7 Quick Steps to Fall Asleep Faster with ADHD

ADHD Strategies    October 1, 2019

Fall asleep with ADHDLast week I had my first sleep study.  Considering that almost every living thing on the planet sleeps, it seems that sleep shouldn’t be that hard.  And yet, I’ve been struggling with it for most of my adult life.

The American Sleep Association (ASA) says that 50 million to 70 million U.S. adults have a sleep disorder.  If you have ADHD, the research estimates that you are among 60% of others with a similar brain style who have insomnia or trouble falling to sleep.

Personally my sleep challenges go beyond simply falling asleep to what’s considered a REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep disorder.  Most people are naturally in a paralyzed state when they dream, so they don’t move around.  Not me, I basically act out my dreams.  I talk at times, thrash about, and sometimes even crawl out of bed.  This interferes with my ability to get quality deep restorative sleep.  And let’s just say I’m not a very popular sleeping partner.  How they can know all this from one night of my trying to sleep in a hospital bed with more than a dozen electrodes attached to my body and two nasal cannulas up my nose is beyond me!  But there it is.

Considering that getting enough sleep is critical to our mental health, functioning, and well being (I highly recommend the book Why We Sleep by Mathew Walker), and well, we’ve got a problem, Houston.

Why we sleep

I joke that if sleep weren’t necessary, humans would have evolved out of it hundreds of thousands of years ago.  Sleep research is now showing the importance of quality sleep and how your brain is still working on important stuff while you snooze.

Not surprisingly, our ADHD brains are intensely busy while we sleep.  During sleep, our brains take care of things like memory consolidation, thought maintenance and neurochemical cleansing… like an overnight cleaning crew.  While we sleep, our brains are swept clean of the garbage that’s accumulated during the day.  Brain garbage is made up of free radicals and toxic proteins.  And when they build up, this brain waste is associated with things like Alzheimer’s disease.

When you sleep, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a night owl or early bird.  What matters is that you get to get 7–9 hours of sleep a night, to let your brain cleaning crew do its job.  This means being able to fall asleep in the first place.

Falling asleep in two minutes or less

In my quest to fall asleep easier I stumbled upon the following technique used by the U.S. Army.  This technique was first described in a book from 1981 called Relax and Win: Championship Performance by Lloyd Bud Winter.  Not surprisingly, the military wants to avoid mistakes from a soldier’s lack of sleep.

Having a couple of veterans in my family I thought I would give it a try.  If it worked to help our country’s heroes fall asleep in everything from a foxhole to a cargo plane, it might work for a middle-aged ADHD woman in the comfort of her own bed.

The method is supposed to have a 96% success rate of putting you to sleep within two minutes if you practice it for six weeks.  If it worked for me, that would shave off about 58+ minutes of my typical falling to sleep time.

Briefly, the technique involves muscle relaxation, breathing, and visualization.  At the end of the simple steps you drift off to sleep within a few minutes.

Here’s the quick sleep technique:

  1. Sit on the edge of your bed.  Make sure only your bedside light is on, your phone is silenced, and your alarm is set for the morning.
  2. Now relax your facial muscles.  First tighten them up in a wincing motion, and then slowly let your muscles naturally loosen.  Focus on relaxing the facial muscles on one side of your face and then the other.  Let your tongue fall loosely in your mouth.
  3. Once your face feels like deflated putty, let gravity pull both your shoulders naturally toward the ground, relaxing your neck and shoulder muscles.  Let your arms dangle, one side at a time.  Relax your hands.
  4. While doing this, breathe in and out, listening to the sound of your breath. With each breath, let your chest and shoulders relax further and then let gravity relax your waist, thighs and lower legs.
  5. Once your body feels like nothing more than a loosely formed lump of clay, try to clear your mind for 10 seconds.  If thoughts come naturally, let them pass – just keep your body loose and limp.  After a few more seconds your mind should feel clearer.
  6. Now picture one of the following two scenarios: lying in a canoe in a calm lake with clear blue skies above you or in a velvet hammock, gently swaying in a pitch-black room.  If you happen to be a person who isn’t great at visualization, you can instead chant the mantra, “Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think” for 10 seconds instead.
  7. And that’s it.  At the end of going through these steps, which take about two minutes, turn off the bedside light and lie down.  Ideally, you’ll drift off to sleep within two minutes.

How it worked for me…and a few tweaks to the technique

Knowing I was already resistant to falling asleep, it reassured me that this technique worked for 96% of people who practiced it for six weeks.  I let myself be ok with it not having instant success the first few nights and made a few changes that seemed to work better for me.

For instance, I really liked the visualizations but found my creative mind playing with other relaxing scenarios to not get bored.  It helped to give myself permission to imagine other relaxing places.  I also practiced the technique with the lights already off, lying down comfortably and ready for sleep.

