Chemical detox can mess up our sleep cycles. When our bodies get rid of the chemicals we’ve ingested for so long—whether nicotine, alcohol or drugs; street drugs or prescription drugs—our neurological systems need time to heal. And one of the cycles governed by the healing neurological system is the sleep-wake cycle.
This can also be true of folks “detoxing” from toxic, codependent relationships. My experience in Al-Anon helped me understand that the compulsive need to solve other people’s problems is analogous to drug-use: it makes me feel better to make someone else feel OK; it distracts me from being present in my own life and taking care of myself, just as drugs did. This constant focus on other people I can’t control can make me anxious, chronically raising cortisol (adrenaline) levels and short-circuiting my body’s ability to regulate its energy. Setting healthy boundaries with people can be freeing, but it can also feel dangerous and unfamiliar. I’ve spent sleepless hours in the night worrying about other people and how I can fix them up and make them all better.
When we’re detoxing or working a difficult problem in recovery, we can feel tired during the day and restless during the night. It takes time and work for the nervous system to “reset” itself.
And when I was detoxing, my first instinct was to “take something,” preferably another chemical, to make me feeeeel better. But in recovery I’ve tried to break the habit of “taking something.” I want to find non-chemical ways to deal with my problems.
Here are a few ways I’ve dealt with insomnia:
The Body—Exercise. In detox, I started exercising at least five times per week, for at least 30 minutes per session, and I’ve tried to keep up this regimen for the past two years. I notice that, during the times I slack off on my exercise regimen, my body feels colder and more sluggish. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but when I feel really knackered during the day and unable to sleep at night, it’s not rest that does me good but getting out on the tennis court, hopping on my bike, doing half an hour of yoga, or taking a fast walk. Anything that makes my body sweat and stretch. Regular exercise has been shown to be just as effective as antidepressants at lifting the mood and restoring natural sleep.
Steven Scanlan, M.D., medical director of Palm Beach Outpatient Detox and a board-certified addiction-medicine specalist, says exercise works better than any drug to help bring back sleep cycles. “Studies show that 12 minutes of exercise per day with a heart rate of greater than 120 beats per minute restores the natural endorphin system in half the time,” Scanlan, who has overseen thousands of detoxes for people addicted to alcohol and opiates, told me. “The people who do that, their sleep architecture returns to normal in half the time of people who don’t exercise. Twelve minutes! And of course you can do more.”
The Mind—Meditation. A daily discipline of calming the mind in order to calm the body accrues benefits after the actual meditation is finished, the way exercise accrues benefits for the body after the actual workout is done. A meditation practice has taught me I don’t have to grab onto every thought that comes into my mind. I can choose which thoughts to admit. So when I’m wakeful in the night, I focus on my breath. I make the breaths come slowly and through my belly, not my chest. When the fearful thoughts come, the meditative practice I’ve cultivated helps me let them go.
The Spirit—Gratitude Lists. I’ve had quite a number of wakeful nights recently. Moving into new arenas and accepting challenges wakes up the old fear inside me. The fear attacks my faith that, as the old saying goes, “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well…”
Instead of writing inventory on my fear, I’ve been directed to pay attention to my gratitude. I’ve been writing little gratitude lists each night before bed. … The other night, when I woke up, I had this wild sleepy idea that I could breathe out a mental gratitude list. I slowed my breath down, and on each exhale I thought of something for which I was grateful. After about eight or 10 breaths, I wasn’t sure I could come up with anything important. But the things we’re grateful for don’t have to be earth-shattering. Here were some things I thought of in the middle of the night:
- My warm bed
- My comfortable sheets
- My husband sleeping next to me
- My son in the next room
- Our house
- The good roof on the house
- Our furnace
- My friends
- My sister coming to visit
- My computer
- Our piano
- My son’s guitar
- My son playing his guitar
- Singing with my husband
- My art room
- My paints and brushes
- Being clean and sober
- Our garden
- My warm socks
- My yoga mat
- My bike
- Our big city yard
- Our books
- My soft pillow
The fact that I was able to generate an interminable list amazed me. The longer I went on, breathing out my gratitude, the calmer I felt, and the more sure I became that we would be OK. The more I could release my fear into faith that something else other than myself, a lot bigger than myself, was taking care of us. Taking care of me.
And I fell asleep…