Sleep: How to Get Some When You Can’t Settle Down

by | Sep 17, 2016 | Cool Tools, Possibly Helpful

Sleep: How to Get It When You’re Terrible At Settling Down

Sleep can elude the restless.

And yep, that would be me.

When I’m sitting down, I’m fidgeting. Vibrating, really. Shaking a foot. Wiggling fingers. Pulling faces. Suddenly remembering I need to dig around in my knapsack.

I wasn’t labelled as “hyperactive” in elementary school: I was quiet and shy, and enjoyed learning new things. But in university I noticed just how fidgety I was relative to other people. I often sat at the front, attentive and engaged — but I rattled a lot. I dropped things. I kicked things over.

I suspect I was a mixed blessing as a student.

And like I mentioned in an earlier post — I have always been really bad at going to sleep.

It’s not just my body that’s restless.

It’s my mind.

The Big Chew

My brain gnaws on information. Like a rat.

Rats and mice gnaw on things partly because they have to: their incisors — their two front teeth — are constantly growing. When they can’t wear their teeth down, the teeth get too long. If that happens, their teeth may start to grow around in a spiral, much like human fingernails.

So I suppose I could pretend my busy brain is always growing.

Except sleep is what keeps it healthy. And I can’t sleep if it’s gnawing on things I can’t do anything about.

Anxiety! It’s a Way of Life

A great number of my problems getting to sleep are anxiety-related.

I naturally run a little more anxious than many people; my whole family is like that. We are tag-team door checkers. We squeal with unease when we jaywalk. We worry a lot. About everything.

Now when you’re anxious, you can also be prone to hyper-vigilance. You’re often perched on the edge of fight or flight, Whether you know it or not, part of you is processing the signals from the world around you, looking for changes. Looking for warnings.

My brain doesn’t just gnaw at the information it already has — it is constantly scrabbling, scanning the environment for information to process.

When I sleep, I am a deep sleeper. But it turns out I’m always noticing things. Listening. Seeing changes in light and dark, even with my eyes closed.

And of Course It’s Always Harder if You’re Trying

My boyfriend snores. It’s loud.

There are times when it doesn’t matter, when I fall asleep without thinking about it.

But the nights when I’m uneasy? When my mind won’t stop working? I hear everything. The snoring? It isn’t just loud. It’s a beast: chuttering and snorting and rumbling for my attention.

It doesn’t even matter if it’s loud. It just feels loud.

Every breath — every snort and and stuttering, whistling intake — consumes me. My eyes might be closed, but my attention is wide open. I lie there, caught between action and inaction, knowing there is nothing to do, because it’s not so much the snoring — but what my mind is doing with the snoring. It’s chewing on it, worrying it, gnawing holes into my hope for rest.

For a while there I tried sleeping with super-expensive noise-cancelling headphones on. The kind with the big plastic domes on either side, swivelling hinges, and a long, delicate cord.

You might guess how comfortable that was. They helped a little, but not much.

And of course I worried about wrecking them, because they weren’t mine.


When you habitually deprive yourself of sleep, and then find that you can’t sleep when you actually want to, it’s maddening. At one time or another, most of us have probably felt the all-consuming frustration of sleeplessness.

So: I got really obsessed about sleep.

I bought blackout curtains. I bought orange safety glasses. I put electrical tape on my alarm clock display.

I researched, bought, and wrecked — multiple pairs of headphones. Sport headphones. Wired headphones. Wireless headphones. Bedphones.

I tried earplugs. Hated them. Most of the time I’d wake to find I’d pulled them out. I did have a pair that I didn’t pull out — but I got an ear infection while wearing them. Seems they were removing too much protective earwax. It can be a thing.

I slept with my phone. I tried sleep tracking apps — the kind you put on your bed to track your movements and wake you up at “just the right time”. I’d usually wake to find I’d pushed the phone off the bed — or I’d touch the phone and notice how hot it was, especially when covered by bedding. I had visions of my pillow, aflame, with my head in the midst of it.

I tried — and really liked — a Zeo, a now defunct device. I wore it on my head to record sleep cycles. The company is gone now, its patents sold off, but it was my favourite of the sleep tracking devices. It helped me sleep because it motivated me to sleep. I love data. The brightly coloured sleep graphs, supposedly showing how much REM sleep and deep sleep I’d gotten the night before, were like a treat first thing in the morning.

