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  • Writer's pictureRowan Everard

Springtime Insomnia

Here in the Pacific Northwest we are still technically in Winter, toward the end of February as I write this. We can see and feel the movement toward spring though, as we tilt toward the Spring equinox in March, as the days get longer and the classic "fool's spring" days become more frequent. With these generally optimistic conditions can sometimes come a vexing and unexpected side effect: spring time in insomnia!

For those who suffer from frequent sleep disturbances, each person has their own unique and special form of insomnia. Some people can't get to sleep (primary insomnia), some can't stay asleep (secondary insomnia), and many have a extra fun mix of both. There can often be a seasonal experience as well, and for some people the darkness of winter can help calm things down in terms of anxiety. Those first green shoots in April, or whenever they happen nowadays, can spell the return of a brighter and more activated season in a negative way for these folks.

What do we make of this in a Chinese Medicine context, and what can we do about it?

Spring is the season of the wood element, whose nature is likened to bamboo. If you leave a bamboo plant in your garage for too long, it will eventually punch a hole in your ceiling. This is the nature of wood: wild growth that finds a way around or through obstacles. This rising energy is crucial for the sleep/wake rhythms in our daily lives, and is especially strong in the springs as dormant plants regrow their bodies and begin to fruit.

The trouble is, for many of us, harnessing this surge of energy correctly can be quite a challenge. I had a teacher, Dr Li Xin, who was fond of saying that humans can only move energy in two ways: up and out or down and in. Up and out is anxiety, dissociation, insomnia, while down and in is stillness, deep emotion, and rest. If we are at rest during the time of day when the wood element is most active, 11 PM to 3 AM, this is the time when our sleep is most restorative. But we frequently stay awake during this time because we get a surge of energy, our second wind, and we use that to instead read our favorite books or play games on our phones. I do this all the time, so no judgement, but using this time to restore ourselves is generally going to serve us better. Similarly, if we can rest appropriately during the spring then we will be prepared for the frenetic pace of summer's activity.

But, dear insomnia stricken patient, how does this apply to you? Here are some practical suggestions for how to get your sleep back on track, or keep it there:

-Have a consistent wake up time. We can't really control when we fall asleep, but if we keep a consistent wake-up schedule our body will eventually fall into that rhythm. It's temping to sleep in on the weekends, but this tends to throw people off for the next week and contribute to cyclical insomnia and the "Sunday scaries"

-Find a wind-down activity you like and do it. I really enjoy Yoga Nidra, a body-awareness practice that helps people become more relaxed before sleep, but really anything that you enjoy and want to do will work. I often suggest the app Insight Timer, which has thousands of free guided meditations and similar kinds of content specifically for sleep. The more relaxed you are as you fall asleep, the higher quality that sleep will be, even if you're technically not getting more sleep.

-Consider keeping a worry journal. A few hours before bed, sit down and write out the things you are anxious about, and one step you could take in the direction of solving each of them. This way, if you are lying in bed worrying, you can say to yourself "I've already covered this and made a plan, so I don't need to think about this right now". This can be surprisingly effective!

-Get some acupuncture and/or Chinese herbs! As you might imagine, insomnia is something that I frequently treat. As with all acupuncture and herbal medicine, treating insomnia tends to be a gradual process, but after 2-3 sessions most people start to feel much more regulated. Teaching the body how to direct energy back down and in is the basic strategy, and once the nervous system feels how much better things are when this happens it starts to pick up the habit. Here is a fun study to read if that's your thing.

Insomnia is a complex process that usually requires several interventions to really tackle. I always enjoy working with people to find the right combination of acupuncture, herbal medicine, and lifestyle changes to bring restful sleep back into people's lives. If you would like to schedule a consultation with me you can do so here.

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