By Sarah McNaughton, Everyday Health
This is how I sleep: Covers pulled over my head, except for a small air hole so I can breathe. Silicone earplugs stuffed into my ears. Window fan whirring in the far corner for white noise. I used to wear a special mouth guard so I wouldn't grind my teeth, but I chewed through it about a year ago.
It was only when I got to college that I realized staring out of my air hole for three hours before falling asleep wasn't normal.
I know that sleep is critical for my health. I've lived with clinical depression and anxiety disorders since grade school. The amount and quality of sleep I get directly affects my brain's serotonin and norepinephrine levels, both of which are crucial for managing depression and anxiety. But knowing the side effects of poor sleep and avoiding them are entirely different, especially when you're in the middle of a cruel cycle: The anxiety keeps me awake, which makes me worry about not getting enough sleep, which increases my anxiety.
Short of prescription sleep medication, I've tried nearly everything - acupressure, therapy, aromatherapy, yoga poses, breathing techniques, exercise in the morning, exercise in the evening, warm milk, chamomile tea, melatonin tablets, baths, sleep apps, boring books, boring games, boring conversations. I've even taken nighttime cold medicine when I wasn't sick. Some approaches helped, but none solved the problem.
It was 9 a.m. when our sleep editor asked who had sleep problems. I'd gotten four hours the night before, so I hardly realized that my hand shot up at the word "sleep." My overtired brain was just reacting to basic nouns. Sleep - yes, I'd like some.
I had volunteered myself for a sleep experiment. For 33 nights, I went to bed with an elastic heart rate band around my waist that recorded my pulse and transmitted data via Bluetooth to the SleepRate app on a smartphone. Unlike sleep apps that attempt to monitor movement in bed to track a person's sleep patterns, the heart rate band is better able to assess when and how deeply I was sleeping. The app developers told me that while the data wasn't exactly what you'd get from a sleep lab, it was about 80 percent as accurate.
Each night, I put on the heart rate band and answered a few questions about my day - Had I napped? Was I stressed? Did I feel drowsy? Had I fallen asleep involuntarily at work? - and then watched my pulse go up and down on the app screen until I fell asleep. The process was divided into two parts: First the app would take a week to evaluate my sleep problems, then it would try to help me solve them.
My assessment was disappointing: I was a night owl who likes to stay up late and sleep in, and I have moderate insomnia. No kidding. I was surprised to see I got an average of about seven hours of sleep per night, but I also woke up 32 times on average, which added up to an hour and a half of lost sleep each night.
Then the treatment portion began. The first step sounded simple but was quite difficult: go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends.
Even though I struggle to get enough sleep during the week, I oversleep on weekends. I often pack more than 24 hours of sleep into Friday and Saturday alone. So forcing myself to go to sleep and wake up on weekends at the same times I would have on a weekday was ugly - at first. Then, one Saturday, I woke up on my own at 7 a.m. and went to the gym. It was one of the strangest and most fulfilling days of my life.
After I mastered my weekend sleep schedule, I moved on to step two. The app determined that my biological clock needed to be "retuned." Years of insomnia had left me with a really messed up sleep schedule - wide awake at bedtime and half asleep at breakfast. So my second task was, counterintuitively, to get as exhausted as possible. To do this, the app determined that I shouldn't go to bed any earlier than 1:30 but still wake up at 7 a.m.
The app told me not to go to bed until the wee hours of the morning. For the first time in my life, I found myself wishing it was bedtime. I hated this exercise more than I had hated being an anxious insomniac, but by the second week I realized something - I was tired! I was falling asleep within minutes of my head hitting the pillow, rather than climbing into bed at a normal time only to lie awake for hours. I was only getting about five hours of sleep each night, but something had started to shift.
The app didn't tell me much that I didn't already know about myself, but it did help me look at my quest for better sleep in a different way: Instead of obsessing over getting the doctor-approved 8 hours, I need to focus on sleeping when I'm truly tired. For now, it's better for me to be getting fewer hours of higher quality sleep.
Eventually, I may be able to train my body to crave sleep earlier, solving the night owl issue. I've already made progress: Now I get drowsy around 1 a.m., rather than 2 or 3 a.m., and I'm actually feeling better during the day than I did when I got more, albeit fitful, sleep.
Maybe someday my biological clock will insist on lights out at 11 p.m. Maybe someday I'll have the perfect eight-hour night and no longer horrify my mom or my doctor. But a few nights ago, I fell asleep before I could pull the covers over my head and make my air hole or even put in my earplugs, and, for now, that's progress enough.
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This article originally appeared on EverydayHealth.com: How I Solved My Insomnia by Getting Less Sleep