3 Soothing Sleep Hygiene Strategies For Chronic Pain
artwork by Hannah Senger
We’ve all heard the basics of chronic pain and sleep hygiene: Stay away from blue light. No caffeine in the evenings. Make sure the only thing you do in bed is sleep (and sex). Avoid stress-inducing content (seriously, turn the news off).
But even if you do all these things, you might still be having a hard time nodding off, wondering, “How does chronic pain affect sleep?”
Studies have shown there is a link between chronic pain and sleep.
Let’s talk science for a second: For your body to drift off, your nervous system needs to settle down. Chronic pain can keep your nervous system stimulated in a state of hyperarousal, making it both tough to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Here are a few strategies to help you relax when you can’t sleep because of chronic pain.
Chronic pain sleep meditation
Mindfulness, when practiced consistently, can be effective in keeping your nervous system from activating as strongly.
Mindfulness and meditation are somewhat synonymous; both involve focusing on the present. You can try a guided meditation before bedtime, or if you’re lying in bed, try a self-led body scan. A body scan is a specific type of mindfulness exercise where, starting with your toes, you tense each part of your body for one or two deep breaths before letting go and releasing. Be gentle with yourself. This isn’t about causing pain or tension. Observe the sensations you feel in your body as neutrally as possible. If something causes you discomfort, try to visualize your muscles and skin softening around the pain.
Still your thoughts about chronic pain and sleep loss
When you’re dealing with chronic pain sleep deprivation, your mind might start racing. Another chronic pain mindfulness strategy is to envision yourself sitting by a stream, with lily pads or leaves gently drifting along. When your thoughts interrupt this vision, place one on a lily pad, and label how the thought makes you feel – like ‘anxious’ or ‘sad’ – then observe that word neutrally, until you’re ready to release the thought down the stream.
Get out of bed
Your bed should ideally be a happy place. If, after about 20 minutes, you’re still tossing and turning with sleep pain, get out of the bed. Find a cozy place to curl up and do something boring. We’re talking reading that 700-page history tome you’ve never gotten around to cracking the spine on. When you reach a point where you’re fighting to keep your eyes open and you feel your nervous system has settled down, head back to bed.