Autism, ‘Busy Brain’ And Sleep

I’ve always had a busy brain: the type that just doesn’t switch off when it’s supposed to. This is something I experience as a physical feeling of brain busyness that’s like a film in some parts and running through a to do list that my brain works through and then takes a side bar when it feels it needs to add the full detail to the main idea. I have no control over this and it can be exhausting, frustrating and upsetting. Being awake at 3am thinking about the conversations I’ve had, the things I need to do and the new ideas that I’ve been reading about -that my brain just cannot let go of- has meant long nights where I just cannot get back to sleep.

When this first started to happen, I would lay in bed listening to my snoring (and fully asleep) husband and just felt so angry that he was asleep and I wasn’t. I then started to get up and do jobs because I figured that if I was mind busy then it would be better for me to be physically busy as well. I’m not someone who can just sit and do nothing anyway and I was cross at this apparent waste of time. Getting up did help with the feelings of annoyance and anger at anyone in the house asleep. I accomplished quite a lot; I’d write, do some work and feel more prepared for the day ahead but however good this felt I knew it was unsustainable for any length of time.

The next thing I tried was to distract my thoughts rather than fight them or get up and become completely mentally and physically awake. I’d started to listen to audio books and so I’d put one on and quietly and listen to it. I found that after awhile I’d drift off which showed that it was possible to get back to sleep once I’d woken up. It was funny trying to find where I was in my audiobook the next day as I’d slept through hours of it but I found the sleep timer function and after a couple of weeks my brain had been trained quite well to fall asleep (we still need sleep associations as an adult: it’s not just a young child thing) I could set the timer for 20 mins and I knew I’d be asleep by then.

This was revelatory for me.

I’d learned that I didn’t have to put up with the busy brain (that increased 10 fold when I went back to work in a school) and that I could, for some part, learn to control it. (I also found that distracting my thoughts can help with migraines – sometimes. This was a huge thing to discover and something that I would never have thought possible considering I cannot stand noise when I’ve got a migraine. The background quiet voice from audiobooks/talk radio may be a kind of white noise for my brain? Who knows.)

Sometimes, when you find a new strategy that works for you, you don’t necessarily know what the root of the thing that’s now helping you is. Is it actually the audiobook that’s helping me sleep or is it the fact that I now know I can get back to sleep so that is the thing that actually calms my brain and so I wake up less often? I really don’t know but the end result is more sleep, better sleep and a quick return to sleep when I wake up.

Sleep, for me, has been something that I needed to think about and to try different things to help me cope with not sleeping or to help me sleep. It’s something that I’ve actively worked on and, ironically given the title of this blog, thought about a lot. I’m not a neurodivergent person who’s had a history of sleep difficulties and, in fact, I’m quite the opposite in that I never experienced sleep issues as a child or growing up. When I had my first child I soon found out that I don’t function well with little sleep and I know this is something that all new parents experience at some point when their baby/small child is young but I knew it affected my mental health in a detrimental way. I actually couldn’t think properly, make good decisions and, most of all, regulate my thoughts and emotions.

Sleep, and lots of sleep, truly does help me function both physically and mentally.

Babies no’s 2,3 and 4 were much easier because we prioritised sleep and, at times, tag teamed sleep sometimes so that we didn’t really see each other for a few days. But this helped us cope and enjoy our babies in a way that we really hadn’t with our first.

There’s also perimenopause to add to the mix of my sleep difficulties. Being perimenopausal meant that my sleep difficulties were compounded by night sweats no matter the weather. Waking up and not being able to get back to sleep meant the busy brain had great fun with all of the intrusive thoughts of life. Again, I don’t know what woke me -the enhanced anxiety that perimenopause also brought which made the busy brain feel like it was on speed, the night sweats or was it my body crying out for the hormones that it had been used to that it was now having to function without? Again, I’ll never know but HRT has certainly calmed things down which then enabled my thinking to be calmer which meant I was less tired and more able to think clearly. Ironically having more thoughts didn’t mean they were helpful thoughts.

All in all, at the moment, my sleeping and busy brain is fairly under control. I have odd nights where I wake but I use my audiobooks to help me drift off again which, more often than not, works. I nap in the evenings on the sofa too and no longer chastise myself when I have times when I feel this isn’t something I should be doing. My job enables regular breaks so I take the opportunity to sleep in the day (not something I’ve ever done before but I’m finding that at this stage of life I can and do fall asleep on the sofa while watching something on the telly), the evenings or to try and have a lay-in.

Most of all I don’t feel guilty about sleeping when I need to.

I don’t feel I ought not to be sleeping during the day or that I could (or should) be doing something else. At that moment in time I need sleep and I’ve learned that at least 9hrs of sleep is something that I do need to function but this can be spread over 24hrs or over a week as an average and that, for me, it doesn’t need to be a set amount to be achieved, or not achieved, in one night. Knowing this and being calm in my approach to achieving this may mean that my brain is also calmer which helps my sleep. Again, who knows if this is true, all that I can say is that it seems to be working for me.

What worked for me was trying different things even if that meant doing jobs or work at 3am. Making noise at a quiet time isn’t something we’re advised to do but I do know that some ADHD brains like this and actually cannot cope with total silence (remember I was taken to the Drs as a young girl due to my not switching off and the Dr said I was, ‘Just hyperactive,’ and that, ‘there is nothing wrong with her.’ I’ve not explored ADHD after my autism diagnosis but I think those that know me well would say that it’s definitely there.

What also worked was being kind to myself and letting myself sleep whenever I needed to. We do this when we have young children and need to sleep so why not apply this idea to adults who are having trouble sleeping?

I’m back to sleeping, mostly, through the night and it feels good. My quality of sleep is, mostly, good and I wake feeling refreshed. My busy brain seems to be fairly quiet at 3am but if things start to slide I have a few strategies up my sleeve that I can use to put things back on track.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog

Autism And Best Friends

Best friends. I had a best friend at school who was really my only friend. Sure, I knew many people and was

Autism And Pregnancy

The next few blogs I’ve written are the ones I’ve wanted to write for years but couldn’t. The shame that I felt

Don't Miss

Autism And Best Friends

Best friends. I had a best friend at school who