What to do if you can’t sleep after a bad trip

If you’re experiencing anxiety and insomnia after a bad trip, know that what you’re experiencing is normal and that you will get through this. In time, you will be able to sleep again, I promise.

My theory on getting to sleep

My general theory of falling asleep is this: if you can focus your thoughts enough so that you keep thinking about the same thing, you’ll eventually drift off to sleep. When you think about something, which triggers another thought, which triggers another thought, you’ll keep yourself awake. Watching a long documentary is a tool for keeping your mind steady so that you can drift off, which is something that you can eventually do using meditation or self-hypnosis. Start by using the documentaries – they’ll help you drift and stay distracted from any thoughts of anxiety. Once you feel like you’ve got a better handle on things, try switching to imagining something or clearing your mind until you fall asleep. These techniques require patience and practice, so you’ll want to work up to them.

Before going to sleep

The way you prepare yourself for sleep has a lot of impact on how easy it is to fall asleep. First, develop an evening routine that is consistent each day, so that you body can start recognizing when it’s time to go to sleep.

Start to wind down around the same time each day. During the wind-down process, do things that promote relaxation, such as reading, listening to gentle music, meditating, and turning the lights down low. Having lamp light rather than fully ceiling lights will help to promote the release of melatonin, which is a chemical in the brain largely responsible for bringing about sleep. Low lighting (like a setting sun) triggers the initial release of melatonin.

Here are a few things you could try before going to bed:

  1. Turn off your screens for the night. Putting away your technology will help with the release of melatonin and with your ability to start shutting down for the night. Waiting for and responding to texts right up until you fall asleep does not promote relaxation.
  2. Make a list of everything that’s been on your mind or worrying you during the day. By doing this, you’ll get those concerns out of your head and onto paper. That way, you won’t have to keep ruminating about them as you try to fall asleep and instead will be able to relax.
  3. If you get anxiety related to bodily sensations as you try to fall asleep, scan your body before going to bed. Notice the various sensations you feel, your breathing, and your heart rate. Reassure yourself that everything is working properly and that you feel good. When you do this, you’ll be better able to see your anxiety for what it is. Read more about body-related anxiety here.
  4. Read a calming book, about positive, uplifting subjects like yoga, meditation, spirituality. I would recommend the Autobiography of a Yogi as a good place to start. Try to avoid dramatic, frightening, or depressing subjects.
  5. Practice alternate nostril breathing. This is a breathing technique which originated in the yogic tradition of India. Place your hand over one nostril and inhale. Hold your breath as you open the covered nostril and cover the one you inhaled through. Exhale through the open nostril, and then inhale through the same nostril that you exhaled from. Keep switching nostrils as you breathe. The pattern should be R (inhale), Left (exhale), Left (inhale), Right (exhale) or vice versa. Yogis have found that starting the cycle with the right nostril has an energizing effect while beginning with the left has a calming, cooling effect. To promote sleep, begin the cycle on the left nostril (LRRL LRRL LRRL…).

Steps to take if you’re having trouble falling asleep:

  1. Understand what’s triggering your anxiety. For me, every night when I would lay down to go to sleep, I began to notice sensations in my body that would cause me to get alarmed. Enter anxiety and potential panic attack: Was I dying? Was I getting enough air? Was I having an allergic reaction? Would I have a heart attack? Did I have a blockage in an artery? By keeping detailed records of my instances of anxiety, I came to understand this sequence: get in bed > start trying to relax >  notice some bodily sensation > get anxious. By knowing what’s causing it, you begin to take power away from the anxiety. You can also be prepared and remember that, in my case, “No, you’re not dying. It’s just anxiety. This happens every night, remember?”
  2. Try exercising during the day or at least taking long walks in nature. While this won’t be the most popular suggestion, doing this not only helps you get more tired out, but it also helps you get more grounded and centered. If possible, exercise outside, in nature. If jogging isn’t your thing, try walking at least a mile every day at a park, nature preserve, or greenway. I recommend walking barefoot on the earth as much as possible, because this will help you feel more centered and less “out-there.”
  3. Fall asleep to something. The one thing that helped me the most during my first few months of dealing with this anxiety was falling asleep to boring TV or documentaries. Find something just interesting enough that your mind won’t drift but just boring enough that you wouldn’t mind not knowing what happens next. It’s important that it’s also positive, uplifting, non-violent, and non-dramatic. If you have a TV in your bedroom, I recommend watching home shopping channels like QVC or HSN. One that was particularly effective for me is called JTV, and they sell crappy jewelry, so it can be a bit amusing. You can also watch some boring documentaries on YouTube about nature, weather, or history. Here is a nature documentary. Here is one about the history of the English language. Based on experience, both of these would be perfect selections. It’s best to both watch and listen to the video.