A Pain Patient's Bedroom Makeover, From Place of Suffering to Sleep Haven

One of the main rules of sleep hygiene is to make your bedroom a place for sleep and sex only. But for all the things you're supposed to get rid of—the TV, computer, even your books—there are so many more you can bring in to make it a space you'd look forward to sleeping in.

"When the body goes to sleep, it's putting itself in a very vulnerable position," explains Carol Ash, DO, medical director of the Sleep for Life center in Hillsborough, N.J. "If you can't be comfortable and at ease in your environment, the brain is not going to allow you to relax."

Developing insomnia, and a fear of the bedroom

After a car accident left her with permanent nerve damage and chronic back pain, Patricia Skiba began to dread going to bed at night. Shooting pains every 30 seconds kept her perpetually awake and on edge, and the painkillers she had been prescribed barely made a dent.

For more than a year, Skiba spent days on end in pain and without sleep. When she did finally nod off, it was never for more than half an hour before she would shoot out of bed, woken by a stabbing pain in her back or leg.

An implantable nerve stimulator eventually brought Skiba's pain level down to a manageable level; immediately after one of the procedures, she slept for six hours straight in her hospital room. But when she returned home, she still wasn't able to rest.

"I have this phobia of getting into bed," says Skiba, 45, a registered nurse from Shelton, Conn. "I'm so used to not sleeping that I don't want to get into bed because my brain sees 'bed' and thinks 'pain.'"

Changing associations and channeling peace

She knew she had to do something to help her relax in bed at night. So instead of viewing her dull, gray bedroom as a torture chamber, Skiba turned it into a refuge.

Now, four Chinese prints hang on the sea-moss green walls, with symbols of harmony and good fortune. Ten candles warm the room. There's a small rock garden with heart-shaped rocks, that Skiba has collected over the years. Even the bedding has a Far East motif.

"I wanted to make it a place of beauty and peace," she says. "I installed a chandelier with a dimmer switch, so I can soften the light, and a four-foot fountain that makes a calming trickling sound. I also added a light right above my bed, so I can sit up and read without turning the overhead light on."

Since she can't be as active as she used to, Skiba has become an avid photographer and painter. She hangs her artwork in her bedroom to remind her of happy times and favorite places she has visited.

Taking the time to relax

Outside the bedroom door, a sign reads, "Relaxation Techniques in Progress. Please Do Not Disturb." Every night, Skiba shuts her door, closes the blinds, lights scented candles (lavender and melon are her favorites), and puts on soft music. Then she lies down and begins her ritual of abdominal breathing and visualization exercises, the same meditation techniques she teaches other chronic pain patients in her career as a nurse and patient advocate.

Skiba still wakes up about once an hour because of pain, but she's thankful for the sleep that she is able to get. And now she has the mental resources and feels comfortable enough in her environment to stay relaxed and fall back asleep.

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