Friday, 10 January 2014

Books for Insomnia: A Bedtime Bibliotherapy Reading Plan

Insomnia reading plan with bibliotherapy
Can I use fiction and bibliotherapy to help my insomnia? Image source.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening - Robert Frost

You may recall me mentioning a few months ago that I was having trouble sleeping, a problem I'm still facing. Could bibliotherapy possibly help my insomnia, or is it back to the Diazepam?

I've always been one of those people who spends a while just thinking things over before I fall asleep, but sometimes this gets a bit out of hand. When thinking turns to worrying tends to be when it's most dangerous, meaning that I'll stare at the ceiling most the night and feel completely useless and exhausted the following day. I'll then find myself thinking that this exhaustion will guarantee a good nights sleep to come, but I'll always end up staring at the ceiling again. And repeat.

I'll note that night terrors are pretty much guaranteed when I'm in a hotel room or new place overnight. I imagine this links to the PTSD remnants that still lurk inside.

It's easy to conclude that I sleep much better when I'm back at home in England. Here in Spain I rarely have a great night's sleep, while back in Sussex I'm usually asleep pretty soon after hitting the pillow. Maybe this suggests the following: I'm less healthy, happy and relaxed here than I am at home. Which makes sense. Maybe a follow-up post is required on homesickness (just a quick tip: Edward Thomas's 'Home' poems have done wonders in making me feel I'm not alone with this).

Whatever the circumstances, I need something to help me out with sleeping.

Types of books that have helped my insomnia before

  • Poetry. It's easy to process and it's shorter than fiction. I tend to prefer reading only a few poems at a time due to jumps in subject, though.
  • Fiction with beautiful settings. I love reading about dreamy settings that are deep in nature, relaxing and positive.
  • Lighthearted books. Often treating myself to something easy-to-read is just what I need to fall back in love fully with fiction. It can also help me to relax enough to fall asleep.
  • Books with calming characters. I like to read books with characters that lull me off into a safe enough state to sleep. Renée in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, perhaps.
  • Books I associate with happy memories. Not much to explain - rereading books we read at a happy time (or books we associate with one) causes happy things to happen in the brain.
  • Extracts and poetry I know by heart. Not exactly books, but repeating in my mind extracts and poems that I've learnt by heart has always been an anti-insomnia tool for me. Wordworth's My Heart Leaps Up and Frank O'Hara's Mayakovksy come to mind.
  • Philosophy. Sometimes reading a little philosophy gives me something to ponder instead of my own anxieties, although I prefer not to choose anything too heavy. Michel de Montaigne or Epictetus often does the trick.

Books that make falling asleep more difficult

  • Most self-help. I've been reading Tim Ferriss's The Four Hour Work Week (you either love him or hate him; I can't quite decide which side I take) and it really isn't ideal for bedtime reading. Books about getting out, doing things and improving myself just get me worked up, twitchy and restless at night-time.
  • Scary books. This may not bother some of you, but monsters and zombies will never help me sleep well.
  • Books I struggle with. I seriously disliked Cloud Atlas, and reading it before bed made me frustrated and even close to despising my bedtime reading habit. Bedtime reading shouldn't allow for forcing yourself to read books you struggle with or dislike. 

An Insomnia Reading List

To be prescribed:

30 minutes - 1 hour before bed every evening, ideally with a night-time tea blend.

Will these books help me sleep better and address my insomnia? I'm looking forward to testing some of them out and keeping you posted! If you also have trouble sleeping, does reading help you, or does it keep you awake?


melissa vizcarra said...

Hi Lucy!
I have not been around much, I've been very busy with work and writing but I'm catching up with your posts. This one is perfect for me because I also have trouble sleeping and reading the right thing helps a lot.
By the way, I love the new format of the blog, looks very pretty!

Brian Joseph said...

Great post Lucy.

I actually find that almost anything that I read helps me sleep. Even things that might be a bit disturbing.
I tend to sleep well but have occasionally had a lot of difficulty.

Of course, I think that in order to find more time in the day, partially time to read, I have foolishly cut into my sleep time!

Rivorniel Tinubelin said...