And I listened to all sorts of things. Self-hypnosis tapes. Meditation tapes. Relaxation tapes. Binaural beats. White noise. Pink noise. Noise with subliminal messages.

Sometimes these things helped. Sometimes I didn’t sleep but would get up feeling somewhat refreshed. And sometimes I would find myself drifting into awareness multiple times during the night, noticing the voices and tones and music I was pouring into my ears in a desperate attempt to relax. Just relax. Just sleep.

This Is What Works For Me

The upside of obsessive exploration was that I found some things that worked well for me.

I’m still not one of those amazing sleepers — resistance to sleeping is still an issue — but I use these strategies when I have trouble settling down.

1. I clear my head.

Unfortunately I don’t reliably do this, but now that I’m telling you it’s a good idea, perhaps I will.

When I am desperate to sleep, but know my mind is chewing up some idea or problem it can’t do anything about, I make lists. Lists of what I’m afraid I’ll forget. Lists of things that are on my mind. Lists of things that are gnawing and niggling. Lists to get things out of my head.

It’s not sophisticated. It’s not new. But dropping some thoughts sheet of a paper helps my mind to let go of the thoughts that race about my head. They race, because they are afraid of falling off, of losing the track.

The list gives them somewhere to rest, so I can rest.

You don’t have to use paper of course. I find the physical act of writing helpful. You could record your thoughts as audio and make a habit of listening to them the next day. It really doesn’t matter how you do it, as long you give your thoughts a place to live quietly for a while, outside of your head.

2. I address the anxiety.

Sometimes the anxiety isn’t directly connected to racing thoughts, or things I’m afraid to forget. Sometimes I can feel the anxiety is a disconnected but visceral thing, a roiling tightness just below my sternum, a tension that reaches up into my jaw.

When this happens, I turn into the anxiety. I focus on it, but I use techniques that I know will calm me at the same time. There are several methods to do this, but my current method of choice is bilateral sensory stimulation.

I often use Anxiety Release, an app that provides a guided way to focus on your anxiety and its possible causes while listening to sounds on headphones. It’s available as both an Android and an iOS app, as well as an audio recording. iI’s best used with headphones.

This technique is related to a therapeutic technique called EMDR, which is a well-established treatment for PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). In the app, sounds alternate between your two ears while you listen to a guided meditation on the focus of your anxiety. The alternating bilateral stimulation seems to calm the physical sensations of my anxiety even as I focus on it.

If you’re curious about this technique, you can do a search for EMDR or Bilateral stimulation.

3. I exclude light.

If you close your eyes, you’ll notice that you can still detect light, and changes in the levels of light. Changes in light can help you wake up, and they can alert you to other important changes in your environment. Light levels also affect you at a hormonal level, triggering the release of important hormones like melatonin, which is one of the hormones that regulates your sleep-wake cycles.

But let’s just talk about the effect of light and the information it feeds you.

If part of you is constantly scanning the environment for things to attend to — even minor levels of light change can keep your mind busy.

Now, personally I like waking up to gradual increases in light levels. When I’m getting enough sleep, I feel much more refreshed and awake when I wake to sunlight streaming through the window.

But when I need to sleep, and can’t settle down, darkness is my friend.

So yes, blackout curtains are a worthy investment. So is taking the time and energy to block the light streaming from electronic devices like clocks and night lights. If you need lights in your bedroom at night, consider red lights. They are less likely to disrupt your sleep cycles.

The easiest and smallest fix? A sleep mask.

I realized how much of a difference it made when I was visiting my parents. We had a full house, so I was sleeping on the living room couch. Normally my brother and my parents wake up very early, and while they are quiet and considerate, they’re active. One morning I woke far earlier than I wanted to, because they were up and about. They weren’t being noisy. It’s just that I noticed them, even while asleep.

The next morning I wore a sleep mask.

Even without earplugs, I managed to sleep through their conversations, their bustling about, and even the murmurings of Japanese TV and video recordings of The Price is Right. I slept well until I felt rested enough to wake up. I was amazed at the difference.

Yes, I know sleep masks look dorky. But feeling like a dork is so much better when you’re a well-rested dork.

