I’ve never been a good sleeper. I guess I’ve always kind of assumed people are coming to kill me in the middle of the night, so I’ve always woken up pretty easily if there’s any noise or light in my bedroom. (Therefore, if you have any thoughts of assassinating me, you’ll have a better chance during the day.)
But these last few months have been brutal. I’ve been waking up at two, three, or four in the morning and staring at the ceiling. I haven’t just been awake; I’ve been as alert and ready for action as if a bomb had just gone off under my bed. It’s like my body forgot how to sleep, or somehow decided that it didn’t need it anymore.
But it did. Badly.
I wasn’t sleepy, but I was exhausted. Going through the days on autopilot, holding out hope that the next night would be the one that would make up for all the restless nights prior. But those make-up nights were few and far between.
Believe me, I tried everything. Breathing. Meditation. Relaxation drills. Journaling my thoughts. Reading under soft light until I got tired enough to sleep (this usually resulted in going back to bed, only to become more alert again once under the covers and restarting the cycle). I even got out of bed to try some yoga poses as a means of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT—more on this below). I thought my insomnia must be all in my head. Maybe if I changed my thinking I’d change my sleep patterns.
But it only got worse. I averaged four hours of sleep per night, and there were many nights that I would barely sleep two hours. It got to where I was borrowing anti-anxiety pills (not safe, I know) just to knock myself out for a few hours, but that never made me feel rested the next morning.
I slept so little that my stress levels went out of control. I came down with a cold, and I rarely get sick. I chalked it up to an immune system that was simply shot due to lack of sleep. Of course, my workouts suffered, and I had a terrible time concentrating at work. I was considering seeing a psychologist, submitting myself for a sleep study, or begging for a prescription for some strong medication. I was desperate. And, I figured, probably going insane.
How I Cured My Chronic Insomnia
So this is the part where I tell you about the great new pill I discovered, right? The point in the story when I reveal that it was all due to “low T,” or too much caffeine. How once I switched to a low-carb diet/this new workout program/that magical supplement, it all went away.
Well, that isn’t true.
Here’s how I did it. It was actually really simple.
I was in Barnes & Noble with my girlfriend. We stumbled on a book on the discount table called Heal Your Drained Brain by Dr. Mike Dow. I gave it a quick flip-through and it seemed like the obvious, Level 1 insomnia tips that had already failed me: make your bedroom dark, take melatonin before bed, stop messing with your cell phone before bedtime. But she insisted I get the book. (It was 20% off, so, fuck it. I did).
Let me be clear about this: I don’t know the author and do not receive any payments for recommending the book. This is a true story.
And this is why all those “experts” who suggest you can read a book in a few minutes by skimming the chapter titles and looking for certain key words are full of shit.
When I really started READING the book, CLOSELY, as you’re supposed to read a book, I came across the technique of sleep compression. That’s when what I was going through finally started to make sense.
I was going to bed at 10 and getting up at 8. That’s 10 hours in bed, and that’s too many. Even on a good night, it would take me about 30 minutes to fall asleep. Then I’d wake up to pee at some point and roll around for an hour or so before falling back asleep, and then wake up again somewhere around 7:30. That’s a lot of time spent in bed and a low percentage of it spent actually sleeping. When you’re in bed and not sleeping (and not having sex), you’re basically TRAINING YOUR BRAIN to be awake when you should be asleep. You’re associating your bed with restlessness when you should think of it only as a place to sleep (and, yeah, have sex). I know it sounds a little woo-woo but it’s true-true.
The solution for me was to spend less time in bed and more time sleeping.
How Sleep Compression Cures Insomnia
As I mentioned, I was going to bed at 10 and getting up at 8, which I thought was smart. It seemed like a nice, conservative bedtime and wakeup time that would give me at least eight hours sleep, even with piss breaks and time needed to fall asleep in between. It sure made sense at the time.
But it didn’t work.
With sleep compression, your goal is to compress your time in bed. Give yourself less of it, so that every minute counts and most minutes are spent actually sleeping—not just lying there contemplating the universe (as I did many, many nights).
The application is embarrassingly simple. Start by setting your bedtime 15 minutes later and getting up 15 minutes EARLIER the next morning. You’ll be tired the next day, but hey, if you have insomnia, you’ll be tired anyway and you’re already used to the feeling, so suck it up. That night, you should be very ready to sleep by the time you’re supposed to.
You’ll be amazed by what a difference just 30 minutes less time in bed (total) can make. Instead of needing 30 minutes to fall asleep, it might take you five. Then, if you get up in the middle of the night, you’ll still be tired enough to fall back asleep quickly.
And that’s exactly what happened to me. I rarely had trouble falling asleep in the first place, but I’d get up to piss and that would be all she wrote. It was more compelling than any alarm clock, and totally unavoidable. Of course I tried limiting the fluids I drank in the latter half of the day to dry myself out so I wouldn’t feel the need to pee. I went so far as to stop drinking water at 5pm! Again, I was desperate. But it didn’t work. I tried eating all my carbs early in the day too, as carbs make you hold water, but that didn’t work either. No matter what, my bladder was committed. I was getting up to take a piss in pitch blackness. Period. End of story.