I think you make a great point about self-help books, or any book that is inspirational enough to make you want to get up and start doing things right away! :) Books you are struggling with may not be the best choice indeed in case you suffer from insomnia (otherwise they may be good in sense of being so boring/not captive that they lull you to sleep). I remember reading Cloud Atlas before bed and I couldn't fall asleep but it was because I liked it so much I just kept reading. I agree with pretty much everything in your "books that help" list.

An1081 said...

When I lie awake and can't put a stop to my thoughts, I enjoy listening to an audiobook or better yet, a short story or a podcast. Guaranteed, before the story or the podcast is over, I've fallen asleep. I usually choose a short story from the New Yorker fiction podcast, or an episode of the Guardian books podcast.

Listening to a book or a story has the advantage that you don't have to put the book away when you are ready to sleep, you can just set the timer and you don't even have to bother with switching the device off.
Also, I find it soothing to listen to someone's voice, telling me a story.

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Melissa,

I was wondering how you were as I was writing this post! I hope the writing is going well (and the work too ;))

I'm so glad you found the post useful... I think creating it has helped me to think about the positive actions I can take to improve my own sleep too!

It was so hard to write the post without mentioning Von Arnim though - I seem to mention her writing every time I write about anxiety or relaxation!

I wish you all the best with the work and writing :) Let me know if there's anything whatsoever I can ever help you out with. And I'm so glad you think the blog looks pretty!


tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Brian,

Sorry to hear that you have occasional trouble sleeping too, although it's really interesting to know you can read anything before bed.

I agree that making time for reading definitely cuts into sleep time... it's a bit of a vicious circle for me, trying to read to get to sleep but risking staying up later by doing so!

Best wishes,

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi An, thank you so much for the comment! You've made such a great point about audiobooks. A few weeks ago I posted about mild OCD affecting my reading, and I mentioned how audiobooks were a great way to get around it. They're definitely something I should consider before bed when I'm having trouble sleeping... thank you! I definitely agree with the benefits you've mentioned, and I also feel that being able to listen to the book with the light switched off is a good thing too.

I look forward to seeing you around the blog more! Best wishes, Lucy.

tolstoytherapy said...

Thanks Riv! I'm glad I'm not the only one who chooses to avoid these books before bed ;)

And I'm glad you liked Cloud Atlas - I was so wishing I would!

doahh said...

I am similar in that when I went to India for 6 months I slept a lot better. When I got back to Scotland I was OK for about 6 months but then my insomnia came back. I came to the conclusion that it was either being away from the UK and therefore having less stress, or the efficacy of the light. In India the the day length is consistent and the sun is always very bright. I try to get as much sunlight as possible and I use a SAD box but it doesn't really help.

I would therefore have expected you to do better in Spain, but that is obviously not the case. Good luck in staying from the sleeping pills. I have just ditched mine (Amitriptylene) as they never really worked and I am hoping I can stay off them. I wrote this article ( about the bad effects sleeping pills can have to encourage me to stop. Ten days and counting for me now, the longest I have ever gone due to there addictive nature!

Lois Maharg said...

I find at night that I can't read or watch anything exciting or disturbing. Thrillers and suspense are out, and newspaper reading has to take place earlier in the day. I get worked up very easily, and that makes it harder to fall asleep.

But I do find that reading novels with complex and fascinating characters is helpful in the hour or two before bed. As, for example, in Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, or Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist, two novels I recently read and liked. When I'm finally sleepy enough to head to bed, I take those characters with me inside my head. I think about why they are the way they are, why they do the things they do, and so forth. It's almost meditative and helps lull me to sleep. Good novels also keep my mind off myself!
But if insomnia really IS a major problem, my new book may be of interest. It's called The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for bedtime reading. But the information it contains will very likely help with sleep.

tolstoytherapy said...

It's so interesting how travel affects our body clock, as well as light levels! India is certainly very different from the UK, as is Spain, although I think my problem was being in a very dark flat. That's certainly something to avoid in future! I'm so glad that you've managed to ditch the amitriptylene, and I hope you haven't had to go back to them.

I'm frustrated I've only just come across this comment!

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Lois, I'm certainly similar to you with what I can and can't read at night! I also get worked up very easily, so I try to keep evenings as calm and tech-free as possible.

You've made some really great recommendations too. I've heard so much about The Orchardist, so scheduling it as bedtime reading will be perfect! Your meditative routine sounds like something I really should try too.

The Savvy Insomniac sounds intriguing - thank you for both this and the brilliant comment, Lois!