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“This Simple Sleep Formula Calms My Racing ADHD Brain”

“The struggle is real but getting a good night’s sleep is possible if you have ADHD. I know this because I studied my own sleeping habits and those of the many individuals with ADHD whom I coach, and I came up with an ADHD-proof formula for getting to bed.”

8 Comments: “This Simple Sleep Formula Calms My Racing ADHD Brain”

  1. I use (or used to use) a technique that appears to be a variant of autogenic training. From verywellmind, “Autogenic training works through a series of self-statements about heaviness and warmth in different parts of the body.” The technique that I was taught involved feeling warmth in different parts of the body, starting with the toes and working my way up. I tried to teach it to my oldest once but she was found it kind of gross, because the statement that I was taught to use was “Feel the blood, like a warm stream, flowing through my toes.” I guess you could substitute “feel the warmth spreading through my toes.”

    So it starts with me mentally telling myself, in a calm, soothing voice “breath slowly and deeply, listening only to my voice. Allow the sounds outside this room slowly fade away, listening only to my voice. Allow the other sounds in this room to fade away, listening only to my voice.” (I wasn’t so good at allowing other sounds to fade away, but could mostly focus on my voice.) Next move to the statement about the toes. If you use the longer one, say it twice, if you use the shorter one, I’d go with saying it three times. Then move to the ankles, lower legs, knees, upper legs, hips, etc. When I first started, I would fall asleep somewhere around my shoulders, but I’d be out by my upper legs or hips. After several years of doing this, I got to where I could just breath slowly and deeply to relax an be asleep in about 5 minutes.

    Then I got a cat who would pay/dig at my hair and lick my eyelids to wake me up to pet her. So I started wrapping a light weight blanket around my head and shoulders, leaving an opening for my mount and nose. I would pet her for a few minutes, then don my “head blanket”, which she eventually realized meant that pettings were over for the night, and she needed to just curl up by my head and go to sleep. She passed away a few years ago, but I still need my “head blanket” to fall asleep quickly. I can fall asleep without it, but it takes a lot longer.

  2. Like tdunn71, I have very successfully used Progressive Body Relaxation to help me fall asleep quickly. I began using it in my mid-20’s, about 5-10 years before being diagnosed with ADD. Since it seemed to help me fall asleep faster, I began using it every night. After several months, I no longer needed to go through the routine of progressively relaxing and could instead just focus on slowing my breathing down. I fell asleep just a quickly. I’m in my early 50’s now, and I typically fall asleep within 5 minutes of my head hitting the pillow. On a bad night, it may take me about 10 minutes. My husband jokes that I have a mercury switch, and that you just have to tip me past 45 degrees for me to fall asleep.

    I do have a couple of quirks though. One of my cats would paw at my hair or lick my face, especially my eye lids, to get me to pet her at night, so I would cover my head and shoulders with a light blanket/throw. She passed away several years ago, but I still have trouble relaxing and falling asleep without my “head blanket.” Also, after years of falling asleep to the quiet whoosh of my husband’s CPAP, I need some quiet noise in the room. If my husband is still up when I go to bed, I will put on some quiet “ambient” music.

    My teenage daughter falls asleep easier if there is someone in the room with her. So she’s found some You-Tube videos of people talking. One in particular, she finds very soothing, and is able to fall asleep quickly listening to it.

  3. I am not working right now, and have not worked in a few years. At first, I tried to keep a “normal” schedule, or a socially “acceptable” schedule (to bed early and up early in the morning), but eventually I realized if I let myself go to bed when I felt I needed to and sleep without an alarm to wake me up, I realized I regularly get between 7.5-8.5 hours of sleep per night (more always when I am on my period). I go to bed between midnight and 3 am on average naturally. Yes, I get up later, but I let go of societal guilt. I have always been a night owl and hated mornings. I can do it, but I never feel alert and “with it” until about 11 am. Even when I do have to go to bed at a “reasonable time (10 pm ideally, but no later than 11-ish) and up early, I can fall asleep within 10-15 minutes BUT (!!!!!), my problem since as early as I can remember is dreaming. My brain never shuts off. Even as a child, I would sleep-walk, and dream wildly. I also remember all my dreams. I dream in color, with specific colors highlighting certain elements of my dreams or sometimes muted warm-gray light. I have music soundtracks. I often speak in fluent Spanish (I learned in high school and I can speak about like a 3 year old child, and just take care of basic needs) in spite of being a native English speaker, and the feelings from what is happening are so real. Like I had a dream that a good friend’s brother whom I knew died, and I woke up crying and the entire next day I felt profound grief, like he had really died. I mean, I knew it was a dream, but it felt SO real to me that I had to grieve. I feel the same profound fear, anxiety, shame, sadness and longing or heartbreak. Usually my dreams are messed up, extremely rarely are they nice or good. They do happen, but it’s like once every year or every other year. They are mostly high stress and I wake up feeling like I was up all night and my brain expends a lot of energy on processing the feelings of my dreams, processing “what I did wrong” in my dreams, and I am distracted for a good portion of the morning by my dreams, remembering small details and filling in story lines from my dreams as I go through the day. Honestly, I can’t wait to die, because then I can get some real sleep, since I am atheist and hope it’s just silence and darkness after life.

    It’s absolutely true about caffeine for me, and I make sure all lighting and my alarm clock in my home are yellow, orange or red light. since red lightwaves tell your brain it’s time for sleep. I am most productive at night, and from the time I say: “I think I will go to bed” and the time I am actually ready for bed is usually 30-40 minutes, and sometimes up to 1.5 hours later than when I said I was heading for bed. I can find all kinds of things I “should” do, before I actually get into bed. I wish someone would do a study on people with ADHD and REM sleep and see how our brains differ in sleep patterns and I would especially be interested to see if it’s harder for people with ADHD to wake up during certain places in a sleep cycle. I feel like that is so true for me. I hate mornings—always have and always will. I do better when I can wake up naturally, then I am only a little tired for the first hour to hour and a half I am awake.

