Tips and information for dealing with sleep issues after a brain injury.
I have received the unfortunate ability to rapidly fall asleep almost anywhere. I can be watching a movie, reading, sitting quietly, or even be in a conversation and feel myself nodding off. I have (rather embarrassingly) fallen asleep while spending a quiet moment with my spouse on more than one occasion. You can only imagine that she might feel slighted by my sudden lack of attention, especially if we are mid-conversation. Luckily for me, she is very understanding of my injury and she is supportive when my many and varied symptoms rear their ugly head.
At the height of my symptoms, before I understood my injury, I even fell asleep at a stop light, waiting for the light to change. I was startled awake by a car honking behind me. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but it was certainly an indicator that something was seriously wrong. Needless to say, sleep issues are an important and necessary topic for me to keep a good handle on!
…a self-enforced spiral, where I fall asleep suddenly, and wake just as suddenly…
One of the more challenging aspects of my particular brain injury is the lack of ability to stay asleep easily. Despite the fact that I can sometimes fall asleep at the drop of a hat, STAYING asleep is a different matter entirely. This can lead to a self-enforced spiral, where I fall asleep suddenly, and wake just as suddenly, as little as a few minutes later. This cycle can be exhausting, leaving me in a fugue state that can last for days at a time.
To avoid this cycle, I have found that these five tricks that really help break through to at least a few hours of productive sleep:
#1. Avoid excessive daytime napping.
#2. Go for a walk.
#3. Practice a Yoga Nidra.
#4. Turn on sleep music or white noise.
#5. Read a good book.
Avoiding daytime napping is often easier said than done. With my injury, I also experience neuro-fatigue, which is a form of nearly permanent brain fog. Even simple tasks sap energy, and the need to nap can be a powerful feeling to overcome. If I find that I am truly in need of a nap during the day, I try my best to set an alarm to limit the nap to 20 minutes. If I find that this is not enough to overcome the fogginess, I allow myself up to an hour of time to continue to rest. After that, I know I need to try one of my other coping mechanisms to keep moving.
Walking is some of the best medicine available, whether you have a brain injury or not! Getting fresh air and sunshine helps improve your mood. Moving your body helps work out pain, improves your blood pressure, and uses up the physical stores of energy that will make your body tired. You see, the restlessness that wakes me up in the middle of the night is often that my body is rested, but my injured brain is exhausted. This leads to a dichotomy that you really need to stay aware of with a brain injury.
Yogic Napping, better known as Yoga Nidra is an ancient practice. My dear friend Annie Okerlin of Exalted Warrior Foundation introduced me to the practice. It is a way to get a restful break in the day, without really falling all the way to sleep. However, as she has often pointed out, it is ok if you really fall asleep during Yoga Nidra, because that just means you really needed the rest! Annie makes SoundCloud entries of her Yoga Nidra practices, and you can check them out at her website, or on her SoundCloud. Just make sure you have 30 or so minutes to lay still and listen.
When it comes to bedtime, it is important to set the space you are sleeping in for success in staying asleep. An additional contributor to my lack of sleep is tinnitus, a constant ringing noise that stays present at all times, and is especially loud in a quiet, dark room when you are trying to fall, or stay, asleep. I have found that it is incredibly helpful to play a meditation soundtrack, or white noise when falling asleep. No lyrics, no fast paced beats, just a gentle, background music. I have also made a “beach camping” white noise generator that is a combination of waves, seagulls, and a fire crackling. You can experiment with different white noises, or different songs, and see what works best for you.
Another good indicator for my success at staying asleep is if my brain is “stuck” on a thinking pattern. If I am evaluating the day, or rehashing conversations, it is important for me to interrupt that train of thought, and set my brain up for a better night of sleep. I have found that reading something fun is a great means for interrupting those negative or worrisome thoughts, and it also apparently helps me to be a better human!
I hope these five tips will help you to improve your sleep patterns, whether or not you have a brain injury. I find that the things that I do to help improve my condition are often just the best practices available to everyone. Feel free to give these a try. Do you have a go-to-sleep aid that helps you? I would love to know about it!