I also found it helpful to slow the relaxation process down.  Doing this helped my mind to relax.  I also allowed more time to visualize in detail the relaxing of my body from head to toe.  For instance, I focused on relaxing my forehead, my eyes, and eyelids, then my cheeks, jaw and neck.  I imagined the relaxing of my thighs, calves, feet, and toes.

And something did start changing.  On the fourth night I woke up at 3a.m. and realized the last thing I remembered was relaxing my shoulders.  I also tried using the technique to help me fall asleep for a quick pick me up Sunday afternoon nap… and it worked!

After several initial weeks, I can honestly say this technique does seem to help me fall asleep faster.  Maybe not every night, but amazingly more often than not, I didn’t lay awake for hours.  I also realize that I am more of a canoe on the water kind of gal than a velvety hammock.

So go ahead and give it a try.  From my experience there is no reason not to. Then sleep on it.  You might be surprised by the results.  And let me know below how it works and if you are you a canoe or hammock sleeper!

 

Want to learn more about ADHD and sleep? Consider these blog articles:

Minimizing Your Symptoms of ADD: Which Comes First…Exercise, Diet or Sleep?

Sleep Problems and the ADHD Child

Learn the Skill of “Pulling Over” with ADHD Overwhelm

ADHD Strategies    September 3, 2019

ADHD OverwhelmAs many of you know, I moved back to Washington State several years ago and I noticed something different. On Washington State freeways, there are a lot more cars pulled over on the side of the roads.

Having lived in California for 13 years, a car on the side of the freeway usually meant one of two things. The car was having some sort of “trouble” – out of gas, flat tire, minor fender bender, etc. Or it humbly sat with the dreaded red, blue and white lights flashing. In general, Californians and California freeways are designed to get you somewhere fast and directly as possible. Taking a break on the side of the road didn’t factor in.

On the freeways of Washington State, it’s different. There is an undeniable number of cars pulled over on the right margin of the road, stopped and safe. No flashing lights, no raised hoods. Instead, the driver is typically parked on the side of the road on their phone talking or texting. It seems safety and taking a break when needed is more important than getting there.

I experienced this phenomenon on one of my many freeway trips during my move. The hood of my car wasn’t latched securely and I started to panic, looking frantically for an off-ramp. Yup, I was convinced the hood was going to suddenly flip off and block my view like a bad road trip movie.

Thankfully, I was traveling with my sister (a long-time resident of Washington state) who just kept saying, “Pull over…pull over…Laurie, just PULL OVER!”

It took me a minute to actually comprehend what she was saying since experience taught me that stopping on the freeway was rare and forbidden. Even so, I crossed to the far right lane, safely pulled over onto the shoulder, latched the hood (took a deep breath), merged back into the traffic and we were on our way.

This all reminds me of an analogy Dr. Hallowell used during his 2018 Succeed with ADHD Telesummit interview: “People with ADHD have a Ferrari brain and bicycle brakes.”

Yup, our ADHD brains can be like the California freeway – with its many revved up sports cars swerving in and out of lanes, racing along at a frantic pace, working so hard to get somewhere.

But the California way isn’t always the best way for an ADHD brain. It can lead to feeling overwhelmed, lost or in crisis. You don’t want to go fast and only stop when something breaks down or you get in trouble.

Instead, what if we add in a bit of the Washington mentality? What if we give ourselves permission to “pull over?” Time to take stock of our situation and determine what we need to do to avoid a crash? Maybe even “phone a friend” or ask “Siri for directions” and then when we are ready, pull out into life again.

So how can you develop the skill of “pulling over” when it feels like your brain is meant to go at high speed and wants to ignore the flashing warning lights?

Here are a few suggestions:

1. NOTICE THE CUE(S)

Notice how your body feels when overwhelmed. It may be a tight stomach, fuzzy or spinning feeling in your head or some other sensation. This is your cue that the overwhelm is beginning.

2. PLAN YOUR EXIT STRATEGY

When you notice your overwhelm signals beginning to start, change your response and plan for how you can “pull over” to regain your calm. For most, this might include removing yourself from the current chaos. (Learn more about the feelings of ADHD here.)

3. PULL OVER

Because you may not be able to figure out what to do next in the moment, the next step is to pull over and take a break. It will depend on the context as to what type of break you’re able to take, of course.

For example, if you’re working and overwhelmed, you may decide to stop working. If you are in a meeting or class, perhaps you can excuse yourself to go to the washroom. And, if you are having a one-to-one conversation and start to notice the overwhelm, you might ask to reconvene at another time entirely.

