Too Sensitive to Sleep
My sleepless adventures as a highly sensitive, menopausal woman
Understanding menopausal insomnia
If you are preparing for or experiencing perimenopause, check out our online retreat ‘Am I Going Mad’
All through my sleep deprived years I have snatched greedily at any article about how to cure menopausal insomnia, jumping on the latest fix with my claws out, desperate for it to end the misery that sleep deprivation brings. Over the years I have bought and tried the following:
- Avena sativa
- Lavender essential oil
- Night time tea of various brands
- A ‘Calm the fuck down’ tea blended by a herbalist
- Tinctures of valerian
- Magnesium supplements
- Magnesium oil
- Epsom salt baths
- This works sleep pillow spray
- Prebiotics as tried by Michael Mosely
And many others I have forgotten. Each time I am driven to the edge of reason from not sleeping I seize on another solution. Though I start with great optimism, the effect will only last for a night or two before it wears off. To hope for one remedy to fix my sleep is like using a plaster on a broken heart.
It’s been about 15 years, on and off, that my sleep has been troublesome since my son was born and I started to feel the effects of perimenopause. At its worst, I lived in a shaky, grey, hyper-sensitised world of near madness with no day or night. At best, I wake a few times in the night and soothe myself back to sleep without difficulty. In this time I have also been supported by some phenomenally patient therapists which I would like to thank (my therapist Oscar moment, just follow the links):
All of which have helped me towards better sleep and understand more about my patterns and balance.
Of course, the truth is that no one thing will fix the problem, because it stems from an imbalance that affects the whole of my system. It’s a global problem that requires a global solution, everything has to change for the change to be made. A therapist cannot fix your sleep only you can.
Definitely no quick fixes either, it’s a long road.
The solution, or my solution at least, has been to reduce the amount of stimulation throughout the whole of my life and to work on soothing my nervous system and making this a priority.
The key question for any sensitive who experiences menopausal insomnia is:
What soothes me?
Understanding what the ingredients are for your personal soothing rhythm is a powerful remedy for sleep. Here’s a list of things to consider:
- Food: different types of food, pace and rhythm/quantity of meals
- Pace of life: space and structure of your free and working time (this took me years)
- Screen time and social media: what are helpful boundaries?
- Movement: what kind of movement, when and how
- Connection: how much social time, where, doing what, how often, with whom
- Passtimes: what, pace, timing, obsessiveness!
All this takes a vibrant internal ‘good mother’ to help us discern and follow through. Needless to say, for most of us, this may require some healing work.
What works for me
As my sleep is strongly affected by overstimulation I have had a natural research lab to find what soothes me, and very often it’s not what I think, for example:
- Jumping around like a loony in Zumba is ultimately soothing even when I’m really knackered, I always feel better and released afterwards.
- Knitting something at night can sometimes be seriously over-stimulating.
- Any kind of yoga at night increases the energy in my system and mucks up my sleep.
- A regular daytime yoga practice of both strengthening and more yin yoga is non-negotiable.
- Recorded Yoga Nidra tracks at night don’t work for me, but doing the rotation in my mind myself does.
- Recorded Yoga Nidra during the day works really well for me.
- Pacing is key – I require way more empty space around everything than even I think is reasonable!
- Social media is too exciting and needs to be carefully managed.
- Meditation time works better with more frequent shorter ‘sits’ than one 30-minute session.
- Most therapies will be stimulating and interrupt my sleep in the short term, though they support good sleep in the long term.
- Having a plan about what to do when I wake in the night is helpful; what kind of breath/meditation/book/audio to use.
From the above list you can see that for me, much of what is commonly accepted, does not apply. If you are a sensitive, menopausal woman, test out for yourself what works and what does not.
Myth of 8 hours
One thing that commonly keeps us awake is the anxiety about not getting enough sleep. Most of the reading material on sleep will tell you how damaging it is to be sleep deprived, which freaks us out, we get wired and then can’t sleep.
Learning about polyphasic sleep calmed me down a lot. I learned from Nirlipa Tuli, of The Yoga Nidra Network, in his excellent course ‘Sleep Well’ that we are not biologically wired to sleep a solid 8 hour stretch, and that in pre-industrial society it was common to have two phases of sleep; one when it got dark then waking in the middle of the night to feed the baby or leave the bread to rise, to reflect, then a second sleep till it was time to wake. In an industrial society, this was considered non-productive.
