I can also have a difficult time falling asleep when I haven’t been bouncing up and down manically in my living room for 12 hours.
There have definitely been periods where I was prescribed sleep aids to take on a regular basis, and what I found was that it really screwed up my ability to fall asleep if I stopped taking them for any reason. The inevitable insomnia that followed triggered mania for me, and finding myself caught between being able to sleep but also having unwanted side effects or damaging my own ability to sleep wasn’t a fun place to end up.
These days I make the best effort I can to fall asleep before turning to a sleep aid, and over the past few years I have gathered a few exercises (some physical, some mental; all done while laying in bed) that have helped in my sleepy success.
Of course, there are many things that can be done to help increase our success rate for falling asleep like limiting screen time, increasing physical relaxation, and creating a routine around our sleep schedules. I find every little bit helps, and while it isn’t my intention to directly address these (or other) external strategies in this post it should be said that taking some time to bolster a healthy sleep routine can definitely get the ball rolling, and you may find that doing so may be all it takes to help you fall asleep.
These exercises are free, relatively easy, and can be done by anyone, not just folks with bipolar disorder, or anxiety, or depression. While I am not suggesting this can “cure” anything (and there are serious situations that require medical expertise) these five exercises have helped me become more successful at falling asleep naturally when I have been dealing with sore or stiff muscles, racing thoughts/flight of ideas, constant worry or obsessive thinking, physical symptoms of panic while in bed, and helped me relax when I generally just felt too alert to sleep. Some nights it takes a little extra energy to push myself into sleep past some of the physical side effects of my medications as well, and in those situations this list is my first line of defense.
1. Pointed Toe Exercise
This first exercise was especially helpful for me when I worked retail and spent several hours a day on my feet, but I used it just the other day when I had the flu and my legs were aching, keeping me from falling asleep and it was just as effective.
- First I lie on my back and try to position my upper body to be as relaxed as possible.
- Next I point my right toe down at the foot of the bed and then point it back toward myself. I repeat the pointed toe with the right foot ten times, and then do the same exercise with my left foot ten times.
- Next I point both toes toward the foot of the bed at the same time, alternating between the pointed toe and toes pointed back up at me. I do this a total of ten times.
- Finally (and this part is the most fun) I alternate which foot is pointed. If my right toe is pointed at the foot of the bed, my left foot is pointed up toward me, then they switch positions. Left foot pointed at the foot of the bed, right foot pointed up at me, kind of like using a paddleboat. I do this until each foot has been pointed at the foot of the bed ten times.
- For this I lay on my back, and it doesn’t really matter how relaxed I am when I start (because end game relaxation is kind of the point here).
- Starting with my feet, I flex my muscles in my feet and hold them rigid and count to five, taking a deep breath in as I count. When I breathe out I let go of the clenched muscles.
- I continue up my body continuing this pattern with each area, flexing calves, hamstrings, hips, stomach, chest, shoulders, biceps, lower arms, hands, and then my neck. Finally I flex my face (I just scrunch it so the muscles are tight) and release.
- First I consider, “How do sleeping people lay?” and position myself in whatever is most comfortable for me that would recreate a deep slumber.
- When people sleep they often appear or feel heavy and loose, not rigid, so I focus on making my body as heavy and loose as possible. I unclench my hands, sink into pillows, and let my shoulders sink downward.
- The real trick, I find, is considering how sleeping people breathe. The breaths often aren’t too deep or too quick, but instead they are slow and moderately shallow. Focusing on trying to reproduce this kind of breathing is something that often uses all of my attention (which doesn’t make room for many other thoughts).
- First I imagine there is a white line against the black background I see with my eyes closed.
- Next I follow the line with my eyes as it creates an outline of the continental United States (moving clockwise). I allow my eyes to move as the line dips and curves around the great lakes and rises up over Maine, etc.
- Depending on how persistent the thoughts are I might circle the country two or three times before going back to trying to sleep. If the obsessive or persistent thoughts happen again, I do the exercise again.
I know this exercise might sound ridiculously simple, but it has been super helpful for me. Weird, right?
5. Conjuring Observations
Ok, this one might be a little trickier but it is my favorite. I find it to be sort of emotionally soothing, beyond just helping me relax enough to sleep, and it is usually my first choice when I am experiencing physical feelings of panic in bed while trying to sleep.
- This exercise requires me to unfocus my eyes. The best way I can describe it is that I close my eyes and first focus on an imaginary point (like the line in the US map in exercise 4), and then relax my eyes as though I am looking at a distant landscape of a mountain beyond tiny point. It can be helpful to make the distant thing I am looking at someplace familiar, a wooded trail I know, a beach I grew up by, or a room from my childhood.
- Once my eyes are unfocused and I am looking at this “distant place” I occupy my mind by conjuring items or landmarks that I once observed of these places. Sort of like taking a big empty space and filling it with elements that I can remember. They can be as specific or general as I want. For example:
- What were the location and types of trees in our old orchard?
- What machines were at the arcade at the local drive in movie theater?
- What was the floorplan of my childhood friend’s house?
- What items could be found on the counter in my childhood home?
- For this to be a nice experience and soothing (like soothing enough to make me fall asleep), there are some rules I employ, like:
- I only choose places with positive or neutral associations. That doesn’t mean some places (like my beach) were never associated with anything negative, only that I have reached the point where I no longer feel a negative association with that location.
- The details should be difficult enough to remember that it requires my entire focus (so it can’t be wandering around distracting me).
- I never populate these spaces with living creatures, human or otherwise. I want to treat these spaces as tools and don’t want to lay around reliving memories that might produce an unexpected emotional response that might hinder my ability to sleep, not help it.
So what do these exercises have in common? It seems that each of them involves creating a relaxed atmosphere (physically or mentally) and occupying my mind in a challenging, but still relatively mundane task (like keeping track of how many times I’ve counted to ten). For me this is a combination that has made a recipe for success when it comes to coaxing myself to sleep.
Keep in mind that yes, like I mentioned, there are definitely still times I can’t calm my manic energy enough, or rebound from a midnight panic attack into a state of sleep, but I have been finding that with practice those moments seem to be getting farther apart. While I can’t guarantee these will work for you just because they work for me, I hope that considering what we are imagining or thinking, or how we are feeling right before bed is just as important for falling asleep as, say, having the right pillow.
There are numerous tips and tricks out there to help turn those sleepless nights into sleep-filled ones, and I encourage anyone and everyone who has had trouble falling asleep to do a little research and keep some tricks up their sleeve! There has certainly been no contest for me, more stable sleep is a constant requirement for a more stable emotional life and regaining the power to help myself fall asleep without the use of a sleep aid (at least, most of the time) has been paramount in helping me regain a feeling of control and peace in my life as well.