4. I focus my listening.

I’m seldom aware of it,  but my mind is constantly scanning my environment for auditory information. And when I’m restless and anxious, I can’t turn the scanning off. In the dark, when I can’t see as much, I suspect my attention to what I’m hearing ramps up. So I lie there, poised, waiting for new information.

So I give my senses something to chew on — a focus.

I’ve mostly depended on a couple of iPhone apps for this, Pzizz (a sleep app) and Naturespace (an app that allows you to listen to “holographic” sound recordings; recordings are individual purchases).  For me, the most effective programs on both of these apps are the ones that give me the sense that I am in an open, calm, three-dimensional auditory environment. In the current version of Pzizz, I prefer the programs for napping (something about the “sleep” programs keeps me awake).

For me, it seems like the most important part is having a strong sense of three dimensionality — so that I feel like I know where I am within a space relative to the sounds around me.

This might be a highly idiosyncratic tip, but both Pzizz and Naturespace are apps that have their fans, so I would suggest giving them a try.

5. I make myself cozy

I don’t always do this, but when I really, really can’t sleep, I get up and sleep on the couch.

And it’s not about escaping the snoring — although of course it can be a lot quieter in a different room. That doesn’t mean my brain is any quieter, however.

We have a very cosy living room couch. It’s big and broad and cushiony, and when I’m nestled in it, surrounded on three sides by soft corduroy-like upholstery, bundled under a cozy blanket — I feel calmer. Even if the street lights are streaming in from the living room window — I am soothed.

When I was a kid I liked to be tucked in very tight, so sometimes I wonder if I would have benefited from things like Temple Grandin’s squeeze machine. The couch serves.

You might not have a cozy couch. But I think the key to this isn’t the couch — but the feeling of being physically supported and shielded.

The couch provides a physical cocoon. The physical sensations of the enveloping surfaces can help you to feel physically safe and supported, and that helps your mind to interpret the environment as physically safe and supporting. Of course, if you have claustrophobia, you might interpret the physical sensations differently.

If you sleep with a partner, habitually sleeping on the couch could be taken as distancing, or passive aggressive. So if you’re going to do this occasionally, you might need to anticipate possible reactions and interpretations, and tell them that you might use this strategy sometimes. When you’re in the throes of frustration over your own sleeplessness, you might be less diplomatic about your game plan.

You could also consider other tactics based on this idea. Could you use a mattress topper that provides some supportive cushioning? Might you feel better with a heavier blanket, or larger, more cushion-y pillows? Could you somehow place or configure your bed so you feel protected on at least 3 sides? Could you wear clothing at night that gives you the feeling of a little pressure and coverage without making you too hot or constricted? (I suspect constricting clothing isn’t that good for you all the time.)

I suspect some people need the opposite feeling — the feeling of openness — in order to rest well. I’m sure that’s why some people love sleeping under the stars.

But I think I must be a little cave dweller. A den builder. And maybe you are, too.

Safe and Sound

There may, of course, be other reasons you’re having trouble settling down. Maybe you’re over-caffeinated, Maybe you’re blasting yourself with bright light. Maybe you’re physically uncomfortable. Sleep is a biological state: it’s complicated. And we’re all different. What works for me *may* drive you crazy.

Specific solutions aside, however, I think all of us are better at getting to sleep when we find ways to make ourselves feel safe and at ease, and avoid doing things that tell our bodies that it’s time to be awake and alert and problem-solving.

Reducing your exposure to light is likely to help most people, because it addresses an aspect of our common biology.

Most of the other tips help you signal to yourself and your body that it is “safe” to go to sleep. Even if you know intellectually that you are safe, if your body doesn’t feel it, it’s unlikely to let you sleep. So: cozy spots often protect your vulnerable back and sides. Knowing where you are relative to other objects in the environment can help you feel ready to notice important changes and react appropriately. And hearing and feeling signals that indicate that the environment is calm can reassure you that you can safely go to sleep.

Will This Work?

The  specific things I do to reduce my anxiety and environment that feels safe may or may not do the same for you.  You might want to try them, because they are all fairly low-impact strategies, but you don’t need to do the specific things I’ve tried. They don’t always work for me, either. But sometimes they help.

Interesting question: it seems to me that most of what I need to do is address how safe my mental environment feels, so I will allow myself to be alone with it. That might be different for you.

Is it? Why do you think so?

~ C