Falling asleep and staying asleep is a common challenge for many of my clients. The second the head hits the pillow, and the body relaxes, (expecting to fall into a delicious sleep), the monkey brain wakes up! Why does this happen? Well, if you have an ADHD/ADD brain, you will have spent all day running around being busy. Bedtime is often the first time in a day where you have the mental space for thinking. It’s a quiet time, with nothing for you to do, nowhere for you to be and no external stimulation to distract you. That’s why, instead of drifting off into the dreamworld, as most people would do, your monkey brain thinks it is a great time to start analyzing the day, or thinking about tomorrow, or just thinking about anything that it finds immensely entertaining.
It has taken me a lifetime of research to come up with ways to get my monkey brain to fall asleep. Naturally I have tried all the general sleep advice that’s available, such as have the bedroom dark, go to bed at the same time every day, stay off your phone, etc. and these things are important as a first step. However, with ADHD/ADD, you also have to deal with a brain that switches on when it should be switching off. In this article, I will share five favourite brain hacks I use to outsmart my busy brain.
- Ride the Waves: 60+/- minute sleep cycle
The best advice I ever received was from my friend Jill and because it’s helped me so much over the years, I am listing it here as my No. 1 piece of sleep advice.
For me, sleeping through the night is a rarity, and when I was younger, I used to get angry and stressed as I laid there tossing and turning. Little did I know that the stress was preventing sleep. As Jill explained, our sleep patterns go in cycles. (I’ve since learned the cycles are about 60 – 90 minutes duration). If you wake up during the night, don’t try to force yourself back to sleep. Just surrender to the moment, and simply wait for the next sleep cycle to begin.
The trick is to not get stressed about waking up, because you will flood your body with the adrenalin and cortisol. These are the hormones that make you alert. Instead, just remain relaxed in your body, and do something easy like read your book. However, it’s important to stay tuned-in to your body because you want to catch the next sleep wave as it starts building. At a certain point, your eyes will feel heavy, and you might even start yawning. This is a beautiful signal that the next sleep cycle is beginning. The minute you feel this sleepiness come over you, you must stop whatever it is you are doing, and allow yourself to drift back to sleep.
In the old days, I would override these signals. I’d feel tired and yet keep reading until the end of the chapter. However, this is the wrong thing to do. If you push through that sleepy feeling, you will miss the sleep window and will have to wait until the next cycle begins.
To recap the process, when you wake up from a sleep cycle, stay calm and relaxed so that you don’t trigger any stress hormones as they will keep you alert. Do something that’s relaxing and easy while you wait for the next sleep cycle to kick in. Then immediately stop what you are doing, whether that is reading book or something else, and allow the body to drift off.
- Old-fashioned remedies are worth their weight in gold
It’s kind of funny how the old-fashioned remedies really do help. That’s why I’d like to present my next tip, which is to drink a warm mug of milk. Sometimes we cannot sleep because we are actually hungry. Whether it’s a case of hunger or not, I will always prepare a hot milk drink, most often in the middle of the night, if I myself find tossing and turning.
The warm comfort of the milk in my tummy evokes feelings of mother-love, safety and comfort. When I am in this milky, drowsy state, it’s easier for my mind to let go and to allow sleep to take over.
You can also add some ground nutmeg to the milk because it has sleeping properties in it too. I love grating fresh nutmeg, as the smell conjures up carefree feelings of childhood as opposed to the adult stresses that are keeping me awake! I sometime add a little bit of Manuka honey too. The whole sweet, milky, nutmeggy concoction makes me feel incredibly sleepy and relaxed.
Be mindful though, as you stumble to the kitchen at 2am, to remain slow and relaxed in your movements. Don’t wind yourself up with anxious thoughts, worrying about the fact that you are not sleeping. Instead, comfort yourself with the knowledge that as long as you stay relaxed, your body will know how to put you back to sleep.
- Upside down instead of right side up
Ever since I was a child, and let’s not underestimate the intuitive wisdom of children, I have tried the following crazy trick when I can’t sleep. Normally, you have your pillow at the head of the bed and your feet at the foot of the bed. On nights when I’m too restless to sleep, I put my pillow at the foot of the bed and my feet end up where my head should be. Basically, I am sleeping upside down in the bed. I’m not 100% sure why this helps, but I think it has something to do with the polarity of the earth. There have been times in my life when my insomnia was so bad that I got up in the middle of the night and rearranged my entire bedroom in order to change the direction of the bed. Hopefully, you will never get this desperate.
Feng shui and Vastu Shastra traditions both recommend sleeping with your head facing south which leads me to believe, sleeping direction is an important consideration for quality sleep.
- Something entirely Nutty – Pistachio nuts
This may sound completely nutty but apparently pistachio nuts can help with sleep. I stumbled across some research that said these nuts contain melatonin, plus B6 and magnesium, which all help with sleep. About an hour before you go to bed, grab a handful of pistachio nuts, about seven to ten is enough. Sit quietly in a relaxing chair, and mindfully eat each nut one by one. Make sure you chew properly thus allowing the enzymes in your mouth to start the digestive process. After this snackette, you can begin your relaxing “going to bed” routine.
I’ve tried this many times and I’m convinced it helps. Pistachios are now my go-to sleeping pill when I sense I’m going to have a restless night.
- Distract your busy brain by listening to the radio
How often do you find yourself starting to drift off, then BoiiiiiiiNG!!! Your monkey brain lights up like a carnival show. It feels as though the ADHD/ADD part of your brain is wide awake ready for action. When this happens, you need to give your monkey brain a distraction so that the other part of you can go to sleep. Here’s the trick I’ve been using since childhood.
For many years I had the radio playing in the background to help me sleep. Nowadays, you would probably use podcasts. The trick though is to select the appropriate type of thing to listen to. The topic should be interesting enough to keep the monkey brain busy, but not too interesting that you stay awake to listen to it.
Secondly, you need the right radio voice to listen to. Find a podcast or radio presenter who speaks in a deep, droning type voice and who speaks relatively slowly. For example, I noticed the BBC World News live feed lulls me to sleep. Keep the volume just loud enough to hear but not too loud that it keeps you awake.
I’ve also tried YouTube video documentaries. However, you need to be careful there are no advertisements blasting at you in the middle of the documentary. And the content has to be somewhat dull.
I came across bedtime stories for grownups a while back. Personally, I’m not a big fan, but I recently stumbled across Matthew McConaughey narrating bedtime stories. His voice is incredibly calming and sends me off to the dream world in no time. You might like this idea of having someone read aloud to you, especially if this was part of your childhood bedtime routine.
Well, those are five of my quirky ideas that I use to get myself to sleep. I hope you find them helpful too.
Bonus tip: I can’t resist sharing one more tip with you. How to trick your brain into falling asleep: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5dE25ANU0k (The trick starts at around the 8 minute mark).
Jacinta Noonan is an ADHD specialist & Life Coach. If you feel ADHD/ADD might be getting in your way, why not book an exploration session to find out how coaching can help.