As we continue with Live Happy’s special series 90 Days to a Happier You, join editor at large Shelley Levitt for part two of her blog series in which she triumphantly gets some sleep.
A few weeks ago I was so exhausted from being restricted to a mere five hours of sleep a night that when I went to a 9 p.m. showing of The Martian I told my date to nudge me if I started nodding off. He did, and more than once. I’m pretty sure Matt Damon didn’t end up perishing on Mars, but I couldn’t say for sure.
Now, a month later, I can report that the torturous “sleep prescription” my sleep coach Michael Breus had me follow—I couldn’t climb into bed before 1 a.m. and I had to get out by 5:30 or 6 a.m.—has proved remarkably curative. After years of chronic insomnia, I’m consistently enjoying a good night’s sleep.
The path to good sleep is paved with interventions
Under Michael’s coaching, I’ve changed a lot of behaviors beyond my sleep schedule. I no longer take naps. I don’t have caffeinated drinks after 2 p.m. While I’m still waking up a couple of times during the night, I’m not checking the time on my phone. And, in what I think has made a huge difference, I don’t pick up a book or start watching TV on my iPad—not even when I wake up feeling so fully alert and anxious that I won’t be able to fall back asleep. I’ve been shocked, and happily so, to discover that I actually will drift into the Land of Nod, as long as I keep the room dark.
Questioning my beliefs
Pretty much everything I thought I knew about my capacity for sleep has been turned upside down. Before we started the intervention Michael asked me to fill out a questionnaire that examined my beliefs about sleep. I had “strongly agreed” with statements like:
“I need 8 hours of sleep to feel refreshed and function well during the day.”
“I am concerned that chronic insomnia may have serious consequences for my physical health.”
“I can’t ever predict whether I’ll have a good or poor night’s sleep.”
“I feel insomnia is ruining my ability to enjoy life and prevents me from doing what I want.”
A couple of days ago I filled out the questionnaire again and this time I checked off “strongly disagree” with each of these questions.
Sleep restriction: painful but effective
The evolution took place over weeks, with Michael gradually moving my bedtime back. Now, I’m on a midnight-to-6 a.m. schedule. It doesn’t feel like quite enough sleep; I think my sweet spot for slumber will turn out to be around seven hours. I’m no longer hitting a wall in the late afternoon, but I do find my energy sputtering at about 9 p.m., and it’s still an effort to stay awake until my prescribed bedtime. (Sometimes I don’t make it and I fall asleep on the couch, Kindle in hand.)
I’ve asked (OK, begged) to get an extra half hour of sleep in the morning, but for now Michael isn’t budging. “The wake-up time is the anchor for the program,” he says. “You can vary your bedtime with social commitments, but if you start changing the time you get out of bed you’ll undo all my hard work…and yours!” And he showed no mercy when I told him how much I missed reading in bed. “I would prefer you NOT read in bed,” he responded when I emailed for a reprieve on the books-in-bed ban. “When you are lying down your heart rate and blood pressure will lower merely by your position and I like using that to help you fall asleep. If your brain gets used to that position while you are remaining alert to read, it will not be helpful. I suggest you find a favorite reading spot in your home.”
Welcome, sweet dreams
While I look forward to moving toward an 11:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. schedule, I agree with Michael’s assessment of my progress. “The number of awakenings and the length of awakenings are reducing,” he wrote. “You should realize that you are actually getting more sleep now. This is exactly on cue with what I was hoping would happen for you.” What’s more, I’m dreaming again, something I haven’t done in a long time, and that’s a good indication that I’m sinking into the deeper, more restorative stages of sleep.
Shelley Levitt is an editor at large for Live Happy.