You might even decide to engage in an activity you enjoy so you can have some time away from whatever is causing you the overwhelm. It might just be the best thing to do in the moment. (See if you can answer this question – How Good of a Relaxer Are You?)

4. DECIDE HOW YOU WANT TO RESPOND

In some cases, it might be enough to take the above 3 steps to reduce your feelings of overwhelm and get back at it. However, once you feel more in control, you might decide what plan you would like to take if it happened again.

WHAT IS YOUR PULL OVER PLAN?

With your Ferrari brain, becoming overwhelmed at times is common for persons with ADHD. Following the steps above, allowing yourself the opportunity to pull over when you become overwhelmed can help you get back to calm more quickly and have you on the road again in no time.

 

Want to learn more about ADHD and strategies you can use?

Why “HOW” is Not Enough for People with ADHD

Goals that Work for People with ADHD

The Truth About ADHD Medications and How They Work

ADHD Treatments & Medications    August 31, 2019

Medications

ADHD is a medical condition that affects the functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain. 

With just a little understanding of how ADHD medications work, many people can enjoy great improvement in their ADHD symptoms. 

The symptoms of ADHD are a result of the brain not producing enough, or utilizing efficiently, the brain’s neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. 

Just like any organ in the body – your eyes, pancreas, heart or lungs – the brain is susceptible to faulty functioning.  When there is an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain, it cannot operate effectively. This is similar to needing glasses when you have impaired sight, inhalers for asthma, or insulin for diabetes.

In fact, a good analogy to help understand ADHD and how ADHD medications work is what happens with the pancreas and diabetes.  

In diabetes, the pancreas does not produce enough insulin. Sometimes this occurs in childhood…sometimes it happens with aging. Either way, management of diabetes includes learning about the condition of diabetes, making changes in lifestyle habits, such as diet and foods, and increasing exercise. However, one of the most effective ways to re-balance the body’s insulin is with an oral medication or an injection of insulin.

ADHD is similar.  

Balancing the Imbalance

With ADHD, the brain is simply not producing or utilizing enough of the neurotransmitters dopamine or norepinephrine. 

Without sufficient neurotransmitters, there is not enough of them to activate the frontal lobe of the brain – the area responsible for providing us with the benefit of “executive functions.” Executive functions include our ability to pay attention to things less interesting, the ability to filter out environmental stimuli or remember details (You can learn more about executive functions in my course Your Best Year Ever With ADHD or my ADHD Medications Course). 

For my son, and for many others, confirmation of the need for more active neurotransmitters in his brain came when he started taking ADHD medication, like Ritalin or Adderall, that is designed and formulated to specifically and only activate specific neurotransmitters. 

Better Grades in Six Weeks

The difference when my son took the medication was like night and day. Finally he was able to hold his attention on reading and his grade level increased three grades in six weeks! He wanted to read, the problem was not his motivation, but that his brain was just not able to focus on the task because he did not have enough dopamine to help him keep his attention. 

ADHD is also similar to someone whose vision is impaired and needs glasses. If you have poor vision, you cannot simply force yourself to make your eyes focus. We don’t hesitate to see an eye specialist and if found needing, provide and wear corrective lenses. Interestingly, we never worry that wearing glasses at a young age will weaken eyesight later. Imagine if we believed that impaired vision should not be corrected or was optional!

What we know about people who are not getting enough dopamine and other neurotransmitters to their frontal lobe is that they often struggle academically, personally and professionally. They struggle with low self-esteem, lack of confidence and are more likely to seek out alternative ways to self-medicate, trying to get their brain to focus or calm down. 

When a person takes a stimulant medication such as Ritalin or Adderall that targets specific neurotransmitters, it helps to activate dopamine or norepinephrine so it can be utilized by the brain more effectively.  

What ADHD medications do is specifically “simulate” the neurotransmitters in the brain. 

How Dopamine Works

Stimulating the dopamine receptors in the brain increases the dopamine available in the brain. With an increased dopamine level the brain is now better balanced and ready to complete the tasks of the day!

Even though this post is about how ADHD medications work, they are just one “tool” available to help you better manage ADHD symptoms. And, of course, medications need to properly prescribed by your physician.

The prescribed medications need to be the right medication at the right dose, delivered at the right time and taken consistently to get maximum benefits with minimal side effects. 

And medication is not the whole answer. 

ADHD is a 24/7 disorder, while medications work fairly quickly, the best solution is a comprehensive approach that combines medication with other “tools”. Other tools such as using a planner system effectively, creating systems and structures to follow, etc.

Comments? I love reading your comments and replying! Please leave your comments below.

Enjoyed this article? Here are 3 more all about managing ADHD in your loved one:

What 10,000 Steps and ADHD Have in Common

Your Top Three Questions About ADHD Medication Answered

New “Tests” for ADHD

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