By Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP
"I can’t sleep. How do I get to sleep without medication?"
This common question is asked regularly, and I can tell you there are lots of people who are sleepless here, there and everywhere.
Deciding to find sleep without medication -- which many people find has limitations anyway -- means some effort and experimentation on your part. There are actually lots of choices, but you will have to decide which ones you are willing to try.
You'll have to make an investment in this process. You may need to consider new ideas, ones that may be unfamiliar to you or ones that you have dismissed in the past.
Prepare for bed with nighttime rituals. You will want your bedtime rituals to be comforting and able to slow you into dream time. Calming music, turning down the lights, taking a warm bath or shower, enjoying an inspirational reading, prayer or other simple practices will help you relax.
Attend to issues of physical pain. If you are in pain, it will be hard to relax enough to sleep. Get a physical examination if necessary and discuss with your health professional what options you have to resolve the pain.
Avoid stimulating beverages and substances. Coffee, tea, chocolate and other caffeinated drinks and foods will often perk you up rather than calm you down. Many people find sugar and salt also stimulate the body rather than calming it.
Also, avoid over-stimulating movies, books and television shows at night, including the news, which tend to focus on topics of trauma and distress, and other shows with violent or disturbing material. Reading material should focus on quieting thoughts, rather than accelerating them.
Consider herbs such as valerian, melatonin, passiflora that are generally considered safe and non-habit forming. Check with your doctor if you are taking medications to be sure that there will be no harmful interactions.
Homeopathy remedies are available over the counter at health food shops and other alternative shops and online that help with improving sleep. Remember to refrain from substances that counteract the remedies, such as tea tree oil, mint, coffee, menthol and eucalyptus. If you are sleepless for a longer term, consider a constitutional remedy by the homeopathic practitioner.
Exercise and movement earlier in the day will help you release energy that will keep you awake at night.
At night, try a few calming yoga postures if you know them. Some yoga postures are energizing; you will want to make use of calming postures. If you don't know yoga, try simple stretching and breathe as you stretch.
Take advantage of a Reiki session or another kind of energy calming treatment. Reiki, a method of calming the body with hands-on touch, has been shown to deeply relax the body by rerouting the body’s energy patterns. It is helpful when you are tired, ill, feeling pain or simply wanting to relax.
Acupuncture helps balance energy meridians and calms and soothes the nervous system. If you don't like needles, try acupressure which will also work with your body’s energy.
Journaling. Studies by psychologist James Pennebaker shows that people who regularly make journal entries about their thoughts and feelings feel less depressed and their immune system is better. You can write about your day, your feelings, your thoughts and reflect on what happened.
Refrain from panicking. If you absolutely can't sleep, just allow yourself to close your eyes and rest. Give yourself a face massage or put one hand on your heart and one hand on your forehead, another calming posture, while lying down.
Know what you can't control. If you are struggling with a personal concern or worrying about the next day's weather, it will be important to recognize that where your influence ends and come to peace with it. Some people have found that writing down a word or two what they can't control and putting it in a box dubbed "God Box" is a good way of letting it go.
Rub your feet or have someone give you the gift of a foot rub. You will relax the nerves that end in your feet and soothe your feet which have the responsibility of carrying you around all day.
Stop your device use early in the evening. Working at the computer and scrolling on your tablet or phone activates the brain. There is evidence that the light of the device screen activates brain functions rather than calming them. Experiment with shortening your device use if you suspect this may be a problem.
Finally, you may have to consider addressing those issues that keep you awake at night -- internal struggles that aren't solved by teas, pills or foot rubs but need to be clearly seen and sorted through with professional psychotherapy.
Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP, is an author, trainer and psychotherapist who promotes, practices and teaches experiential methods including psychodrama, Family and Systemic Constellations, sand tray, mindfulness and Tarot imagery.