This would vary according to season too, with long periods of darkness in the winter bringing more segments of sleep, and fewer in the summer. Translate this into women’s menstrual cycles and there will likely be more sleep in the autumn/premenstruum and winter/bleed time than around ovulation.
There is no one way to sleep that is ‘correct’ all the time.
Nick Littlehale’s book – Sleep was also very soothing. He’s a sleep coach for athletes who need to get a few seconds on their rivals so has had an excellent testing ground for his theories. Most useful for me was to look at the total number of sleep cycles over a week, including naps. So instead of freaking out because I only managed 4 hours one night, I can look at the bigger picture.
In short, we need to find our own sleep rhythm, and know that this rhythm will also have seasonal variations. AND that’s OK.
It is also a myth that what works for one person, will work for everyone; what I’m sharing here is my personal experience and everyone has a unique path to soothing themselves into regular sleep patterns.
Over a woman’s menstrual month and lifetime too, sleep needs will shift and change. In menopause, we are required to wake up! No surprise then that one of the most common menopause manifestations is insomnia; it’s an inside job. On a very inconvenient level, our soul is waking us up and asking awkward questions; I lie awake at night vibrating. Abuzz with energy. This is the feeling of my coming alive. Of my Crone moving into the building.
Menopause is an initiation into power. And like most initiations, this requires a fair amount of disruption, chaos and discomfort before we get to the other side.
One of the first needs in menopause is to use discernment about what is working for us and what is not, and this is particularly acute for sensitive types. In the fullness of our ovulating years, we might be able to hold the lower end of what the world considers ‘reasonable stress’, in terms of business, noise, social life, family demands etc. But when the psyche is transitioning in menopause, this is no longer possible. We HAVE to choose how we spend our time wisely, or we suffer. In short, we have to say no to some stuff, often quite a lot of stuff.
Menopause wakefulness invokes questions like:
What gives me joy?
What can I let go of?
What is truly serving me….
Highly Sensitive Menopause
At this time, more than ever, comes the need for space. Space to dream, space to think, space to gaze, potter and do the nameless things that have no discernible value. Sensitive types will have been doing this for most of our lives anyway, as an important digestion time to process the stimulation of everyday life. But in a woman’s’ 40’s and 50’s we need more. MUCH more.
Having enough space will enable us to do the internal work necessary to make it through the change.
I can’t have an article about menopausal sleep issues, without talking about flushing. There’s a wide spectrum of experience from a mild warming to nightly torrents of sweat that require frequent sheet changes, and there are a number of possible triggers;
- Particular emotions
- Particular thought patterns
- Spicy food
- And sometimes, just because
Your solution is to chart your sleep and keep an eye out for what your personal triggers are.
None of the above enquiries will be of much use till you have of the general good sleep hygiene in place. In practice, even the best intentions slide away, so it’s worth going through the list to see what you can improve. Good sleep habits generally include:
- Turn off screens at least 90 minutes before bedtime
- No screens in the bedroom
- Not eating too late or too spicy
- Not going to bed hungry
- Maintaining a cool-ish, dark bedroom
- Regular habits; same time to sleep and to wake (Nick Littlehales is VERY hot on this one)
- Avoid alcohol (I know)
- Re-enforce your circadian rhythm – Prepare for bed from 2pm onwards
- Watch caffeine intake (boring but true)
There’s loads written about this and you have read it a gazillion times, so this is just a reminder.
The ultimate sleeping pill
No don’t get excited, I’m not suggesting you take drugs, the ultimate sleeping pill I’m suggesting is acceptance. Accepting your current sleeping patterns will reduce your stress levels and help you plan your days to manage your energy better.
Night night, sleep tight.
Ironically, once I wrote the first draft of this article, my sleep got really bad. There was no obvious trigger, but my sleep hygiene had slipped a bit, I was drinking more wine at the weekends… something had to change so I:
- Realised my Kindle was not on Airplane mode and fixed that
- Stated to meditate in the evening
- Stopped exercising in the evening
- Took HTP5
- Consulted my lovely kinesiologist
- Talked more with my partner about stuff…
And slowly my sleep began to get back on track. It just keeps me humble and real.