34 Things That (Don’t) Help Insomnia

Why most sleep aids don’t help, and what might

Mark Starmach
7 min readJan 28, 2024
Illustrations by Mark Starmach
  1. Lavender
  2. Lavender-scented bath bombs
  3. Lavender-scented wheat packs
  4. Sleep stories about lavender fields narrated by Stephen Fry
  5. Anything lavender-related really
  6. Camomile tea
  7. Warm milk and honey
  8. Silky eye masks
  9. Arianna Huffington’s night time routine
  10. Red-LED bed lamps
  11. Melatonin gummy bears
  12. Long baths
  13. Weighted blankets
  14. Full body pillows
  15. Essential oils you rub on your temples
  16. Essential oils you rub on your wrists
  17. $199 sleep trackers
  18. $2999 auto-heating auto-cooling mattresses
  19. $49 pulsating sleep eggs dropshipped via Temu
  20. Duct-taping every stray crack of light in your bedroom
  21. Vigorous exercise
  22. Vigorous candles
  23. Overgoogling FFI
  24. Doomscrolling WebMD
  25. Doomscrolling people on TikTok who’ve read about FFI on WebMD
  26. Tossing
  27. Turning
  28. Writhing
  29. Ruminating
  30. Concentrated lavender juice injected directly into your veins
  31. Lavender
  32. Lavender
  33. Lavender
  34. Lavender

OK, so I haven’t tried all of the items on that list. (And some are just me venting).

But, having grappled with insomnia on-and-off for the past 6 years, and pointedly so over a period of 6 months, I tried a good many.

And rather than finding it helpful, I actually found it the opposite.

Because when remedy after remedy didn’t remedy the situation, the more disheartened I got. The more frustrated. The more fearful. The more stuck.

The more like I was just wandering around aimlessly in a big fucking lavender-scented desert.

That’s when I wondered, perhaps these sleep aids aren’t working, because I don’t have the problem they’re designed to fix.

Perhaps my insomnia, has nothing to do with my sleep…

In 2018, I had severe chronic insomnia. We’re talking back-to-back nights of very little sleep over a period of 6 months. In this time, I tired everything under the sun (moon?) to fix it. I tried GP after GP, app after app, and tea after tea. But the more I did so, the more I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into insomnia’s crocodile death-roll — the fear of ‘not sleeping’ being the thing that kept me awake.

When I’d check how long til my alarm clock would ring, every alarm in my body would ring. When my room was pitch black quiet, my mind would be full blast loud. All the camomile teabag strings on earth couldn’t yank me from that vortex.

It was intense.

But, importantly, this intensification allowed me to see more starkly the tue issue at play.

My mind wasn’t whirring because of my sleeplessness.

My sleeplessness was a result of my whirring mind.

The science supports this. As noted by Swedish researchers Markus Jansson-Fröjmark and Karin Lindblomin in the Journal Of Psychosomatic Research, “There is a bidirectional relationship between, on one hand, anxiety and depression and, on the other hand, insomnia. This suggests that anxiety, depression, and insomnia are intertwined over time” (source). Or in less words, the dog can wag its tail, and the tail can wag the dog.

For me, this was the switch. At the root of my predicament was not some terrible sleep hygiene or wonky circadian rhythm or runaway sleep mechanism. It was a runaway worry mechanism — a mind that’s always been unable to keep itself from thinking, worrying, whirring, and spiralling, in every domain of life.

Like a cat with fresh yarn, sleep was just its latest plaything.

The question then shifted from “Why can’t I sleep?”, to “Why is my mind so busy?”, “Why can’t I stop worrying?”

Which predictably, worried me.

But it also struck a big red line through 1000’s of camomile-tea-espousing listicles, and prioritised things more likely to address the underlying restlessness, characteristic of an anxiously-wired mind.

My wander through the lavender desert finally had direction.