And I still do! But the sleep compression strategy allows me to go right back to sleep afterward.
So, getting back to that idea…
You keep fiddling with your bed and wakeup times until you get it right. You’re aiming for about 8.5 hours of time in bed, with roughly 7.5 or more of them spent totally asleep. I whittled my 10 hours down to nine in bed with about eight of them sleeping. I now go to bed at 10:30 and get up at 7:30—a modest change from what I had been doing but a massive difference in results.
You don’t have to follow that example, compressing your sleep hours from both ends. If you like to stay up later, or feel that works better for you, push your bedtime back further—a full 30 minutes. If you’re more of a morning person, get up a little earlier but go to bed at the same time. If your wife/husband likes to be in bed or get up at a certain time, you may have to follow suit and adjust your times to synchronize with that person. There are really only two firm rules to follow.
1. Make changes gradually. Add or subtract time by 15–30 minutes at a time. You probably don’t need much of a shift as it is and big disruptions can really screw up your body clock. So if you’re currently going to bed at 11 pm, push it back to 11:15 for a day or two. If that isn’t helping, push it to 11:30. Then 11:45.
2. No matter when you went to bed or how little sleep you got, GET YOUR ASS UP at the designated wakeup time. This is critical and it’s where most people screw up. When you have a shitty night’s sleep and that alarm goes off just when you’re getting tired, it’s tremendously tempting to just turn it off and lie there. Especially on weekends when you don’t HAVE to be anywhere or do anything.
Do not succumb to temptation.
Sleeping late or napping later in the day puts you at risk for not being tired enough the next night to sleep through it. And, ultimately, it’s more important to have full nights of sleep than it is to pick up a few hours here and there where you can get them. If you sleep badly Sunday night, I’m pretty sure that you’ll sleep well Monday night if you get up on time that morning.
Other Sleep Tricks To Cure Insomnia
Sleep compression has made all the difference for me. I’m now sleeping better than I ever have in my life—seven, eight, and sometimes damn near a full 8.5 hours. The difference has been palpable.
With that said, I was already doing a number of other things that help with sleep, and combined with the compression tactic, I think they’re very useful.
I know I said these didn’t work above, but mine was a severe case and required a very specific kind of intervention. In general, the following have helped me in the past and have helped thousands of other problem sleepers all over the world.
1. Start winding down an hour before bed. Dim the lights, turn off the TV, and avoid your phone. This is NOT negotiable. Get away from blue light and as many distractions as you can.
2. Cool your bedroom. Turn the thermostat down a few degrees (from just below room temperature to as low as you can stand without freezing—find your sweet spot). Your body sleeps better when it’s cool.
3. Free your mind. If you find yourself lying awake and thinking about life’s problems or existential questions, write them down before bed. Getting them out of your head can help you let them go for a little while.
4. Black out the room. Get blackout curtains or wear a sleep mask (I use both) and plug your ears if you need to. You want your room as dark and as quiet as possible. Like a cave. You people who can’t fall asleep without a TV on… I pity you. White noise, on the other hand, is a good idea. Just play it low in the background. A buzzing fan is OK too.
5. Take melatonin. It’s the chemical your body releases at night and it helps you sleep. It’s not like taking Ambien but it can help. I have a colleague who combines this with a zinc and magnesium supplement and tart cherry juice. He swears by the combination and there is research showing that it works. However, this is a good strategy for falling asleep in the first place and probably won’t do much if you’re like me—the type who wakes up easily.
6. Don’t get frustrated. This is really the most important point of all. You will have nights when you lie in bed and curse the walls around you.
“Why is this happening?”
“I don’t deserve this.”
“I worked out today. I should be tired.”
“If I don’t get some sleep, I’m not going to be able to do my work tomorrow. I could lose my job!”
The more you panic the worse it gets. And this is where cognitive behavioral therapy (which I mentioned briefly above) did help me. When I started getting pissed off about being sleepless, I got up, left the room, and hit a yoga pose. It doesn’t really matter which one. Just stretch a bit and take some deep breaths and try to calm yourself down. You’ll find that when you get back in bed you feel a little more relaxed, and that begets sleepiness.
As much as insomnia sucks and it makes us feel like hell, it’s rarely going to stop you from doing what you need to do, IF YOU REFUSE TO LET IT.
Take it from someone who’s had as rough a go with it as anyone can. Even when I was sleeping a couple of hours a night, I still made it into work every day, did a good job, got my workouts done, and maintained a pleasant disposition. I wasn’t at my best by a long shot, but I held my own. At no point did anyone come up to me and say, “You look like shit today!”
Of course, that’s how I felt, but I soldiered on. Most of the time, sleeping badly one night means you’ll sleep well the next. So take some solace in that. And if you get the hang of sleep compression, you could actually start sleeping normally again.
Good luck. And good night!