Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Sleep hygiene resources

Sleep hygiene is a fancy term for the stuff you do to better your chances of getting a good night's sleep.

I have a long, long history with insomnia, and quite a few other Aspies have mentioned it as well.  Part of that probably is related to Aspergers itself - when you're in the rush of a new obsession it's really hard to switch off, and inertia (where you have trouble starting a task, or more relevant to this scenario stopping once you've started) can make the sheer mechanics of getting to bed at a reasonable hour difficult.

PICTORIAL REVIEWBut a lot of it's not about autism per se.  It's the human condition: we think, therefore we worry and replay situations over and over in our heads thinking 'what if?'  The entirely arbitrary eight hour working day doesn't always leave enough time to get all the non-work stuff done, and one of the first things to be sacrificed is sleep.  It's about having access to artificial light, which our bodies aren't adapted to cope with and which throws our sleeping patterns out of whack.  And perhaps it's also the stress of being un- or under-employed and the financial issues that brings, of being bullied or ostracised, of lacking a support network or knowing that you're going to die alone, all things many autistic people have to think about.  No wonder we can't sleep.

On the other hand, I need a lot of sleep to function at my best.  If I don't get enough, everything slides - my sensory disregulation gets worse, social stuff bewilders me even more than usual, and my motor skills and balance desert me entirely.  Maybe it's because it takes me so much more energy to cope with all the extra sensory input and consciously working out social stuff that comes to others instinctively, but I get exhausted much, much more quickly than a neurotypical person in the same situation.

If that sounds like you as well, here are some tips and resources that might help:

How do you know if you're tired, anyway?  Don't scoff - not being able to identify feelings is an autistic thing, and that applies to physical feelings as well as emotional ones.  (As per sample.)  These are signs that I've found mean I'm tired:
  • Headache or feeling of pressure behind the eyes or the bridge of the nose
  • Increased sensory sensitivity, especially sound (sound is a particular problem for me at the best of times)
  • Hand-eye co-ordination and motor skills worsen
  • Closing your eyes for a moment feels really good
  • In extreme cases, eyes start closing or half-closing of their own accord, and head may start nodding
  • In really extreme cases, you nod off for a moment

Listen to your body clock: Once you've worked out how 'tired' feesl, don't go to bed if you're genuinely not feeling it - you'll just reinforce the habit of lying awake for ages.  Similarly, don't put off going to bed if you're tired just because you think it's too early or you've got things to do.  Do it when you wake up - it'll go faster and you'll make fewer mistakes.

Keep regular sleeping patterns: This is a really, really hard one for me, because by nature I stay up late into the night and wake at about ten in the morning, but while I'm working I just can't do that.  But if you can stick to a regular routine - rather than waking up at 7:30 on weekdays and then lying in til 10 on weekends like a certain blogger - your body will have a better chance of being able to sleep well when it's supposed to.

Sort out your sleeping environment: Most of us can't just buy a new mattress or air conditioning on a whim, but there'll probably be something you can do to improve your nest.  Sleeping areas that aren't dark enough are a big problem for a lot of people - can you close the door, pull the curtains, hang a blanket or blackout curtains over the window if there's a lot of light coming in from outside?  Consider switching off things with digital displays or lights - or if it's bothersome to turn them off, a blanket or towel over them or some gaffer tape over the LED should block out the light.

Too hot?  Too cold?  One of my problems is that I really love the pressure from heavy blankets, but I also hate being hot - so at the moment I spend much of my night juggling the need for weight with the need to not overheat.  I really need to find some sort of non-warming weighted blanket.

When I was living in my own place, what made a difference for me was taking the legs off my bed.  I can't entirely explain it, but I think sleeping closer to the ground made me feel more secure.  I went through my 'wants to have a bunk bed and sleep on the top' phase, but really I'm much happier sleeping at floor level.

Get light at the right times: Getting enough sunlight through the day, but not getting too much artificial light close to bedtime, can help regulate your sleep cycle.  That can be as simple as changing to dimmer lightbulbs, and not watching TV or using devices with backlit screens before bed.  More on this here.

Don't exercise before bedtime: Exercise is good for you, but no closer than three hours to bedtime.  You'll be feeling all energised and have endorphins and what not going on, and that's not conducive to nodding off.

Don't go to bed on an empty stomach or a full bladder: they'll both either stop you getting to sleep in the first place, or wake you up at some ungodsly hour.

Booze doesn't work: It might relax you enough to help you drop off, but it'll screw up your sleep pattern so you don't feel properly refreshed when you wake up.  Plus hangovers.  Avoid cigarettes, and caffeine and other stimulants, for the same reasons.

For more information
The Better Health Channel
Sleep hygiene instructions
How to sleep better
Twelve simple steps to improve your sleep
Sleep Health
The National Sleep Foundation