At the start of this article, I struck a big fat line through all the ‘quick fixes’ the internet often recommends to insomniacs. Now, I want to be part of the internet that sets insomniacs on a genuine path out.

I want to give you some tools that, as I’ve found in my half-decade wrangling this, can reliably soothe a restless nighttime mind — the thing at the root of it all.

Treat these not as cures or mandates, but as ideas to test and adapt.

1. Worry time

A fair while before bed, set aside 15 min to list every single thing currently on your mind, in short bullet points on a blank piece of paper. Start with your sleep, then go beyond. Taxes. Josh’s farewell. That rotting spinach in the crisper. And so on. Do a full audit til no stone’s unturned, then write the worst case scenario you foresee unfurling in regards to each item on your list. You don’t have to solve any, just get it down. It’s the page’s job now to hold all these worries, not yours.

2. Lessen your load

Minds get busy because a lot is on them. And when you’re tired/stressed, you have far less capacity to deal with that load (even if the adrenaline convinces you otherwise). So cancel any upcoming commitments and deadlines you can. If you can’t, push them out or offload them to others. Think too about those little niggling worries — the chihuahuas of the worry world — that you can quickly nix, like settling the gas bill or binning the spinach. Doing so will free your mind of some rumination fodder, and start to straighten your inner jumble.

3. Restrict time awake in bed

A sage observation by practitioners of cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-i), is that the more you toss and turn, the more worked up you tend to get. In turn, your bed cues stress, not rest. To nip this, therapists may recommend Sleep Restriction (source). This involves getting up after 20 min of tossing/turning, going to another room, and doing a non-stimulating thing in low-light til tired. Repeat as necessary. It’s gruelling, but often corrective. Note: Sleep Restriction is best done via a program or under a therapist’s watchful eye.

4. Call it a night

On particularly bad nights, I’ve found power in removing the onus to sleep altogether. I say to myself: “You know what, maybe this just isn’t going to happen tonight. And that’s alright. I will survive. I have til now. So I’m gonna get up for the day.” Then I set out on really enjoying my wee hours — some slow breaths and deep chugs of water, a delicious cup of tea and muesli with fresh cut fruit, a luxuriously long walk to watch the morning fog roll in at the park… This turns time that would otherwise be spent languishing, into joy. Which starts to undo the whole logic insomnia feeds off — if ‘not sleeping’ can be joyful, you mightn’t fear it.

5. See a therapist

If ever there was a time to see a psychologist or psychotherapist, this is it. There’s many kinds of approaches out there — CBT-i and mindfulness can be particularly effective for insomniacs (I personally vouch for schema therapy). But there’s also EMDR, somatic therapy, and visualisations for the less talkative among us. Google these terms and see who’s nearby.

6. Befriend the worry

Anxiety evolved as a survival instinct, the body’s early warning signal. It may be a bit loud for our current world, and it might be less signalling something sinister on the horizon than it is something vaguely similar that’s happened in your past — but even in that there is utility. Your worry is a voice that’s trying to tell you something important (‘trying’ being the key word). So listen to it, beyond the surface. Imagine it’s you when you were a scared little kid. Engage in softer self-talk with it, like a kind parent. Gently. Validatingly. Reassuringly. Watch as this alters the landscape within you.

And in that spirit, I feel my icy sleep grinch heart warming, my affinity for purple, growing.

I find myself wanting to scrub my mouth out with lavender-scented soap and start recommending all those things I ranted against at the start.

I’m going to recommend the camomile tea.

The silk pillowcases.

The essential oils.

The candles.

The freakin’ pulsating sleep eggs.

Because if you don’t see these things as silver bullets, but as crutches that help give you a sense of control, safety, stability, and calm, then they can’t crush you. They can instead be incredibly worthwhile.

Sometimes the smallest things can give a busy mind some peace of mind.

Yes…

…even lavender.

If you like the way I think & write about insomnia, you might enjoy ‘Insomniac’, my ongoing series about sleep, anxiety, and finding calm. Find it here:

Insomniac

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