  4. Sleep has been a big issue for me for most of my life. Knowing that my own body-clock seems to be “set” to a later bedtime has helped, but the “later” bedtime often can run away to the wee-wee hours of the early morning, instead of being just “close to midnight”. In addition, I used to work either a late-evening work shift or “midnights” (3rd shift, from 11 PM or midnight ’til around 7 or 8 in the mornings. I had little trouble with shift work, though it was a challenge to feel restedn “enough” after 2 separate sleep sessions in the daytime or early evening, averaging around 8 hours total, but usually 4-6 hrs at a stretch.

    I began to recognize my natural affinity with staying up late after becoming a parent to 2 young children. My husband could easily retire for the night around 10:00 PM, but I felt the most un-distracted and focused (especially on “housework) after everyone else in the family was quietly sleeping. So, my home-life also took on a “night shift” aura, as well.

    Getting diagnosed with ADHD didn’t actually clarify my sleep issues, but revealed a facet to their cause. Now, in my mid-60s, I still am struggling with keeping a more “regular, earlier” bedtime. Realistically, i shoot for any time before midnight, and, ideally, before or BY 11:00 PM (23:00).

    The hardest part for me, now, is that, in the evenings, I like to share time with my husband, who likes to watch a couple of TV programs between about 8:00 and 10:00 PM. Afterward, Husband will usually get up and say, “I’m tired; I’m going to bed.” I suddenly realize that, late though it is, I am NOT “tired” and my mind is full of ideas of things I can, might, or “should” do BEFORE I let myself “shut down” for the night. The “right thing” for me to do (sleep-wise) would be to stop my frantic mental and physical activity and get my bath (nice and relaxing, always!), and do a BRIEF pre-bed preparation routine. I could be IN bed, that way, by 11:00 PM or before. Sometimes this works. So often, I get waylaid by my impulsive, ADHD brain.

    After all, there is NOTHING much I can do to quell the impulsive, distracting (and “time-blind”) mental activity at that time of day. Stimulant (caffeine) helps me relax & focus, but I don’t think that is generally appropriate for me at NIGHT!

    The worst part is that I don’t “think” I FEEL tired until I am nearly staggering, literally FALLING into bed and almost passing out from exhaustion! When I used to stay up REALLY late, that was my only “signal” that I was truly “ready” to sleep!

    On some nights, I manage to do what I aim–get to bed by 11:00-12 midnight. On other nights, I fail miserably and vow to do better the next day/night, It’s a never-ending battle, it seems!

  5. Thank you for this helpful post Alex. The way in which you described your mother trying to help you sleep resonated with me as I have an eight year-old girl with ADHD, and helping her with her sleep issues is something that I am all-too familiar with. Ashamedly, I too have shouted down the hall to “just try!” when my daughter said she couldn’t sleep. I am certain my daughter felt just like you did¬¬––that she couldn’t sleep because her mind was racing. Your honest, first-hand account of this is a real eye-opener for me and I will remember this the next time I lose patience at bedtime.
    In relation to managing your ADHD, I agree with your belief that a calm mind can be created through exercise. Can I ask that you elaborate further on which type of exercise works best for you and why you think that it calms your mind? I have been successful in helping to promote a calm mind for my daughter through dance and recommend that you give it ago. Like yourself on days that you do not exercise, I too find that on days that my daughter doesn’t dance her mind isn’t as calm and as such she has trouble sleeping. I invite you to read my blog about ADHD and exercise as I feel that this will resonate with you. Thanks again for sharing, I hope that your calm mind continues. Rachel.

  6. I used to calm my mind at night by trying to imagine the scenario in which I would meet my perfect partner. I ALWAYS fell asleep before I actually ‘met’ him – literally every time! 😀

  7. LOL, I’m reading this article at 11:30 pm. About an hour ago (or was it two hours ago?) my husband yelled from the other room “aren’t you tired?? I’m going to bed.”. My response is always ‘in a minute’ or ‘I’ll be in soon.” This is basically what my marriage has been like for a decade, but up until my recent diagnosis, I had no idea how to explain this other than “I’m a night time person” and he is a “morning person”. What sucks is that I’M the one who always has to tiptoe quietly into bed each night with a flashlight and thus cannot ‘wind down’ IN bed by reading a book or listening to a podcast. But, in recent months I’ve tried doing a short “night time yoga” routine for 10-20 minutes and that seems to help me relax and wind down — the trick is to get into my pajamas and brush my teeth BEFORE doing yoga. Just search YouTube for “bed time yoga” or “relaxation yoga” and there’s many to choose from (but then of course try to refrain from also binge watching music reaction and gardening how-to videos also!) Good night…..

  8. My ADHD is on the “extra” side, (so they say) so I feel extremely lucky to have been introduced to something that has helped me fall asleep within 5-10mins almost every night.

    When I was young (maybe 13 or 14 yrs old) I went on a week-long vacation with a friend. Apparently, he had an issue with getting to sleep and his Dad had given him a tape that he would listen to help him fall asleep, or just relax when my friend was stressed out. We listened to this thing every night and at the end of the week – it was ingrained and has been ever since. Many, many years later I came to realize it was what is now call “Progressive Body Relaxation”.

    I think giving my brain an active target or directed path of thoughts all the way to the edge of consciousness is the key. Instead of just letting it go hog-wild in thought (it’s default behavior) it has a set path of engagement that’s now, after decades of repeating the script, a habit.

    Hopefully, this will help at least one person.

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