I’ve always struggled with falling asleep. As a kid, I’d lie in bed staring at the trees outside of my window for a long time before falling asleep most nights. To make up what I missed, I’d sleep well into the afternoons on weekends. I never thought to seek treatment for it because this was normal for me, the routine I’d had since childhood.
When I took on the Find-a-Doctor video project, I needed to be at work at 6:30 a.m. a few mornings each month for video shoots with the doctors. I dreaded those mornings because on the nights before, I’d get even more anxious about falling asleep. I’d lie in bed for hours wanting to fall asleep and so mad at myself for not being able.
A specialist from the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center at Rush came in to shoot his video, and he mentioned that they were recruiting participants for a study on insomnia. The study was testing whether mindfulness meditation in addition to behavioral techniques could help patients with insomnia. I was intrigued: Perhaps those techniques could help me better manage my sleep issues. After completing the screening process, I was told that I could be a study subject because I did, in fact, have insomnia. I’d never had that diagnosis before — a name to call my trouble falling asleep. More importantly, I had the opportunity to hopefully fix it.
I attended the weekly group sessions where we discussed our sleep challenges, learned how to better cope with them and practiced mindfulness meditation. Every day, I recorded how often I meditated, what mood I was in around bedtime, how long it took me to fall asleep and other details. I learned to be more in tune to when I was sleepy and when I wasn’t, which surprisingly I’d never really done before. I learned ways to help calm my anxiety and frustration at not being able to fall asleep at exactly the time I thought I should. I learned how to better regulate my sleep schedule to help me fall asleep at more appropriate times. I also learned other techniques not directly related to sleep, like how to mindfully eat where I’d focus just on my food and the act of eating and tasting it.
Of course my insomnia isn’t cured. Like any chronic condition, it’ll always take effort to manage it and not slip back into my old habits. There are still nights when I lie in bed unable to sleep. I’ll look over at my peacefully sleeping husband who just climbed into bed five minutes prior, and resist the temptation to wake him up and make him suffer along with me. Now, at least, I have fewer nights like that.
Cari Kornblit is a Web editor at Rush University Medical Center.