a person perched on the edge of their bed, about to get up out of it

Can't Sleep? Just Get Out of Bed for a Bit

Last updated: June 2022

This is one of the oldest tricks I used to do for chronic insomnia and "painsomnia" (insomnia due to chronic pain). And I still do it now: If I lay in bed for more than 20 minutes and nothing happens, I get up.

It's the same deal if I wake up and just can’t get back to sleep. Restless legs syndrome has just sort of added a really fractured night for me.

The way it works (ideally)

I’m not saying this strategy of getting up instead of tossing and turning has worked all the time, but in the perfect scenario, this is why it works:

  • Resetting my brain. Instead of the toss-and-turn stress mode of constantly worrying about all the lack of sleep I was getting, I would get up for a short period of 15-20 minutes, and when I went back to bed it would reset my brain back into sleep mode.
  • Getting cozy again. Getting back into a cozy snuggling sleep position, instead of that toss-and-turn, "no position is working" state of being.
  • Signaling to my brain it's time to sleep. These actions were psychological, telling my brain my bed was for sleep and not for wakefulness.
  • Managing stress. Not that it managed the sleep deprivation, because I still had serious issues getting to sleep and staying asleep. But I think with less stress about it, I managed better than I would have otherwise.
  • Stopping my sleep paralysis cycle. Because I was seriously sleep-deprived constantly, it caused a lot of hypnic jerks and sleep paralysis, sometimes more than a few times a night. And to stop that insanity, I needed to get out of bed.

Strategies for getting it to work for you

Do something boring. I always found this tricky. Still do. Read something boring? I tend to not have boring books, actually. And my hobbies tend to consume me. But there are mindless puzzles on my phone I can do, some logic or word puzzles that take up time but do not really get my brain into it.

It's best to:

  • Avoid doing anything active while you're up
  • Avoid eating or drinking — but sometimes I actually find the opposite to be true
  • Do things recommended for relaxation, like listening to music, meditating, or breathing exercises
  • Avoid screen time

But I have found RLS totally messes with this game plan.

How I cope with both RLS and insomnia

This is how I roll with RLS when I can’t sleep:

  • Distracting myself: I literally have to do something insanely distracting but not boring. Something that really consumes me so I don’t think about how insane my legs, feet, hands,  and arms (and whatever else is affected by RLS) feel.
  • Doing something active: This is definitely on the menu sometimes. Pacing, for example, is something I do sometimes.
  • Meditating: I used to meditate when I couldn’t sleep — though now, I find that to be really hard to do when in an RLS bout.
  • Avoiding blue light: I do avoid blue light screen time. But I will sometimes distract myself with some documentary on TV and lay on the couch, rocking or rapidly shaking my legs and body to try to fall asleep there. The documentary distracts me, the shaking is somewhat of a relief, and I hope together they might be enough that I might accidentally fall asleep. And it has worked several times.

Still, the fact remains that, because of the RLS, I am awake during those times for hours — so sometimes my night is really broken up. And other times, I just stay awake so I am up insanely early.

When I get up that early, it is reverse insomnia, because I had barely any sleep and yet I can’t get back to sleep. And reverse insomnia is getting to be a real problem for me these days.

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