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Neurodiversity and Sleep: 16 Ways to Calm Your Nervous System and Your Mind to Sleep Better


I have a very active mind, which is great for a lot of things (until it gets obsessive), but it’s never great for sleeping, and if you add my overactive, often unregulated, nervous system, it’s a recipe for insomnia. I find this typical for people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and sensory processing disorder (SPD); every part of ourselves stays too stimulated to come down, unwind and sleep.

For decades, I kept a very hectic daily schedule, so it used to be that I received so much stimuli during the day that I crashed at night. Not that I was getting the best sleep, but at least I was falling asleep quickly. But since I’ve been trying to take better care of myself over the last few years and to have a more relaxed daily schedule, I’ve noticed it’s more difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep through the night.

I’m no longer crashing and burning; rather, I’m smoldering.

Not getting enough sleep, as I’m sure is true for many, causes me to struggle the next day.

I’m unable to think clearly and my processing worsens. My mind obsesses. I can’t handle even the slightest change. I have a difficult time making decisions. My senses are even more heightened. I hear and smell everything causing me to be constantly overstimulated. Touch is more difficult for me to receive than it normally is. I’m clumsier. I have an even more difficult time speaking to others and digesting my food. I’m more likely to snap and to have meltdowns. Breakdowns.

So while everyone wants to sleep well, just one night of not sleeping well becomes detrimental to my overall health and well-being. And it’s a cycle that, once it starts, is difficult to stop.

To help myself, I set out to find ways to improve my sleep. I find that there are things I have to do throughout the day, at night before bed and while in bed to prepare my body and my mind for sleep. Here are 16 things I do to help myself fall asleep and stay asleep that will hopefully help you sleep better too.

To Prepare Yourself for Sleep During the Day:

  1. Exercise and keep your nervous system regulated. Doing this throughout the day helps your body (and subsequently, your mind) regulate stimulation allowing you to relax when you need to at night. I typically do cardio around noon and yoga in the afternoon and right before bed. I also find that using my weighted blanket during the day helps my regulation remain consistent. As does heavy lifting, bodywork or anything that regulates my tactile, vestibular and proprioceptive senses.
  2. Stop eating three to four hours before bed. I find that I am most comfortable after my food has digested, so if I eat too close to going to bed, I’m often too uncomfortable to sleep. Digestive yoga helps with this as does intermittent fasting. 
  3. Don’t consume caffeine or alcohol for a few hours before bed. Every time I forget this, I pay for it as I watch the midnight hours pass. With caffeine, even chocolate is sometimes too much of a stimulant too close to bed. I have to avoid all caffeine eight to 10 hours before I plan on sleeping. No wonder people switch to carob instead. With alcohol, I find that if I consume it too close to bed, I only sleep for four hours and then I’m wide awake for hours in the middle of the night. Then I sleep in past when I want to get up to make up for it. Basically, it messes with my productivity and schedule the next day.
  4. Aim for the same amount of sleep each night. We know this, but it’s easy to forget. And you have to plan ahead for it. It should be a realistic amount, but also an amount that’s enough for you to recharge. I aim for seven to nine hours per night to feel my best the next day. Six just doesn’t cut it and 10 is too much; it makes me groggy the next day.
  5. Go to bed around the same time each night and get up around the same time each morning. Again, we know this, but it becomes difficult to practice when life gets in the way. And again, you have to plan for it. I find that even one night of not going to bed or getting up at the same time throws off my entire schedule. I try to stick to my sleep schedule at least five nights per week, though I always aim for seven. 

To Prepare Yourself for Sleep at Night:

  1. Find a quiet space to unwind. I used to love lying in bed to unwind before falling asleep, but my husband goes to bed before me and his snoring is too stimulating for me, so I stay in the living room to unwind.
  2. Take a magnesium supplement. I like Calm brand magnesium powder. It relaxes my body and my mind and you can drink it warm, which is always soothing. But be sure to consult your physician before taking supplements.
  3. Drink chamomile tea. I drink it at the same time as my magnesium supplement. Try to knock myself out with a one-two punch.
  4. Do yoga for digestion. Yoga is wonderful for so many things, but I particularly love it for digestion. Especially at night. Since I’m unable to sleep with a full or upset tummy, I do a variety of digestion-aiding poses before bed.
  5. Stop working and/or reading things that will stimulate thinking at least one hour before bed. It’s hard to stick to this, but if my mind gets too stimulated, I could be up all night. And then sleep all day. A habit I try to refrain from so I can be a productive member of society.
  6. Write down any lingering thoughts from the day. While I try to refrain from writing right before bed, I will make note of anything that comes to mind. I’m also a big list-maker. Once it’s off my mind and onto the page, I find my mind doesn’t race as much.
  7. Use a weighted blanket right before bed and/or while sleeping. The addition of a weighted blanket to my life has been amazing. I can’t believe how much it calms my nervous system and allows my body to relax. I use my blanket right before bed and, coupled with my magnesium supplement and chamomile tea, I’m usually able to knock myself out. Target offers a variety of weighted blankets and Etsy has options for custom blankets. I highly recommend them for anyone. Especially those of you whose nervous systems could use some taming.
  8. Apply essential oils. I apply lavender essential oil to the bottom of my big toes (to calm my mind), lavender, frankincense, peppermint and Aroma Siez™ to my jaw, neck and shoulders (to relax my body), and Digize™ to my stomach (to aid digestion).

To Prepare Yourself for Sleep While in Bed:

  1. Use a sleep mask. I find that, even with no TV in our bedroom and darkening shades on the windows, I’m still too sensitive to light to fall and stay asleep. Wearing a sleep mask helps. I buy ones made of silk because they feel so nice.
  2. Run a sound machine or some other kind of white noise. I have white noise apps on my phone, but I love box fans because they drown out most noises. I have a friend who even takes hers with her when she travels. Not a bad idea.
  3. Watch and/or listen to something familiar while trying to fall asleep. My go-to is The Office. That way, my mind has something familiar to focus on to prevent it from wandering, but not something new that will stimulate my thinking. I also know what is coming in each episode, which helps me regulate my stimulus levels. For example, if there’s an episode with recurring loud noises, I usually skip it. I listen with one headphone in with my phone turned upside down, away from my head.

I hope you find some tricks to help you get to sleep and to stay asleep long enough to recharge. Give your nervous system and your mind the break they deserve.

Cheers to catching some extra z’s tonight. And sweet dreams.

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Neurodiversity and Sleep: 16 Ways to Calm Your Nervous System and Your Mind to Sleep Better


Jenna Grace

Jenna Grace is a writer and educator with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sensory processing disorder (SPD), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder (SAD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) diagnoses. She writes and speaks about topics including healing from trauma, coping with neurological disorder and practicing mindfulness in order to help others and to explore new meaning. Visit her website for more of her stories.


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APA Reference
Grace, J. (2019). Neurodiversity and Sleep: 16 Ways to Calm Your Nervous System and Your Mind to Sleep Better. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/neurodivergent/2019/04/neurodiversity-and-sleep-16-ways-to-calm-your-nervous-system-and-your-mind-to-sleep-better/

 

Last updated: 26 Apr 2019
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