Sleeplessness and Night-Time Anxiety

There are very few things that I’d change about myself. I’m pretty comfortable with myself. That is not the case, however, for my sleeping patterns.

I have really really bad insomnia. It comes and goes, occasionally I’ll have a few nights where I can sleep without any problems, but a lot of the time I find it hard to get any sleep at all. I’ll be up until 4:00, 5:00, or even 6:00 in the morning trying to fall asleep. The problem isn’t that I’m not tired at bedtime. The problem is that I cannot get my body or brain to initiate sleep. I’ll lay there physically exhausted, but I just won’t transition from the state of wakefulness to falling asleep.

The more frustrating part is that my body sends me sleep signals all the time in the middle of the day, when I’m supposed to be awake. I don’t mean “I’m tired” signals, but biological sleep signals, like I’ll start drifting off just sitting in a chair. Everything is all out of whack and I don’t know what to do about it.

Insomnia and other sleep difficulties are super common co-occurrences with autism. I’m surprised there isn’t more writing about it in autism circles. I saw a few other bloggers writing about it in the last few months, and this is a topic I’ve wanted to touch on since I started writing here, so here we are.

Sleepless Lady Covering Ears With Pillow. Noisy Neighbors, Tinni
A person lies in their bed with their hands pressing their pillow into their head in exasperation. The inability to fall asleep even when I’m tired is incredibly frustrating

At this point in my life, I can pretty much predict when I’m not going to sleep at night. There’s a recognizable pattern of thought that runs through my head when I can’t sleep. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a sort of scattered repetition. My mind feels like it’s racing, but it’s racing along a short circular track. The same thought just just replays itself over and over again and I can’t get it to stop, and that’s what keeps me from falling asleep. Then, of course, I realize that I have to be able to sleep in order to function the next day, and so I get anxious thinking about that that it makes it even harder to sleep. And so problems just compound on top of each other.

Normally I like to give advice in posts like these, but I honestly have very little. Very few things seem to help me. I’ve tried using over-the-counter sleep aids, mostly just diphenhydramine repackaged as a sleep aid, and these help sometimes, but not all the time (and they become less effective the more you use them because your body adapts to them). I’ve tried all the typical advice when you search on the internet for tips to combat insomnia. Avoiding screens an hour before bed? Tried it, doesn’t work, actually makes it worse because I use tech to relax. Doing something “relaxing” before bed? Tried that, doesn’t work. It doesn’t do anything to slow down my racing mind. Going to bed at the same time every night? Tried that, doesn’t work. I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

Strangely, one thing that I have found that works is changing rooms. If I’m having trouble sleeping in my bed, I move to the couch, and sometimes that breaks the repetitive cycle and I fall asleep quickly. I know there’s the whole “autistics aren’t supposed to like change” idea, but seriously this is one of the best strategies I have.

Sometimes when I’m super desperate, though, I go to my mom because at the moment she’s my safe person and who I can turn to when I don’t know what to do. I feel bad though because it’s really hard for my mom when I wake her up in the middle of the night and I know she doesn’t always magically know exactly how to help me. But it does help alleviate my anxiety.

In an ideal world, people would be allowed to not worry about time and just sleep when their body lets them, eat when they feel hungry, work when they have the resources to do so, etc. Unfortunately, this could never happen in any sort of human society because we need to be able to keep everyone on a similar timetable to schedule things. However, some accommodations that have helped me have been setting aside time in the middle of the day to nap and also making sure I don’t schedule anything very early in the morning. I don’t have in-person classes at school until 10:00 AM, so if I have a hard night and don’t fall asleep until 4:00 AM I can still sleep for like five hours. I also give myself a bunch of free space in the middle of the day to sleep a bit when I actually frequently have the capacity to do so.

How practical are these accommodations going forward? No idea. Probably not very, but perhaps I can find a career arrangement where I have a more flexible schedule. I actually think it’s a good idea for employers to as much as possible move to flexible work hour models, as this wouldn’t only help neurodiverse people but also people extenuating circumstances like sleep issues that may not be immediately obvious.

I’m hoping some readers would be willing to give me some advice as to how I can beat insomnia though. I’m sure a lot of you are either autistic people who have sleeping problems or closely know an autistic person who has sleeping problems. What works for you? How have you tried to combat insomnia?

6 thoughts on “Sleeplessness and Night-Time Anxiety

  1. Hi Quincy! I don’t know if it’ll help, but I’ve heard good things about weighted blankets. As someone else with ASD and anxiety and just… general bad sleep, I found my sleep got better once I started on meds (although it’s still not fantastic, haha.) White noise might also be something you find relaxing, so maybe see if you can find an app – there are some that have time limiters as well or that let you mix noise 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! I actually have a weighted blanket that I use sometimes. The only issue is that it’s super hot. I use ASMR sometimes to help me sleep, which is kind of like a white noise.

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  2. Quincy, when you said:

    “The problem is that I cannot get my body or brain to initiate sleep.”

    I imagine this strikes a chord with many people, especially those who have other initiation troubles.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m guessing you’ve already tried this, but I found taking melatonin supplements every night reduced the time it took me to fall asleep. For me it made a big difference.

    I’ve read that lying still in bed is more restful than no sleep at all. I don’t know if you know that, but maybe it will help with anxiety. When you are lying awake, it is still doing something good for you.

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  4. I’ve had this issue a lot and what I like to do is I listen to music and play puzzle games because those allow me to engage my mind and I use the music to block out my thinking. And I just do that in a dark room with my brightness at the lowest and night shift on until I get exhausted to the point where once I put my phone down, I instantly collapse.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ugh! This is the absolute worst! I’ve been struggling with sleeping now because I changed my sleeping habits for the past two weeks that I’ve been quarantined and it’s so bad now that I can’t seem to sleep until it’s early morning and then I have classes at 9. So I’m barely getting in four hours of sleep on good days that too. I’m really struggling trying to find ways to help me sleep like the way I used to before!

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